Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Ethics reform could affect governor’s cabinet

April 15, 2022 7:01 am
Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

Part of the legislation designed to shed more light on finances in Tennessee political circles would add the governor’s cabinet members to the list of people prohibited from running consulting businesses on the side.

And while some folks say that is already a state law, apparently it’s not being followed.

Thus, it’s among comprehensive changes sought by House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally to improve transparency in state government’s upper echelons.

“I think it’s important that they be concentrating on their job, and if they had another business, they could be conflicted in a number of areas when things come up,” McNally said Thursday. 

For example, a commissioner of education could have an education consulting business, he said, “and you can see the inherent conflicts there.” (Not that Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn is moonlighting.)

But Hodgen Mainda, who stepped down as commissioner of Commerce and Insurance in November 2020 amid sexual harassment allegations, also held a job as a contractor with the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga for government relations and communications, according to reports.

Hodgen Mainda, former Commissioner of Commerce and Insurance, also held a job as a contractor with the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga while he was a commissioner for Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: TN.gov)
Hodgen Mainda, held a job as a contractor with the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga while he was Commissioner for Commerce and Insurance for Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: TN.gov)

The legislation could be aimed at these sorts of situations. 

It also could be an effort to deal with political insiders such as Gov. Bill Lee’s former chief of staff, Blake Harris, who ran Leverage Public Strategies while serving in the governor’s cabinet, according to his financial disclosure form with the Ethics Commission.

Harris, who worked on Lee’s campaign and transition team before becoming chief of staff, was a key player in recommending the state sign a $26 million contract in 2020 with Utah-based Nomi Health for COVID-19 test kits and protective materials. Harris connected political operative Tony Simon with Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, according to reports, and not long afterward, the state inked the deal, even though Health Department staff questioned Nomi’s ability to provide the materials.

As it turned out, the state paid Nomi $6 million to get out of the contract after getting bogus stuff. For instance, Tennessee received veterinarian gloves instead of medical gloves used for personal protection, and staff also raised questions about the reliability of some of the COVID-19 test kits.

Simon had worked with the Republican Governors Association and co-chaired former President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee. Harris left the governor’s cabinet in November 2021 to run Lee’s 2022 re-election campaign and, fittingly, to help with “key Republican Governors Association efforts.”

The only response from the Governor’s Office about Harris and the ethics reform bill was that its staff members are already required to fill out a disclosure form. Yes, that’s where it shows Harris was still running his own company while working for the governor.

Despite an uproar from 501(c)4 groups, which will be required to disclose all expenditures totaling $5,000 within 60 days of an election, Senate Bill 1005 passed the upper chamber Thursday on a 25-3 vote. Only Republican Sens. Janice Bowling of Tullahoma, Joey Hensley of Hohenwald and Mark Pody of Lebanon opposed it.

Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, who is carrying the measure for McNally, said Thursday the provision prohibiting side consulting was added to put things “out in the open. We need to take away the question marks that are there, that the public has. The public’s perception, whether there’s anything wrong with that, it’s the public’s perception, and let’s just add as much sunshine as we can.” 

Blake Harris, Gov. Bill Lee’s former chief of staff, ran Leverage Public Strategies while he worked in the governor’s office. He was also a key player in recommending the state sign a $26 million contract with Nomi Health, the COVID-19 contractor that provided veterinarian gloves instead of medical gloves to the state.

Oddly, the bill was initially meant to target corruption amid an FBI probe into illicit vendors and kickbacks after Republican Rep. Robin Smith resigned in March and pleaded guilty to wire fraud. But some of those provisions were removed from the House version of the bill this week before it passed the Local Government Committee with the help of House Speaker Sexton, the bill’s sponsor, who made a rare appearance and spoke in support of the measure.

The House and Senate versions appear to be largely the same. But one provision that isn’t meshing is the addition of two members to the Registry of Election Finance.

The Senate bill would add two members from the general public, which McNally prefers, while the House version would add two from a state open government council. It’s unclear whether that could be a sticking point as the legislation moves to final approval, but it could be enough to push it to a conference committee where the differences would be worked out. 

“I’m getting closer to my (dome)”

With all due apologies to Grand Funk Railroad, which is playing these days without front man Mark Farner, a domed Titans stadium plan is coming closer to fruition.

Talks remain in limbo, but legislation sponsored by state Rep. Bill Beck, D-Nashville, cleared the House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee this week, enabling Metro Nashville to collect up to a penny more on the hotel/motel tax to pay for a domed stadium with 50,000 seats on the East Bank property where Nissan Stadium sits.

“This is part of the pie for the financing,” Beck told the subcommittee.

Gov. Bill Lee is pushing for a $500 million bond note from the state to help finance the project. That alone would cost the state up to $55 million, though some say that will be closer to $20 million.

Some lawmakers questioned the fiscal responsibility of approving the local-option tax, and Rep. Brandon Ogles, a Franklin Republican who is leaving the Legislature, said he believes Metro Council has a spending problem after raising taxes significantly just two years ago.

Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson, opposed the measure, saying Tennessee is likely to be held hostage by groups that refuse to bring a sporting event to Nashville because of the Legislature’s politics.

Rep. Brandon Ogles, R-Brentwood, said during debate on funding of a new Tennessee Titans stadium that he believes Metro Council has a spending problem. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Brandon Ogles, R-Brentwood, said during debate on funding of a new Tennessee Titans stadium that he believes Metro Council has a spending problem. (Photo: John Partipilo)

(One solution might be to avoid social legislation that pits people against each other. But nobody brought that up.)

House Minority Leader Karen Camper, however, argued that Nashville might be missing a “great opportunity” to put Tennessee in the rotation for the Super Bowl and bring more events outside of football season.

The hotel revenue would be paid mainly by Nashville visitors, she noted, giving Metro a “comprehensive” way to approach the stadium project. The extra cent is estimated to bring in $10 million annually.

The proposal is brought by Nashville’s convention center and hoteliers with the industry backing it “100%,” Beck said.

In addition to the $500 million proposed by Gov. Lee, the Titans are pledging $700 million, according to House Speaker Sexton, leaving it up to Metro Nashville to come up with the rest.

Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, chairman of the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee, noted the investment would bring a “huge” return, introducing Tennessee to more people with a “marketing tool” that will highlight downtown Nashville.
“I would love nothing more than to have the SEC Championship move out of Atlanta to Nashville,” she said, referring to the football title game.

But it appears this ship is sailing on down the line. As long as the dome is retractable, people who love football weather can deal with it. The ultimate question, though, is how much will this drive up the cost of a beer?

The point is moot

The Associated Press reported this week a new three-year residency requirement for congressional candidates won’t affect candidates in this year’s election because it didn’t become law before the April 7 qualifying deadline.

This means candidates such as Morgan Ortagus, who moved to Williamson County within the last year, will be on a crowded Republican primary ballot.

Ortagus caught people’s attention when former President Donald Trump endorsed her even before she announced her candidacy. Some Republicans were irritated that she might have been House shopping and landed in Tennessee.

Sen. Frank Niceley, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, has referred to those who move here simply to run for office as “carpetbaggers” or “Gucci-baggers.” Niceley, a Strawberry Plains Republican who supports former House Speaker Beth Harwell for the 5th Congressional District seat, isn’t worried, though, whether Ortagus can run. He figures he brought enough attention to the matter to make a difference.

A new three-year residency requirement for congressional candidates, which became law without Gov. Bill Lee’s signature, won’t affect candidates on this year’s ballot.

The field is reaching double digits, but only three candidates have put out financial announcements. Retired Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead said this week he’s raised more than $520,000 and injected another half million of his own money into the campaign, according to the Tennessee Journal. Ortagus announced she’s raised nearly $600,000, and Harwell said she’s gathered $350,000.

All of this for a $174,000 job. Of course, nobody who goes to Congress comes home poor. They learn when to buy and sell.

A shocker for the “Dreamers”

Tennessee “Dreamers” cheered on the Capitol balcony Thursday morning after the Senate passed legislation enabling them to earn specialty or trade certifications.

Under the legislation sponsored by Republican Sen. Shane Reeves of Murfreesboro, immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status will be allowed access to professional and occupational licenses, affecting about 10,000 people in the state.

“Today is life-changing for me, and not just me – I know we’re gonna change a lot of lives and to me that’s really empowering. It’s also great to see that Tennessee stands with immigrants,” said Naomi Santos, a 16-year Tennessee resident, DACA recipient and member of TIRRC Votes, (Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition).

Considering the Legislature has blocked this group of young people from qualifying for in-state tuition at Tennessee’s colleges and universities the past few years, this is a major step.

Voting against the bill on a 20-7 outcome were: Sens. Bowling, Rusty Crowe of Johnson City, Hensley, Leader Jack Johnson, Pody, Kerry Roberts of Springfield and Dawn White of Murfreesboro.

Today is life-changing for me, and not just me – I know we’re gonna change a lot of lives and to me that’s really empowering. It’s also great to see that Tennessee stands with immigrants.

– Naomi Santos, Tennessee resident and DACA recipient

The House measure sponsored by Democratic Rep. Bob Freeman had already passed 56-35.

“No (camping) on the dance floor”

My wife is always complaining about my dance steps. Says I act too silly. She’s right. But this bill isn’t about dancing. It’s about camping. Well, not really. It’s about sleeping. OK, not really. It’s about keeping homeless people off public property.

The Senate voted 22-10 Thursday to pass House Bill 978, which means the House has passed it already, enabling local authorities to arrest and fine people for camping on public property. The Legislature in 2012 passed a law prohibiting people from camping on state property, where they aren’t supposed to set up tents.

So considering all of these suburbs and rural areas have such terrible problems with homelessness, they decided to spread the wealth, or the ability to lock people up on a felony charge for camping on any public property.

Sen. Paul Bailey, a Cookeville Republican sponsoring the bill, argued that it would be up to local authorities to decide how they want to handle matters. Typically, that’s how it works.

And Sen. Niceley pointed out that homelessness doesn’t mean your life’s over. He noted that Hitler lived on the streets, where he practiced his oratory and learned how to connect with the masses, allowing him to enter the history books. 

“So it’s not a dead end to productive life, or in Hitler’s case, an unproductive life,” Niceley said.

While discussing a bill to criminalize homelessness, Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, invoked Adolf Hitler as inspiration for someone who rose from homelessness while Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville said, “They have to be able to sleep somewhere. People have a right to exist.

Opponents countered that it would be comparable to putting a Band-Aid on cancer.

And Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro of Nashville contended that people who fall asleep in Centennial Park on a sunny Saturday could be charged under this new scheme.

The problem is that some sleepers will be allowed to keep dozing peacefully while others who decide to plop down for a rest will be unceremoniously tossed in the pokey.

If people don’t own or rent property and churches and missions that keep the homeless are all full, then where’s a person supposed to lay his head, Yarbro asked. 

Joseph and Mary once asked the same question.

“They have to be able to sleep somewhere. People have a right to exist. They have a right to be,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville: "People have a right to exist." (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville: “People have a right to exist.” (Photo: John Partipilo)

It’s a tough situation. And if you think homelessness is rampant in Nashville, try visiting Los Angeles.

Republican Sen. Richard Briggs voted against the bill, saying chronic mental illness and chronic addiction can be dealt with only if homeless are connected with ministries and the Salvation Army, which can refer them to Veterans Administration and Social Security services.

As such, Sen. Art Swann of Maryville urged the Senate to address those issues, then deal with whether they’re camping out under bridges.

Despite such pleas, the measure passed 22-10 after the House version passed 62-22.

3 G’s talks continue

The Senate amended and passed legislation this week designed to deal with three disputed Germantown schools that are owned and operated by Shelby County Schools but sit within the city limits of Germantown.

Under an amendment designed to ease the pain of forcing Shelby County to sell the properties to Germantown, the amended bill would require both entities to get appraisals and then a third appraisal to determine the costs. If Germantown sells the property afterward, the city school district would be required to split any profit with Shelby. Third, the property wouldn’t transfer until July 1, 2023, allowing both groups time to continue negotiating an agreement.

Opponents of the deal call this an unprecedented move by the state government to force one local entity to sell to another, which didn’t want the property at one point but now wants it back after a federal settlement put it in Shelby’s hands after the formation of several municipal school districts in Shelby County, which was placed into law by the General Assembly. That is some kind of run-on sentence. My junior high English teachers would kill me.

And good Republicans are probably rolling over in their graves, as well, on this bill. Whatever happened to letting the free market take care2 of things? Or the courts, in this case?

“Bye bye love/ Bye bye happiness”

The contentious common-law marriage bill sponsored by Rep. Tom Leatherwood, R-Arlington, that would have created a new path for ministers to avoid officiating same-sex marriages went the way of “summer study” early this week. That’s the nice way of saying it’s dead for the session.

The Senate sponsor, Janice Bowling, went on a bit of a tangent, though, Thursday morning, saying she was going to push the bill to the end of the Senate’s calendar for the year. But just as journalist types started sharpening their recorders, she said she would send it to summer study. Even Bowling knows when she can’t win. 

Not only was this bill designed to create an end-run around state marriage licenses and possibly a trial run to the Supreme Court, it would have opened a Pandora’s Box full of legal headaches dealing with everything from wills and probates to insurance benefits, and on and on.

Not even Republicans who are adamantly opposed to same-sex marriages want to deal with those headaches.

Thus, as the Everly Brothers used to sing, “Bye bye, my love, goodbye. Bye bye, my love, goodbye.”

“No more loneliness,” no more nonsense. (I made up the last part. Please don’t sue.)

 

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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