Stockard on the Stump: Killing the Commission on Children and Youth won’t be easy

March 17, 2023 6:00 am
Margie Quin, center, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Margie Quin, center, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Lee Administration’s plan to dissolve the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth— apparently for reporting the state’s foster care system is the nation’s worst — is running into trouble.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson had to postpone the governor’s legislation for a week after commission backers packed the Senate Health and Welfare Committee meeting and supporters slammed lawmakers with phone calls in response to the last-minute bill drop. The Legislature created the 21-member independent group 35 years ago to provide it with unbiased information and to act as a third party for independent investigations involving children in state custody.

The governor’s office wants to eliminate the commission, even as the state tries to clean up the Department of Children’s Services, which still has kids staying in state offices in Memphis. 

Johnson, who was to be briefed on the bill at mid-week, was unavailable for comment after Thursday’s legislative session. Somehow he slipped away from reporters.

State Rep. Mary Littleton, a Dickson Republican who chairs the Children and Family Affairs Subcommittee, confirmed the bill would have to go through her panel. She is said to be a stumbling block, but she declined to comment on the legislation Wednesday, saying she hadn’t read it.

It seems like the majority, every time somebody puts out something they don’t like, they want to get rid of it.

– Sen. London Lamar, D-Memphis

Sen. Bo Watson, chairman of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee, points out Health Committee members wanted the weekend to digest the bill.

“It was dropped kind of suddenly on everyone,” says Watson, a Hixson Republican. He notes lawmakers have heard from constituents in support of the commission.

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro agrees, saying lawmakers from across the state were “deluged” this week by people back home who “value” the work the commission has done for decades and oppose what he calls a “lame effort to get some payback” for doing its job.

“One of the things this Legislature is trying to achieve this year is making big, substantial improvements in the Department of Children’s Services. That should be a win, and this effort suggests that we care more about the headlines than the outcomes,” Yarbro says.

Sen. London Lamar, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, calls the effort to kill the commission “an abomination.”

“It seems like the majority, every time somebody puts out something they don’t like, they want to get rid of it,” says Lamar, a Memphis Democrat.

She points out the commission provides agencies with information they need to apply for funds to provide services for children across the state.

The governor’s office acknowledged this week that DCS recently announced children in all but one county (Shelby) are living in transitional homes or nonprofit houses following the efforts of Commissioner Margie Quin to solve the problem. But a spokeswoman calls the effort to dissolve the commission “another meaningful step to better serve Tennessee children by incorporating important services within child and family-serving state agencies, which includes DCS.”

“To be clear, Tennessee is not cutting services for children or families, but rather, integrating them into state government, meaning that current services will remain intact and be relocated.”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton: "I’m fine with (the Commission on Children and Youth) operating like that." (Photo: John Partipilo)
House Speaker Cameron Sexton: “I’m fine with (the Commission on Children and Youth) operating like that.” (Photo: John Partipilo)

If that’s the case, we have to wonder whether the fox will be guarding the henhouse if the commission’s work is shifted into the Department of Children’s Services, which has been falling short on the job for years.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton acknowledges people are “concerned” about the move.

“I think they were doing fine operating as a quasi-type of committee or agency. I’m fine with them operating like that,” Sexton says. 

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, who is carrying the legislation for the governor’s office, contends the real question is whether the commission is “fulfilling the mission” set for it.

“Are they doing that well? Are there better ways we can provide those services and that oversight, which is really important,” Lamberth says.

He argues that the governor’s office’s problems with the commission aren’t based on just one report. The latest Kids Count report shows Tennessee has the worst foster care system in the country, even worse than Puerto Rico’s.

But putting the Department of Children’s Services in charge of monitoring itself is sort of like putting a supreme pizza in front of me after a week of fasting and telling me not to eat it. No evidence will remain.

Warner jabs at McNally

State Rep. Todd Warner is calling for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally to resign from his post for “sexually grooming” a 17-year-old minor and commenting “relentlessly” on nude photos on the young man’s social media account. 

They certainly are a little racy. 

The Lewisburg Republican also urges the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to open an investigation to determine whether violations of state law took place for sexual exploitation of a minor.

In a statement released Thursday morning, Warner claims McNally started sending private messages to the man years ago, calling him several times and offering him a job in the lieutenant governor’s office, which the man says he wasn’t qualified to take.

Warner says the proof is in the online postings.

Rep. Todd Warner, R-Lewisburg, leaving the Tennessee House Chambers on March 16, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Todd Warner, R-Lewisburg, leaving the Tennessee House Chambers on March 16, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“Additionally, Randy McNally pursued similar inappropriate relationships both before and during this same timeframe. Since news broke of this story, Lt. Gov. McNally has scrubbed and erased the entirety of his Instagram account to hide the discovery of additional behavior,” Warner says.

Warner, a Lewisburg Republican, was the subject of a federal search two years ago but has not been charged with any crime. He complained last week that House Republican leadership has continually attacked him since he took office in 2021.

A week after revelations that McNally posted heart and fire emojis and made encouraging comments on the young man’s risque photos, Warner contends these are not the “actions of a ‘grandfather’ working to ‘encourage’ Tennesseans.”

“These are the actions of a perverted 80-year-old man looking to fulfill his closeted sexual desires. These are the actions of a man using his authority to manipulate others for sexual gratification. These are the actions of a hypocritical man caught red-handed in a scheme to take advantage of at least one underage young man,” Warner says in the statement.

After Tennessee Lookout broke the story on Twitter, McNally refused to face reporters following Thursday’s session as security guided him through a scrum to the Capitol elevator. 

(So much for the weekly Senate GOP leadership press conference.)

Meanwhile, Warner, who isn’t exactly Chatty Cathy, says he “stepped up” Thursday after House leadership declined to do anything.

“There’s a victim here, and we’re all forgetting there is a victim,” Warner tells the Tennessee Lookout. “There’s a lot of talk up there about (McNally) stepping down, he should step down. We gave him a week. … but nobody’s been able to step up and say it, so I stepped up today.” 

While most onlookers hold McNally, a lawmaker since 1978, in high regard, some wonder whether he will vacate once the Legislature adjourns this spring. Others say folks in East Tennessee are pushing for him to leave the Legislature at age 79 and after having a pacemaker inserted in February.

Senate Majority Leader Johnson shied away this week from saying McNally should step down, though he didn’t give him a ringing endorsement either. House Republican leaders point out that McNally apologized for the social media posts. Democrats, meanwhile, are leery of criticizing McNally, mostly pointing out lawmakers need to avoid “palace intrigue” and focus on governing.

In response to Warner’s letter, McNally sent out the same statement he did earlier in the week saying he works at the pleasure of the Senate and Republican Caucus. 

Todd Warner Statement Regarding Randy McNally

After his own group backed away last week, they could be circling the wagons as he checks to see if he has their support.

State Rep. Gloria Johnson notes Republicans did nothing either about former Rep. David Byrd, who refused to deny he had inappropriate contact with girls basketball players he coached at Wayne County High School in the late 1980s.

Warner, who has been under fire for more than two years, contends his statement has nothing to do with the FBI probe and says he hasn’t been contacted by federal agents recently. Warner also says Cade Cothren, a former chief of staff facing federal indictment, didn’t ask him to send out the statement, even though Cothren’s Dixieland Strategies has done campaign work for him. Cothren is likely still upset that McNally called for his former boss, ex-House Speaker Glen Casada, to step down during a racist and sexist texting scandal.

According to reports, Warner, Cothren and Cothren’s girlfriend, Ava Korby, were having lunch recently at Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse when Cothren dropped the f-bomb on House Republican leaders they encountered. He still blames them, in part, for his fall from grace. 

That’s no way to make a steak go down. It’s a good thing nobody had to give him the Heimlich maneuver. 

Does Right to Life really pull the strings?

State Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes put it on the record this week that Tennessee Right to Life is controlling a bill designed to “decriminalize” abortions and save the life of a mother in a deadly pregnancy.

Well, at least Right to Life is trying to claim the bill as its own. It was really put together by the governor’s office, Senate speaker’s office and attorney general.

The narrowly-defined bill passed the House Health Committee on a voice vote, and Democrats could wind up holding their noses and voting for it even though they think the measure is too narrow and puts women’s lives in danger.

Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes, R-East Ridge. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes, R-East Ridge. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Early in the week, Tennessee Right to Life endorsed an amendment to Sen. Ken Yager’s bill allowing exceptions to the state’s abortion restriction law for rape and incest. It’s unclear whether that bill or the one by Sen. Richard Briggs and Helton-Haynes will be the vehicle. The latter was approved in a House Health subcommittee with only one no vote and then somehow picked up the Right to Life-backed amendment this week, but it could be so toxic that the Senate Judiciary Committee might not want to touch it with a 10-foot pole.

Thus, Yager’s bill dealing with exceptions could be the vehicle.

By the time it’s done, this thing is going to walk like Frankenstein. 

Whatever the case, Helton-Haynes contends the bill she pushed through House Health gets rid of the “affirmative defense” requirement for physicians and will save women’s lives.

Baring her soul

Democrats are still peeved, though, especially after Rep. Gloria Johnson told the story of how she inadvertently got pregnant in her early 20s but then was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm. The Knoxville Democrat related her experience in a failed effort to renew abortion rights before the House Health subcommittee.

“If we had had the trigger ban at that point, I would not be alive today,” Johnson says, referring to the law passed in 2019 that kicked in after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade. 

Johnson, a former special education teacher, says women are “tired of being second-class citizens” in the state. “If you don’t have autonomy over your own body, you’re not an equal citizen in this state, and that is just a fact,” she says.

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, told of how she had an abortion in her 20s after being diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm: “If we had had the trigger ban at that point, I would not be alive today.”

Going nowhere

The next iteration of the homeless camping law died in a subcommittee this week.

State Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, who passed the bill last year prohibiting sleeping on public property, was sponsoring HB1192, which would have enabled local governments to use funds from the Tennessee Housing Development Agency to set up homeless camps, offer mental health assessments and order people to treatment through the courts. 

Homeless advocates had been fighting the measure, saying it would be the wrong way to go about helping homeless people get their lives in order. 

It sounded a bit like an internment camp, critics say, and failed on a voice vote.

I want to ride my motorcycle

Any Tennessean who’s driven in LA (not Lower Antioch) likely has been caught off guard by motorcycles suddenly pulling between them and another vehicle in heavy traffic and then continuing along as if everything’s OK. 

They scared the heck out of me a couple of times.

That’s because in Los Angeles and the rest of California, it’s legal for motorcyclists to drive on the lane dividing lines, even on the interstate.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, apparently trying to insert California driving styles into Tennessee motoring habits, wanted to pass the same law here.

But the Senate Transportation Committee heard testimony that California also had 1,000 motorcycle-related crashes in the last year from what’s referred to as “lane filtering.”

But does he wear a helmet? Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, regularly admonishes men who wear hats in committee meetings to remove them or leave.

The Department of Safety also testified against the bill, saying motorcycle crashes are increasing statewide and nationally, even without filtering.

Gardenhire pointed out that large motorcycles weighing around 1,000 pounds are hard to hold up and could lie down when riders are forced to stop, potentially causing cars to run over them.

“That becomes road rage around you,” he says.

Ultimately, though, he felt a bit of a cold wind blowing and postponed the bill until 2024. It gives us something to look forward to next year.

Third-grade what?

The so-called third-grade retention bill, which some politically correct types want to call the third-grade support bill, is morphing through the Legislature.

The newest version in the Senate contains a $7.6 million price tag to pay for tutoring for first- and second-graders who struggle to read.

That’s considered a plus to push it to passage.

But critics still say it’s unfair to judge a student on one test given at the end of the year and then to force the child to repeat third grade if he or she runs into problems after tutoring and summer school. After all, summer school has been around for centuries, and kids are still struggling to read.

They tell me that students who hit the 50th percentile on their state reading test will be able to move on. Others will have to work a lot harder.

They also tell me the Van Halen crowd causes a lot of trouble. But then the teacher needed to see them after school. It must have helped because they sold a lot of records. 

You might ask: What does Van Halen have to do with reading? Absolutely nothing because most of their lyrics made no sense. But they seemed to flow a lot better than this third-grade reading bill, which is proof that throwing money at a problem is bound to solve it.

That’s what she said

House Deputy Speaker Pat Marsh confirmed this week he dressed up as a girl during high school, participating in a womanless wedding. His Fayetteville City High School yearbook from the late ’60s has the pictures, just as Gov. Bill Lee’s annual showed him dressed as a cheerleader for a powder puff football game, or some such silliness.

Asked about the hoorah over Lee’s photos and laws they supported restricting drag shows and transgender therapy, Marsh said he didn’t want to answer any questions. OK, fine.

My only comment: That wig he wore just didn’t work.

Deputy House Speaker Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville, confirmed he dressed in drag for a high school womanless wedding, but declined to answer other questions about a new law restricting drag, or who designed his dress.

Gumming up the works

A Capitol water main broke Thursday morning, and water was reported running down the hill, forcing the closure of the Cordell Hull Building. No restroom use, but don’t worry about the water fountains, because nobody trusts them.

After a moment of contemplation, somebody said there’s a reason they built the Capitol on one of the highest points in Nashville. Water and excrement run downhill, but right now the brown stuff just ain’t flowin’.

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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 and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.