Stockard on the Stump: Fomentation is my name, discord is my game

February 24, 2023 6:03 am
Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

Once upon a time in a galaxy not so far away, lawmakers frequently asked the state attorney general for legal opinions. It was a critical part of the job, so with that in mind, I thought I’d follow suit in regard to a kerfuffle in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee this week.

The inquiry came after state Rep. Chris Todd, R-Madison County, questioned the authority of the Department of Safety’s legislative liaison Elizabeth Stroecker and THP Col. Matt Perry to oppose his gun-carry legislation.

I mulled this long and hard, which is difficult when most thoughts are about lunch and supper, but I considered: Maybe the First Amendment, the separation of powers or just the fact they work for the administration, or all of the above give them the right to challenge legislation. It happens daily.

Thus, the question was posed to Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti’s office on what gives the liaison the right to testify against a bill in committee.

Does this man look like a fomenter of discord? (Photo of Sam Stockard by John Partipilo.)
Does this man look like a fomenter of discord? (Photo of Sam Stockard by John Partipilo.)

The response (and I’m not making this up) from Chief of Staff Brandon Smith: “We will not engage in your attempt to foment discord among the branches of government.”

I had to pull out the dictionary for that one, because it’s not every day I’m accused of fomenting discord. Well, maybe every other day. But it did brighten an otherwise odd Thursday.

Here’s sort of how it happened. I was sitting in the House meeting room Tuesday, minding my own business, taking notes dutifully and trying to follow Todd’s gun-carry bill when he started spouting off, raising a bit of ruckus in what is becoming an increasingly angry session. 

The more I thought about it, the more I figured I could get a straight answer from the AG. Wrong. Ask a simple question and, all of a sudden, I’m fomenting discord.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the fomentation is coming from our beloved lawmakers. If they could transform anger into electricity, we could run the Cordell Hull Building for infinity and beyond.

Todd, though, after I finally lassoed him for a quick question, says he “truly” wants to know how the administration can challenge bills.

“I’ve always wondered about that,” he says. “Seeing it in other committees I’ve had that question, and this one I was under the understanding that was not going to take place and when it did, it made me question why we’re doing this.”

Todd isn’t alone in this assessment. Lawmakers have been wondering about it for years.

Todd had to be settled down by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, a former Sumner County assistant district attorney, after the confrontation. 

Lamberth, who acknowledges he’s gotten a little “carried away” with witnesses too, says legislators should maintain a “high level of respect” for the people who come before committees, especially those who are representing commissioners.

He got sideways, though, recently with attorney Abby Rubenfeld during testimony on the House “cabaret” bill, which is supposed to stop minors from seeing racy (drag) shows. Never mind the fact she argued in the Obergefell same-sex marriage case before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison points out “it’s vital” for the executive branch to weigh in on bills because it’s responsible for carrying them out.

“That was not representative of me or any of us,” he says, referring to House Republican leadership.

Well, at least I’ve got them admitting this case was a little odd.

Still, so far this year I’ve been called a racist on the House floor for asking a simple question, had my spirituality challenged for asking yet another simple question, and now I stand accused of pitting one branch of government against the other. Next thing you know, the Capitol will crumble at my feet.

When does the fun start around here anyway?

Senate Speaker knows a stinker 

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who is also Senate Speaker, confirms he had an “in-depth” discussion with Attorney General Skrmetti before he signed an agreement for a proposed court order undercutting the state’s permitless carry law and allowing 18- to 20-year-olds to carry. The AG based his decision on U.S. Supreme Court rulings on New York gun laws.

If an East Tennessee judge signs off on the deal after a 30-day hold, it’ll be the law in Tennessee.

McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, says Skrmetti persuaded him it wouldn’t be “productive” to continue to pursue the matter. The state was sued by a California gun-rights group after it passed the law in 2021. 

Guns for 18-year-olds:

  • Gov. Bill Lee: “Satisfied” with the current age for gun-carry at 21.
  • Lt. Gov. Randy McNally: Told Tennessee attorney general he didn’t like the age drop but would go along with it.
  • Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti: Signed an agreement to drop the age after being sued by a California gun-rights group.

“I told him at the time I didn’t like it but I guessed I’d have to hold my nose and go along with it,” McNally says. 

Thus, he “reluctantly” predicts the Legislature will drop the age to comply with court decisions.

McNally supported the minimum age of 21 and still believes it should stay that way, because of the general immaturity of 18-year-olds and problems with gangs using teens to obtain weapons.

Asked if he’s worried about the AG setting state law, McNally says, “We have great respect for the attorney general and his staff’s knowledge, and when he comes to us with a problem, we listen and we act.

Skrmetti, though, might need to have a little powwow on gun laws with Gov. Lee.

As late as Thursday morning, Lee says he’s “satisfied” with the law as written and considers it a “strong one.”

“I understand there are some issues around age with regard to a legal challenge and the attorney general weighing in on that. But I don’t know the details of that.” Lee says.

The governor says he also wants to speak with Skrmetti about the matter as legislative proposals to lower the gun-carry to 18 reach his desk.

Considering this is a matter of great import, it seems the attorney general would have told Lee a little something about it when he decided to sign the proposed agreement rather than defend the state law. Maybe he did and Lee’s just not talking.

Now, what you have is the AG making a political decision, voluntarily rolling over, waving the white flag and entering into an agreed order in federal court for the very purpose of trying to legislate from another branch of government.

– House Democratic Caucus Chair John Ray Clemmons of Nashville

Regardless, critics of Skrmetti’s move contend he failed to do his job. 

The process for selecting the attorney general, in which the governor picks a few nominees and the Supreme Court makes the call, is part of the problem, state Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville says.

He contends if Lee had discussed the matter with Skrmetti before he signed the proposed order, they would have been circumventing the legislative branch. He points out the state law was passed by McNally and the supermajority and “very consciously so,” noting 18-20-year-olds were left out for “specific” reasons and at the request of law enforcement, which doesn’t like the law period.

“Now, what you have is the AG making a political decision, voluntarily rolling over, waving the white flag and entering into an agreed order in federal court for the very purpose of trying to legislate from another branch of government,” he says.

Clemmons calls it a “dangerous precedent” that could affect other areas.

Skrmetti versus Funk

As if he doesn’t have enough to do, Skrmetti sent Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk a letter recently notifying him the state is investigating state criminal laws, including the wiretapping statute after putting cameras around the office and ordering him to preserve reams of information. The matter was first reported by NewsChannel5 reporter Phil Williams. (It’s up for debate as to which one has a running feud with the other, Williams or Funk, but it’s safe to say they aren’t BFFs.)

Funk promptly sent a letter to Skrmetti notifying him that cameras are needed for security of his staff amid physical threats. He also pointed out that Williams’ story was designed to make viewers think the DA’s security is breaking state law, despite containing no information showing improper audio or video tape in “protected areas.”

The Metro DA points out that Skrmetti’s comment, “[W]e are aware of the allegations and take them very seriously” is being used to “validate” what he calls “baseless slander and undermine trust” in the DA’s office.

Funk points out Williams and NewsChannel5 previously broadcast a story claiming he solicited a bribe, but that after four years of litigation, the station issued a retraction and admitted it never had proof.

“Because public trust is essential to our work, I am asking you to come TODAY and then immediately put in writing that our security measures do not violate any Tennessee statute and are in fact prudent measures for public safety,” Funk’s letter says.

It’s worth noting Republicans aren’t enamored with Funk for refusing to enforce abortion and transgender laws, minor marijuana offenses in addition to a host of other disagreements. 

Unlike Skrmetti, Funk is elected by the people. But the Legislature also passed a law last year enabling a DA pro tem to be appointed to hear specific cases if a sitting district attorney thumbs his nose at a state law.

Wonder how long it’ll take to put that into play.

Is this a contradiction?

Sen. Bo Watson, chairman of the finance committee and sponsor of legislation to cut the Metro Council in half, says his push to cut Nashville Metro Council has nothing to do with rejection of the Republican National Convention last summer. 

Instead, Watson, a Hixson Republican, says he’s been hearing for years how unworkable the Metro Council is.

But when presenting his legislation this week in the Senate State and Local Government Committee, Watson seemed to contradict himself somewhat.

At one point, he argued that the bill has statewide application and is not a private act, which would require senators in the Davidson County delegation to sign off on it. But then later, he acknowledged it would apply only to Metro Nashville.

Typically a solid GOP vote, Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, joined two Democratic senators in voting against a measure to cut Nashville's Metro Council in half. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Typically a solid GOP vote, Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, joined two Democratic senators in voting against a measure to cut Nashville’s Metro Council in half. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The bill requires metropolitan governments to have no more than 20 council members. Metro Nashville has 40, and the only other two in the state, Moore and Trousdale, two of the state’s smallest counties, have fewer than 20 but almost one elected rep for every neighborhood and dog pen.

Typically a reliable GOP vote, Republican Sen. Mark Pody of Lebanon, who now represents an eastern portion of Davidson County, voted against the bill, joining Sens. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville and Sara Kyle of Memphis. 

Despite questions from Pody, who noted it will likely face a lawsuit, and Yarbro, who called it unconstitutional, the bill moved out of the committee and could be the crowning achievement of this year’s General Assembly, which is concerned about “local control” only when their local isn’t the one being controlled.

Amendments by Yarbro couldn’t get enough traction to change the bill, with Watson contending primarily that they were “unfriendly.” 

Proponents of the legislation have argued that the Legislature can change Metro Nashville’s set-up because cities are established by state law rather than the Constitution.

Yarbro, however, contends metro governments are created by the Constitution and the voters who put them into effect.

“To suggest you can take a power away from metro that you can’t take away from another county is just wildly inappropriate as a matter of law and facially unconstitutional,” said Yarbro, one of several people running for the Metro Nashville mayor’s seat.

Watson’s bill is likely speeding toward passage although efforts by the Metro Nashville Mayor John Cooper to renegotiate a deal for either the Democratic and Republican national conventions is designed to make several anti-Metro bills vanish. 

A host of Nashvillians sent legislative leaders a letter this week encouraging them to give anti-Metro bills a rest and restart dialogue with city leaders. 

Metro Nashville Register of Deeds Karen Johnson, a former council and school board member, takes a wide view of the move to scale back the council, which she fears could hurt diversity and revert Nashville to the days of segregation. She wants the city and state to find ways to compromise.

“I hope that they would consider history so that we don’t turn back history to what was not positive for everybody,” Johnson says. “That’s the deep part of this. None of us want to go back.”

What would a good Republican do?

Legislation removing the requirement that foreclosure notices run in a local newspaper was postponed in the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week after representatives of the Tennessee Press Association hit the hill to lobby against it.

The House version previously made it through the Civil Justice Subcommittee.

The Tennessee Bankers Association and other other groups favor the legislation, which would put foreclosures on the Secretary of State’s website and bring in about $1 million for the state. Nobody knows what they’ll do with the money.

Opponents argue this is an example of state government stealing business from private enterprise, which no good Republican would do.

Proponents say newspapers are going to the Internet already and losing readers, which limits the number of people who see who’s foreclosing on their homes. They also claim that someone going through foreclosure would be able to afford the $200 state fee rather than a $500 to $1,200 charge by a newspaper.

It seems a little odd that bankers, who make a living by charging fees, would oppose newspapers continuing to charge fees to run legal ads that notify the public while providing the business with crucial income to do things such as hire reporters, those pesky people who can be a thorn in the side of politicians.

A GOP-sponsored-bill to take business from small town papers looks like an example of state government stealing business from private enterprise, which no good Republican would do. 

The ultimate question is whether lawmakers want to be responsible for a job-killing bill that hurts small-town newspapers and the people who depend on them for information rather than a state website.

But maybe they don’t want reporters running around the state asking: What the heck’s going on?

Voucher bill delayed

The Hamilton County Schools private voucher legislation hit a bit of a slide this week when it was postponed for two weeks in a House subcommittee. The bill’s sponsor, House Education Administration Committee Chairman Mark White didn’t have time to get to the bill. But while he hasn’t run into concerted opposition, he expects a good bit to arise.

The Senate version sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, passed on a 19-6 vote last week with four people present not voting and four not pushing any button. Initially, the bill got 20 votes, according to the pronouncement in the chamber, but apparently one senator quickly changed their yes vote to nothing after seeing the bill could get by without them.

Oddly enough, the fiscal note for the legislation says the impact is “not significant,” even though the bill that barely squeaked through the Legislature in 2019 had a fiscal note of tens of millions of dollars. The fiscal note itself was almost as big a point of contention as the argument over shipping students to private schools with state tax dollars.

Keep your eyes off my cabaret

The House passed Rep. Todd’s bill to criminalize drag shows performed on public property or anywhere a minor could view them.

Todd brought the legislation after suing Jackson city officials to stop a drag performance during the city’s annual pride parade. 

The bill’s debate brought strong opposition from Democrats and frustration from House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville.

Hypocrisy? Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, photographed with U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, asked GOP colleagues why they opposed drag shows but supported a colleague accused of sexually assaulting high school girls he coached. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Hypocrisy? Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, photographed with U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, asked GOP colleagues why they opposed drag shows but supported a colleague accused of sexually assaulting high school girls he coached. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Sexton said Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, was breaking house decorum by repeatedly saying, “I’m reclaiming time,” when she felt Todd wasn’t answering her question but wasting her five-minute debate time. 

Sexton told Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, to “stay on the bill” when he used his time to criticize Republicans for supporting former state Rep. David Byrd, former state Speaker Glen Casada and former President Donald Trump. Jones said all three men had been credibly accused of “lewd behavior” that didn’t appall Republicans as much as drag shows.

Child transgender health bill passes

The House approved legislation Thursday prohibiting gender affirming treatment for minors as Majority Leader Lamberth argued that it would prevent children from suffering irreversible harm.

“These treatments and procedures have a lifetime of negative consequences that are irreversible,” Lamberth says. “When you start cutting off body parts of a child because you’re telling them that somehow or another there’s something wrong with their body, and they already think that, it is dangerous, it is destructive, and I will say it, it is evil.”

Children who identify as transgender need love and mental health care, he says, not medical change.

Spilling the tea: “It’s becoming not only weird but suspect,” Rep. Torrey Harris, D-Memphis, and the only openly gay legislator, said. “We have three other not openly LGBTQ Republican colleagues … who can’t really open up their mouths and speak freely about their situation because they’re hiding.”

Supermajority Republicans turned back Democrats’ amendments, including one that would allow hormone and puberty blocker treatments and another that would stop all sorts of surgical procedures on minors.

The vote went 77-16, after previously passing the Senate, with Democratic Reps. Joe Towns and Antonio Parkinson of Memphis backing it. The bill goes next to the governor’s desk.

Passage was fairly predictable amid outrage that Vanderbilt University Medical Center was providing children with gender affirming care, according to a right-wing commentator’s report last summer.

But while Republicans either ignored or cast doubts on Democrats’ arguments, they did sit up and listen and – maybe – look around when Rep. Torrey Harris, D-Memphis, spoke up.

Harris noted that despite being the only openly LGBTQ member of the Legislature, he doesn’t talk nearly as much about issues affecting that community as Republicans.

“It’s becoming not only weird but suspect,” Harris says. “We have three other not openly LGBTQ Republican colleagues … who can’t really open up their mouths and speak freely about their situation because they’re hiding.”

Harris questioned how the state would deal with the mental health and potentially suicides of children who are denied gender affirming treatment. But to no avail.

His message might have been lost in the murmurs over which among them is gay.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Stump’s new partner in crime, Adam Friedman, contributed to this edition.

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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.