Stockard on the Stump: Governor puts Metro Council cut over private school security

March 31, 2023 6:01 am
Gov. Bill Lee wasted no time signing bills to ban certain drag performances and to cut Metro Nashville Council, but is sitting on a bill to increase school security.(Photo: John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee wasted no time signing bills to ban certain drag performances and to cut Metro Nashville Council, but is sitting on a bill to increase school security.(Photo: John Partipilo)

When the Legislature passed a bill cutting the Metro Nashville Council in half, Gov. Bill Lee signed it so fast that some speculate he still has inky skid marks on his hand. 

But a bill enabling private schools to sign agreements with local governments for the use of school resource officers was languishing on his desk Thursday, 10 days after the Legislature sent it to him. 

Private schools would have to pay the officers, although the bill’s sponsor, House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison proffers that state grants could be made available at some point. It sounds like a pretty expensive proposition.

Yet lawmakers such as House Majority Leader William Lamberth say if it takes a parking a tank out in front of schools to protect children, that will be done.

Asked about the governor’s priorities, his office only points out he has 10 days, minus Sundays, to sign bills.

People are saying and doing all sorts of things in the aftermath of The Covenant School shooting in which three 9-year-old students and three staff members were gunned down by former student, 28-year-old Audrey Hale, according to police.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally: Open to red flag laws and increased school security measures.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton: Willing to consider a ban on AR-15s, often used in mass shootings.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth: Tanks parked in front of schools.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who shut down Thursday’s session when two lawmakers led a revolt for gun control on the House floor, acknowledged he’s even willing to consider a ban on AR-15s, saying everything’s up for discussion. 

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally also seemed to budge a little, saying red flag laws could be passed, an effort to confiscate weapons under court order from mentally unstable people. McNally also proposed a series of school security measures, such as magnetic door locks, modern camera systems and armed guards.

When thousands of people are screaming outside the chamber and members are shouting through megaphones to incite protest, even ultra-conservative Republicans will react. But will they follow through?

Complicating things is Senate Judiciary Chairman Todd Gardenhire’s stance that no gun-related bills will come through his committee in the wake of the shooting. Only one meeting remains as House and Senate committees begin to shut down.

While Faison is relatively unconcerned that the governor hasn’t signed his private school SRO bill – he’s been told a stack of bills are sitting on Lee’s desk – Democrats say the sluggish penmanship shows how the governor really feels, even though school safety legislation is in the offing.

“His actions demonstrate the vindictive and petty behavior of his administration and this General Assembly. His failure to protect children shows his lack of leadership,” says Rep. Vincent Dixie, a Nashville Democrat and former chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

State Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Nashville Democrat who spent much of the day with his assistant at The Covenant School where her daughter is a student, criticizes the governor, too, pointing out the bill signing discrepancy displays his priorities.

“A lot of lip service, a lot of videos about how they care. Do something. The time is now to act. It’s not to talk about it or give thoughts and prayer. It’s time to do our job and act,” Mitchell says.   

Since the shooting took place, Lee has not made a public appearance, other than to issue a video mainly saying two of the victims, Cynthia Peak and Katherine Koonce, were friends of his wife, Maria, and asking for prayers.

Yet while people are clamoring for tighter gun laws in a state that has been loosening them for the last five years, Lee doesn’t appear to be doing much of anything. He was supposed to hang out with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a presidential candidate, at The Factory in Franklin this Monday night. But that was canceled.

His actions demonstrate the vindictive and petty behavior of his administration and this General Assembly. His failure to protect children shows his lack of leadership.

– Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, speaking of Gov. Bill Lee

In fact, Lee hasn’t given interviews to Capitol Hill reporters in weeks. He went to Linden recently for an economic development announcement and Gallatin a couple of weeks before that where he fell prey to a question about his wearing a cheerleading outfit at a high school powder puff football game some 45 years ago. He’s been fairly scarce since then.

With horror and anger hanging over Nashville and Middle Tennessee at the sight of a killer shooting out a door and then blasting away at children and adults, Lee could endear himself to the nation and moderate Republicans by proposing reasonable gun restrictions along with his school safety program – if it’s not too late considering the number of military-type weapons already on the streets. He’d be the talk of the nation and potentially a presidential candidate himself.

But either he’s afraid of his shadow or simply pulling a page out of the DeSantis playbook, one that also calls for refusing to stoop to the level of local media.

Lee will have to surface soon, though, because he is the governor, at least according to the 2022 election results, and he can’t hide forever.

Punishment pending?

When Democratic Reps. Justin J. Pearson, Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson led a rally on the House floor that caused Speaker Sexton to shut down the session, the first thought was: They’re going to get hammered.

But after an hour-long break, Sexton re-emerged and said only that their behavior was unacceptable. He let any reps who wanted to leave to depart. Only Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, left. 

Asked later if the trio would face any sanctions, Sexton wouldn’t talk about what direction House leadership would take against those who broke decorum rules.

“Obviously, there will be some type of response to those individuals that were up there and what they were doing. We worked through it today to get us through today. That doesn’t mean we have moved past that point as far as what may or may not happen,” Sexton said.

Part of the punishment appeared to be that supermajority Republicans used a procedural maneuver to limit discussion on important bills. Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, was also forced to postpone his bill creating a license for eyelash specialists until Monday.

Reps. Justin Jones, right, Justin Pearson, bottom, and Gloria Johnson, left, bring a megaphone onto the Tennessee House floor on March 30, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Reps. Justin Jones, right, Justin Pearson, bottom, and Gloria Johnson, left, bring a megaphone onto the Tennessee House floor on March 30, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Democrats were not exactly enthused with the ruckus, and Leader Karen Camper was seen chastising Jones and Pearson.

But instead of criticizing them to the media, Democratic leaders called it a form of “good trouble” and said they shouldn’t be sanctioned.

“They wanted to express themselves, and that’s how they chose to express themselves,” Chairman John Ray Clemmons said.

Yet Clemmons and Rep. Joe Towns, a veteran Democrat, took part in talks with Republican leaders as the protest was occurring, probably to ask that their heads not be severed.

Jones and Pearson came to office through activism, and Johnson is a mentor of sorts, so stirring up the masses is nothing new for them.

The only problem was that the House chamber, in the matter of about an hour, went from complete chaos to C-Span. Boredom without snacks.

“Modernization” or “privatization”

After a good deal of debate and predictable amendment defeats, the House passed Gov. Lee’s transportation bill, which will steer $3.3 billion toward road projects statewide and give the Transportation Department the ability to sign new public-private partnerships.

The $3 billion will be split evenly among the state’s four districts, even though the Nashville area has the largest population and worst traffic congestion, though people who complain about Chattanooga make a pretty good argument when they say interstates there are absolutely beyond the “point of know return.”

The bill enables the state to enter contracts with road builders in which the private entities would put up the money to construct “toll lanes” and then charge fees to recoup their costs. These express routes, which are to be built in urban areas, will supposedly enable people to move along quicker by paying a fee to drive on them.

Democrats who opposed them Thursday called them “Lexus lanes.” But then someone apparently decided Lexuses aren’t really that pricey, so they switched to “limousine lanes.” But you get the point. Regular folks won’t use them because they want to avoid paying a toll.

Meanwhile, drivers of electric vehicles will pay a $274 tax, since they can skip fuel taxes, and that fee will be tied to the rate of inflation.

Rep. Sam McKenzie, D-Knoxville, tried to dissuade the House, warning Republicans if they killed his amendment they would be voting for “a neverending tax.” He pointed out the only way the IMPROVE Act and its fuel tax increases were approved six years ago was that the Legislature refused to tie them to inflation.

Efforts to inject Amtrak into the bill and split the $3 billion differently along with other amendments also failed in the Republican-controlled chamber. The Senate version passed previously, and Lee celebrated the matter in a Thursday press release.

Which leaves me with the question: Will I have to buy a Lexus to drive on one of those express routes – that is, if one is built in my lifetime – or if I buy an all-electric Ford truck built at Blue Oval City, can I get a discount on the EV tax? The latter is not a joke.

Money follows prayers

The House followed the Senate and passed HB327 Thursday allowing the state to inject $1.2 million into the governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Although critics oppose the move to start funding religious activities in the state, at least now the office will have to start raising the veil on exactly what it does and who gets the money. Previously, it was funded by private concerns.

Gov. Lee started the office when he was elected, and it has worked on problems such as human trafficking, at least as far as we know. But he’s also poured millions of dollars into out-of-state groups such as Tim Tebow’s nonprofit agency to combat human trafficking. Those types of moves brought howls from critics who believe the money should go to Tennessee agencies that deal with helping people escape enslavement.

When the governor releases his supplemental budget next week, we’ll find out who’s getting the next batch of money.

Charters and chickens

Since taking office a few years ago, Republican state Rep. Sam Whitson of Franklin learned a lesson the hard way: In Tennessee, it’s tough to beat charters and chickens.

Whitson’s first legislative loss came when he tried to put new restrictions on cockfighting. He came out bloodier than Chicken George’s prize rooster.

Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

This year, he sponsored legislation designed to give local school boards final authority over charter applications in districts that have no schools in the state’s bottom 5%. The state charter commission wouldn’t have final authority over those applications.

Whitson figures if a district doesn’t have any failing schools, it might be making good decisions. 

The House Education K-12 Subcommittee this week had other ideas, killing Whitson’s bill on a 6-2 vote. 

“This was not an anti-charter bill. This was a pro-local control. It seems like it was misrepresented. But again, I think people will find out as we go forward that this is the best for their community, for their local elected officials to make those important decisions when it comes to education,” Whitson says.

No matter how sound the legislation or outraged the people, charter money is infiltrating the Legislature like a bevy of Russian bots. Groups such as Tennessee Federation for Children, Tennessee Students for Success, Tennesseans for Putting Students First and the Tennessee Charter School Center have hired more than two dozen lobbyists and started spending millions in primaries to pick off anti-charter Republicans.

So don’t be surprised when Hillsdale College-affiliated Classical Education schools start showing up in a neighborhood near you, even in your beloved Williamson County. It might not matter, after all, that the Hillsdale president trashed every teacher in the country.

In a dispute between the Blount County Commission and Blount Memorial Hospital, former legislator Doug Overbey told a House  committee it would be a mistake for the Legislature to “put its thumb on the scales of justice.” 

Blount County tempest

Legislation requested by the Blount County Commission would enable it to take over Blount Memorial Hospital in northeast Tennessee.

It’s a situation that could be marked more by personalities than good policy. Both entities have filed lawsuits in the matter.

Former state Sen. Doug Overbey, an ex-U.S. attorney now working as a lobbyist, explained some of the situation to a House committee this week and noted it would be a mistake for the Legislature to “put its thumb on the scales of justice.”

It’s a complex matter dealing with land acquisitions over the years and, ultimately, control of the hospital. Unfortunately, the committee ran out of time when Chairman John Crawford nearly broke the gavel, deciding it was time to go. See you next week.

The good, the bad and the Gardenhire

Judiciary Chairman Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican who took the post only after agreeing to be nice to people (the Senate has a running bet on how long that will last), issued an endorsement of sorts Wednesday to Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro, who is one of about 500 people running for Metro Nashville mayor.

In some jovial banter about Yarbro’s bill dealing with the Commission on Children and Youth, the Nashville Democrat joked that he hopes not to be back next year after his bill was postponed until 2024.

Gardenhire responded that he would like to see Yarbro win the election, saying it would be an improvement over the current mayor and would “calm a lot of nerves” about Metro Nashville.

The question is whether a Gardenhire endorsement will help or hurt Yarbro in blue Metro.

Yarbro, though, apparently will take anybody’s vote. “We can get him registered in Davidson County before August,” Yarbro quips. 

“All I wanna know is how far you wanna go / Fighting for survival.”

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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.