Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Are you ready for some funding?

Lawmakers approve funds for new Tennessee Titans stadium in governor’s budget

April 22, 2022 7:01 am
Cardboard cutouts of fans and celebrities are placed in seats at Nissan Stadium, current home of the Tennessee Titans. (Photo by John Partipilo.)

Cardboard cutouts of fans and celebrities are placed in seats at Nissan Stadium, current home of the Tennessee Titans. (Photo by John Partipilo.)

The fix was in.

Outsiders might have thought a $500 million state bond issue to help the Titans build a domed stadium was doomed after the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee removed the governor’s plan from its budget, then the full Senate passed a $52.8 billion budget package early Thursday without this carrot.

The state House budget contained the bonding mechanism, which authorizes the money to be borrowed for part of an estimated $2 billion stadium project in the next couple of years.

Where would it all shake out? 

Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, pictured here with GOP Sen. Mark Pody of Lebanon, denounced the "wokeness" of the Tennessee Titans during a Thursday funding vote. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, pictured here with GOP Sen. Mark Pody of Lebanon, denounced the “wokeness” of the Tennessee Titans during a Thursday funding vote. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Several House members railed against the Titans funding plan, including outgoing Rep. Jerry Sexton who complained that he’s never received one cent for his East Tennessee district. Maybe that’s because he’s spent more time trying to make the Bible the state’s official book rather than steering money toward critical projects for his constituents.

“If they want to invest in it, let ’em spend their own durn money to do it,” Sexton bellowed Thursday as he tried to pass a budget amendment sending $55 million from the proposed $500 million to counties statewide for public recreation facilities.

Not only that, Sexton and Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, who represents rural Lancaster and suburban Hendersonville, moaned about the Titans’ “woke” attitude and complaints the team made about the Legislature’s policies toward the LGBT community. They weren’t alone as about 20 House members voted against the bonding plan.

Sexton didn’t get this fired up when he passed the Bible bill in the House. (Incidentally, the Bible bill won’t make it through the Senate where Lt. Gov. Randy McNally is sponsoring the bill. Asked recently if he’s “sitting on it,” McNally said he wouldn’t refer to it that way. “I’m holding it lightly,” he said.)

Luckily for Weaver, her district is losing a large chunk of Hendersonville, and I know a lot of people there who love to go to Titans games. So do a bunch in Williamson County.

Which brings us back to this Titans deal.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson removed the funding from the Senate budget, but when the House budget plan that contained the Titans bond funds returned to the Senate Thursday afternoon, he called for a vote to concur with the House on the budget and the bonding bill. Both passed 18-13.

Considering 17 votes are needed for a majority in the 33-member body, that could be considered a squeaker. But the odds are Senate leaders are pretty good at counting votes.

Johnson, a Franklin Republican who is being challenged in the primary by Tennessee Stands leader Gary Humble, noted he wasn’t “enamored” with the switch but went along with it nevertheless.

Rep. Jerry Sexton got more fired up about funding for the Titans than he did when he passed a bill to make the Bible the state book through the house.

Earlier in the day, he told the Tennessee Lookout his primary race was not a factor. 

“That has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the policy decisions I make for the state of Tennessee,” he said.

From what I hear, though, Williamson County residents weren’t too enthused with the $500 million bond authorization, which might have made Johnson jittery.

After all, as majority leader, he carries the governor’s legislation, and Gov. Bill Lee made the proposal.

A day earlier, Lee would only say he hoped it would happen.

“We think the stadium is good for the city, it’s good for the state, it’s good for our economy for a number of reasons,” he said.

Show me the money

Of course, no good debate can be made without going back to the $1 billion incentive package the state gave Ford for Blue Oval City in West Tennessee.

And the Davidson County delegation found an ally in Knoxville Republican Rep. Jason Zachary, who argued vehemently for the stadium project, saying if the state could give that massive amount of money to a company with no previous connections to the state it could enter the project for a Titans team that’s been in Tennessee for nearly 25 years, netting $330 million from Titans games alone, far outstripping the investment the state made in the old stadium. In just eight Sundays in 2019, the Titans generated $341 million in economic impact.

The economic impact for a domed stadium is estimated at $30 billion over the next 20 to 30 years, according to a Finance and Administration report, with sales taxes in and around the stadium projected at $400 million.

“It’s a magnet, it’s a game-changer … and will transform the East Bank,” Zachary said.

The Titans are expected to put about $700 million into the deal, with the NFL chipping something too, and Metro Nashville borrowing the rest, which would be paid off by a 1% increase in the county’s hotel/motel tax. The legislation enabling that bump is to be considered on the Senate and House floors next week.

The state would put up to $55 million annually toward the bond note, if the money is borrowed, but sales tax generated by the stadium would pay off the bonds, based on legislation previously passed.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton has been on the Titans bus since the proposal went public and is confident the state’s projections are solid.

“We’ve said all along an open-air stadium replaced with an open-air stadium doesn’t make sense. Or a dome replacing a dome, it doesn’t make sense. But moving from open air to a dome or translucent … it does make sense,” he said.

Some folks have accused the Titans of a “bait and switch” after they talked about renovating Nissan Stadium but then boosted their plan to a dome, which everyone figures will be retractable. 

Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, weighed in to help the Tennessee Titans. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, weighed in to help the Tennessee Titans. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Sexton and other leaders met recently with World Wrestling Entertainment, which is to hold Summer Slam at Titan Stadium in July but is worried about bad weather, considering it’s a live, pay-per-view event.

WWE wants to hold its prime event, Wrestlemania, in Nashville, but the city doesn’t have an indoor venue big enough to handle it, Sexton said. When the wrestling championship went to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, it attracted 185,000 people over a week, generating $150 million to $180 million, according to Sexton.

Those are some serious figures. And if that’s the case, the state should get a great return on its investment.

Now, if Metro Nashville could only figure out a way to steer that kind of revenue into its budget and give people a break on their property taxes, we’d all grinning like Cheshire cats.

Working out differences

An ethics reform bill sponsored by Speaker Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally went to a conference committee to work out what are believed to be minor differences.

Both versions still contain provisions requiring 501(c)4 groups to disclose expenditures totaling $5,000 within 60 days of an election.

The National Rifle Association threw a wrench in the proposal this week when it sent a letter to lawmakers saying it opposed the bill. That didn’t seem to make much difference, since the Senate and House passed it with little, if any, rancor.

All these what-if questions are just to hide the fact that a lot of groups do not want to reveal what they’re spending.

– Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin and a member of the NRA over the NRA's opposition to his ethics bill.

Still, Rep. Sam Whitson, a Franklin Republican who has been carrying the bill, was a bit miffed at mid-week.

“I’m a member of the NRA. This is about transparency. The NRA has always been involved in political activities. This is nothing really new. We’re not asking them to say who their donors are, their contributors. This only involves 60 days before an election,” Whitson said.

He pointed out 501(c)4 groups know when they spend more than $5,000 with a radio station or mail vendor to influence an election.

“All these what-if questions are just to hide the fact that a lot of groups do not want to reveal what they’re spending,” he said.

The biggest concern isn’t a $5,000 expense, either, but hundreds of thousands or a million by a “dark money” group that doesn’t have to reveal much info.

NRA lobbyist Matt Herriman sent a letter to Finance Ways and Means Subcommittee members this week, according to a Tennessee Journal report, claiming the bill would wind up forcing nonprofit groups to reveal their contributors, subjecting them to “unwarranted harassment.”

He also contended that groups would have to report expenses for activities such as grass-roots lobbying communications, which would require them to appoint a treasurer, the same as a political action committee, and file reports.

Herriman also said the time period is unclear to trigger reporting, whether it’s in a calendar year or per election or election cycle.

I thought the NRA was about Second Amendment rights. I didn’t know they graded you on campaign finance stuff, so that’s a new one.

– Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, also speaking of the NRA.

Supporters, including Sexton, of course, say it’s pretty plain that the reporting would entail expenses of more than $5,000 in the window 60 days before an election.

“I thought the NRA was about Second Amendment rights. I didn’t know they graded you on campaign finance stuff, so that’s a new one,” Sexton said.

The Senate and House versions have some differences, and Sexton pointed out he has been working with 501(c)4 groups to solve their concerns, only to have them bring up more problems.

Inquiring minds wonder, though, if this is one of those bills that will die in the last days because of a failure to work out one little detail. Lawmakers approved the budget Thursday but are coming back next week to wrap up final bills.

Dealing with American Conservative Union

The American Conservative Union threw down the gauntlet this week with a letter saying it would grade lawmakers on the Sexton/McNally truth-in-sentencing bill.

Lawmakers didn’t seem dissuaded, voting overwhelmingly in both chambers for the legislation, which will require sentences for most violent crimes to be served at 100%, with some exceptions for 85%.

Public defenders have argued that this will return Tennessee to the mid-1990s when it tried similar laws and wound up with overflowing prisons and a federal correction system takeover. Victims’ families testified this year that their loved ones might still be alive if the people who killed them were still in prison serving their full sentences instead of out on early release.

The legislation won’t change sentence ranges, but it will stop the practice of saying someone has to serve four to 10 years at 30%, meaning they could be out in one to two.

Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby: "It's your own damn fault" if you get rearrested after prison. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby: “It’s your own damn fault” if you get rearrested after prison. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Opponents of the legislation such as Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, contend the legislation will force the Legislature to build more prisons and spend excessively to keep offenders in prison longer.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro points out the supermajority passed a bill that runs counter to Gov. Lee’s criminal justice reform plans.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, argued that better prison programs and services upon release should stop people from committing crimes again. He complained that prisons are doing a poor job of rehabilitating people and the state is letting them down upon release.

But he was drowned out by Republican leadership.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison countered that the idea people are forced into committing crimes when they get out of prison is “asinine.”

“It’s your own damn fault,” he said.

The governor has been quietly opposing the bill and said this week he believes it will be worked out. Speaker Sexton said Thursday he doesn’t think the governor will veto the bill.

But he took to the floor – a rarity for the House speaker – for an impassioned statement he said was designed to make outside forces understand why the legislation is needed.

“You have to send a message that certain crimes are not acceptable in our state,” Sexton said. 

A Rhodes College student was killed at home by a perpetrator who’d been in and out of the prison system for years and served only 14 months each for four crimes he’d committed, Sexton pointed out. The young man fought the offenders and made their gun jam, enabling others to escape.

“What do you tell that family of that individual son, that their son’s life could have been saved if we were holding people accountable for aggravated burglary? It happens every day,” he said.

One listener said it almost sounded like the precursor for a gubernatorial campaign speech.

Handing out some breaks

When the Lee Administration unveiled its budget plan this year, it set aside a billion dollars for education, including some $250 million to relocate schools in floodplains. That isn’t gonna happen.

A large chunk of that is going to build up the rainy day fund, pushing it to a record $1.8 billion. 

“It takes irony to a whole other level to take $250 million that was going to rebuild schools in floodplains and put those dollars into the rainy day fund,” said Yarbro. 

The state is also adding $350 million to cover pension liabilities and $300 million to the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System.

After that, it is sprinkling $300 million worth of tax breaks to the masses. 

It takes irony to a whole other level to take $250 million that was going to rebuild schools in floodplains and put those dollars into the rainy day fund.

– Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville

That includes a $9.7 million break on the professional privilege tax, eliminating it completely for physicians. Grants for broadband expansion will now be worth 10% more because the state is waiving all sales taxes on materials and installation.

An agriculture sales tax is being cut for farmers when they buy materials used for productions. 

Another $120 million is coming out for a one-time reduction on the state portion of car tags, about $25 per tag, which equates to $120 million statewide.

An annual sales tax holiday worth about $10 million, which is already in the budget, is coming this fall, and a month-long break on the grocery tax, totaling about $120 million, is on the way in August.

Where did it go?

State Rep. Tim Rudd narrowly pushed through a $15 million budget amendment for a project to renovate legislators’ parking garage, which is said to be unsafe. (So is parking along John Lewis Way when buses roll by.)

But the measure mysteriously disappeared – maybe it was swept away – when Rudd left the chamber and leadership started going through budget amendments, without giving an explanation. Rudd re-entered and complained, and other lawmakers busted some chops. But on another vote, Rudd’s amendment failed. 

Hint: Never leave the room.

Bamboo you

Davidson County Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell sought an amendment Thursday to give $1 million each to regional zoos and the Chattanooga aquarium, instead of $200,000 each, a total of $4 million.

He was countered by Republican Rep. Kevin Vaughan of Collierville, who noted that Mitchell has always been envious of the Memphis Zoo.

Mitchell responded saying, “Is it past time to take the money out for the Memphis Zoo and move it to Nashville. Obviously, the pandas don’t need any more bamboo.”

His effort failed.

Rep. Bo Mitchell, R-Nashville, at right with Sen. Jeff Yarbro. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Bo Mitchell, R-Nashville, at right with Sen. Jeff Yarbro. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Don’t beat up our attorney

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons called for an amendment to establish an internal auditor to keep an eye on the Attorney General’s Office and conduct independent audits. Maybe he thinks the state loses too many cases. Or maybe it has too many tough cases to defend.

Anyway, House Majority Leader William Lamberth spoke against the amendment, saying “We have literally the best attorney general in the country,” in Herbert Slatery. He also noted the office has some of the “finest attorneys” of any firm nationwide.

He prefaced this by saying he has a “close family member” who works in the AG’s Office – his wife.

Keeping the governor fed

Clemmons sought yet another amendment to cut the governor’s salary in half. He’s supposed to get more than a 4% raise because his salary is tied to an inflationary index.

“You only make 50% effort, you get 50% pay,” Clemmons said.

Republicans accused him of failing to show love.

The Nashville Democrat’s motto should be, “What, me worry?”

If only Alfred E. Neuman hadn’t taken it already.



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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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