Stockard on the Stump: State conceals cost of special session security, AG letter to colleges

Speaker Sexton wants motorists (voters) to know where he lives

October 27, 2023 6:01 am
Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, speaking to the legislative Republicans on Oct. 27, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, speaking to the legislative Republicans on Oct. 27, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

That pesky little thing called the Tennessee Public Records Act isn’t stopping the state government from covering up documents that deal with everything from the cost of special session security to an attorney general’s correspondence to state colleges.

The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, which has refused to officially divulge the number of state troopers brought in to beef up police work at Gov. Bill Lee’s not-so-special August gathering, is declining to release information showing how much the state spent to feed and house extra patrol officers. Of course, the department might have nitpicked to death the wording of a Tennessee Lookout public records request, so the effort continues to find out how much the state coughed up to make sure officers had at least a half-baked biscuit and coffee on those six grueling mornings at the State Capitol and Cordell Hull Building between Aug. 21 and Aug. 29.

Some 500 extra troopers from across the state worked the session, based on a Department of Safety representative’s conversation with state Sen. Heidi Campbell. The Nashville Democrat estimated the salary expense at $750,000.

And since the Department of Safety is playing hardball on requests for the cost of food and lodging, the Tennessee Lookout will make up its own costs, $75,000 for food and $375,000 for hotel rooms, all of which are conservative estimates: $25 a day for two meals for 500 troopers and $250 a night for 250 troopers, since about half of them might have driven home.

How many biscuits did the 500 extra Tennessee Highway Patrol officers eat during the August special legislative session? (Photo: John Partipilo)
How many biscuits did the 500 extra Tennessee Highway Patrol officers eat during the August special legislative session? (Photo: John Partipilo)

Add those to the $348,000 for lawmakers’ per diem and hotel costs, and you get $1.54 million. Hardly a deal for what the state got to try to avert mass shootings.

The Legislature spent another $110 million on college campus security, mental health grants, taking money out of TennCare and prison funds to do it. That included $10 million for school safety officers at charter schools and $1.1 million to encourage people to use state-supplied gun locks, even though that type of accessory usually comes with a new gun but not with weapons stolen from cars because people refuse to lock their Glock.

Yes, it has come to the point we are having to depend on my calculations, which can be exceedingly dangerous, especially when it comes to confusing millions with billions, though it’s probably safe to say not even Trooper Travis Prater (Cordell’s top officer) could eat a billion dollars worth of sausage biscuits in one week — or even a million.

And that brings us to the next big secret.

The Attorney General’s Office recently sent a letter dealing with minority programs to university presidents. An MTSU spokesman confirmed that the university received one of the letters but also said it falls under attorney/client privilege and, thus, is not open to the public.

Of course, attorney/client privilege usually deals with legal action, not policy, so if someone can think of a current lawsuit involving minority programs in Tennessee, please let me know.

The AG’s Office also said, opaquely, if the letter does exist, it is closed under one of umpteen exemptions in the Public Records Act. 

Stonewalled: A public university confirms it received a letter from the Office of the Attorney General but refuses to disclose it, although it falls under the Tennessee Open Records Act. The AG’s office won’t even admit to sending the letter.

Open records experts tell us university officials could discuss the contents of the letter if they so desired. But the best MTSU would do was say it won’t force the university to change any of its policies dealing with minority programs.

The University of Tennessee system hasn’t been able to turn up the letter.

That leaves one to surmise it has something to do with Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti’s venture into telling Fortune 100 companies to avoid race-based hiring, promotion and contracting policies and potentially warning colleges that they should do the same with admission guidelines.

Once upon a time, a Republican-controlled government wouldn’t have considered telling businesses what to do. But Tennessee’s GOP apparently doesn’t hold those truths to be sacred anymore, especially if it means creating a more diverse student population, and unless Ford Motor threatens to pull up and leave BlueOval City, which did happen by the way in another not-so-special session designed specifically to tell companies what they could do during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Is this necessary?

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, just to be sure, is assuring people he lives in Crossville (This is not new news).

A trip up to the Cumberland Plateau and across East Tennessee to the Smoky Mountains proved useful in seeing not one but two billboards with Speaker Sexton’s picture and the words, Welcome to Crossville, home of House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

We’re not certain, but our crack research team tells us this isn’t typical, especially in an off year for elections.

A billboard in Crossville, Tenn., advertises the town as home of House Speaker Cameron Sexton. (Photo: John Partipilo)
A billboard in Crossville, Tenn., advertises the town as home of House Speaker Cameron Sexton. (Photo: John Partipilo)

We’re also told former Speaker Glen Casada didn’t have time to buy those kinds of billboards, since he was in office for only seven months and was more concerned about things such as keeping his chief of staff from sending out weird text messages, using spies to monitor hallway talk and putting out “bill kill lists” with his henchmen, as opposed to Kill Bill lists, which weren’t possible because they couldn’t get Uma Thurman to come to town.

Sexton, on the other hand, is either using the billboards to let people know he really stays in Crossville, as opposed to Nashville where his daughter went to private school last year, or he’s preparing for a 2026 gubernatorial run. Or both.

Here’s the deal about House speakers and other lawmakers running for governor. The last one to win was Ned McWherter, and that was a completely different era.

These days, legislators who run for other offices aren’t doing too well, and any state lawmaker thinking about running for governor should consider such a race is more likely to send them to the political graveyard than the Executive Mansion.

These days, lawmakers aren’t faring too well in non-Legislature elections. House Minority Leader Karen Camper, for example, barely registered in the Memphis mayoral vote.

The problem is they get an inflated view of themselves, because for five months or more they live in a bubble, drinking the finest wines and eating the best steaks in downtown Nashville, even though some say the food is mediocre at best. Lobbyists and advocacy groups shower them with donations, and visitors to the Capitol vie for their time and attention. 

Sometimes, if we’re lucky, they field calls from reporters wanting to know what they think about everything from the latest ridiculous bill to the price of tea in China.

This, by no means, is a missive to Sexton. But everyone should be leery about turning the speakership into a launching pad, which is more than likely to send them into a political graveyard rather than the pinnacle of Tennessee hypocrisy.

No challenge here

The Tennessean reported this week Attorney General Skrmetti won’t appeal a three-judge panel’s decision ruling against a law designed to bring the Bristol Motor Speedway operator to Nashville’s Fairgrounds track.

Metro Nashville argued the law, which lowers the threshold for Fairground votes to 21 from 27, targeted the metro town in violation of the state’s Home Rule Amendment, which requires local votes if a bill applies to only one or two counties.

Skrmetti, though, said Thursday the ruling based on the Home Rule Provision doesn’t set any precedent at the trial court level.

“The Court of Appeals is binding trial courts on it, and we have to figure out the appropriate allocation of resources and convince the court that that serves the state’s interests,” Skrmetti said after addressing the Senate Republican Caucus at its yearly retreat.

Metro Nashville sued the state four times this year over laws designed to give the Legislature and governor more control over Davidson County government.

Keeping his space

Not once, but twice, Gov. Bill Lee told reporters at a gaggle Thursday that he “didn’t call” and “didn’t task” the legislative group created to study whether the state should turn down between $1.8-$2.5 billion in education funding from the federal government. 

This committee was, of course, created by Speaker Sexton after he publicly complained federal education dollars came with strings attached and, therefore, out of the grasp of regulation by the state Legislature. 

Never mind that Sexton still hasn’t given any detail on which strings he doesn’t like. 

Lee and even a few Senate Republicans appear to be laying the groundwork that it’s OK to study the dollars, but maybe not create a hole in the state budget the size of Moon Pie.  

Can you dig it?

A Beacon Poll is loaded with critical voting information this week, letting us know U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn leads Democrats, state Rep. Gloria Johnson and 2020 candidate Marquita Bradshaw, as the campaign begins for the 2024 election.The Beacon Center of Tennessee.

Oddly enough, the poll by the conservative think tank also tells us Bradshaw, who was trounced by Republican Bill Hagerty two years ago, is outperforming Johnson with Democrats and Republicans. This is a bit hard to believe since Johnson raised more than $1 million as one of the Tennessee Three after barely surviving an expulsion vote in the Tennessee House for participating in an anti-gun rally.

Not surprisingly, former President Donald Trump outpolled President Joe Biden in Tennessee by 61-30%, according to the survey.

But here’s the most important tid-bit from the poll: Alabama has the SEC’s most obnoxious fan base, according to 30% of respondents, while Florida and Tennessee fans are tied at second, followed by Georgia and Ole Miss backers.

The only problem with the poll is this: Tell me something I don’t know.

You don’t have to get involved in the presidential primary, and if you don’t want to, you shouldn’t.

– Gregory Gleaves, Republican consultant

Don’t look down

Republican political consultant Gregory Gleaves told Senate Republicans the U.S. House search turned out to be about as embarrassing as the University of Tennessee coaching search six years ago to replace Butch Jones. The Vols wound up with Jeremy Pruitt, whose tenure was short-lived and punishing, after a “long and embarrassing” combing of the countryside.

Gleaves also provided some advice about creating connections with Trump.

“You’re in more danger not being with him than being with him, if that makes sense,” Gleaves said at their retreat. “You don’t have to get involved in the presidential primary, and if you don’t want to, you shouldn’t.”

It makes about as much sense as a person facing multiple indictments likely winning the Republican nomination.

Sundance Kid: “I can’t swim.”

Butch Cassidy: “Why you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.”

(Incidentally, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally attended the GOP retreat in hospital clothes and a wheelchair after having surgery on his ankle. He’s on the injured list for about four to six weeks.)

WRITER’S NOTE: Tennessee Lookout reporter Adam Friedman contributed to this version of the Stump.

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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.