|The 112th Tennessee General Assembly convened in Nashville on Tuesday for the first week of the 2021 legislative session, beginning the first of a two-year legislative session. The legislature returns to Nashville in the midst of a tumultuous time that will not soon be forgotten. Tennessee was recently listed as one of the worst COVID hotspots in the nation, parts of the city and state are still recovering from last April’s tornadoes, and on Christmas Day the eyes of the world turned to downtown Nashville as a bombing on Second Avenue did significant damage to downtown buildings and the communications infrastructure, but miraculously – and thanks for the quick work of six Nashville police officers – did not cause any deaths other than the bomber himself. Then, just last week, FBI agents raided a number of homes and offices of legislators and legislative staff while performing an investigation, the subject of which has not yet been announced.
The first week of session is referred to as “organizational week” where the House and Senate adopt rules of order, elect leadership, and make new committee and office assignments. However, the General Assembly held the organizational session for two days, shifting gears quickly into a short regular session at the tail end of the week.
Shortly before the General Assembly gaveled in the 2021 session, the Senate and House announced guidelines to restrict the public’s access to the upcoming proceedings, and it appears that things will pick up in 2021 where they left off in 2020. The Senate will prohibit in-person attendance to committee meetings or floor sessions, and access to the Senate office floor will be by appointment only. The House remains open to the public, albeit at limited capacity. Of note, lawmakers will not be required to wear masks during session; however, visitors and staff will be required to do so.
One legislator, Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro), has been on a ventilator due to COVID for the better part of the last month. Byrd was hospitalized in December and went on a ventilator shortly thereafter. While Byrd’s condition has improved, one family member acknowledged that he has a “long and tough road ahead of him.”
Legislature Elects Leadership and Constitutional Officers
On Tuesday, the first day of the legislative session, the General Assembly reelected Lt. Governor Randy McNally (R- Oak Ridge) – who serves as Speaker of the Senate – and House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) to their respective leadership posts. Both received overwhelming votes of approval, even from their colleagues across the aisle. Indeed, McNally was re-elected to the Lt. Governor/Speaker role unanimously, while Sexton received all but one vote from the House.
On Wednesday, lawmakers turned their attention to electing the state’s constitutional officers, with the Secretary of State, Comptroller of the Treasury, and State Treasurer up for consideration by joint convention of the General Assembly—a proceeding that this year was held in the War Memorial Building to allow for increased spacing among members. Tre Hargett and David Lillard were once again elected to their respective positions of Secretary of State and Treasurer. Meanwhile, Jason Mumpower was elected Comptroller, filling the shows of his former boss, the incomparable Justin Wilson, who recently announced his retirement. Mumpower has served as Wilson’s top lieutenant for several years, following a distinguished legislative career.
Committee Consolidation Announced in House, Senate Sees Little Change
Upon succeeding Glen Casada (R-Franklin) in the speaker’s role in August 2019, Sexton made few changes to the committee structure that Casada had previously adopted. Now, having a full session under his belt and with a brand new General Assembly, Sexton has put his own stamp on the committee structure, with a revamped committee structure and a handful of new committee chairmen. Among other things, Sexton split the Judiciary Committee (which previously had four subcommittees) into two full, standing committees: Civil Justice, and Criminal Justice. Mike Carter (R- Ooltewah) and Michael Curcio (R-Dickson) will chair those committees, respectively. Sexton also split the Education Committee into the Education Administration Committee, chaired by Mark White (R-Memphis), and the Education Instruction Committee, chaired by Debra Moody (R- Covington).
Representative Patsy Hazlewood (R- Signal Mountain) will now serve as Chair to the powerful House Finance, Ways & Means Committee, with Representative Gary Hicks (R- Rogersville) chairing the subcommittee. The always-influential Commerce Committee will now be chaired by Kevin Vaughan (R-Collierville), with Clark Boyd (R-Lebanon) getting the nod to chair the Utilities Subcommittee. The Utilities Subcommittee was previously chaired by Pat Marsh (R-Shelbyville), who has now ascended to Speaker Pro Tem. Sexton also elevated Representative Sabi ‘Doc’ Kumar (R- Springfield) to Chairman of the House Insurance Committee. Other new chairmen include Chris Todd (R-Jackson; Ag. & Nat. Resources Sub.), Clay Doggett (R-Pulaski; Crim. Justice Sub.), Kirk Haston (R-Lobelville; K-12 Sub), Justin Lafferty (R-Knoxville; Higher Ed. Sub.), Scott Cepicky (R-Culleoka; Ed. Instruction Sub.), Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville; Appropriations Sub.), David Hawk (R-Greeneville; Insurance Sub.), John Holsclaw (R-Johnson City; Depts. & Agencies Sub.), Esther Helton (R-Chattanooga; Public Service Sub.), and Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville; Calendar & Rules).
The Senate saw minimal changes with its committee structure and composition, with the exception of replacing chairmen in the Education Committee and the State and Local Government Committee. Lt. Gov. McNally appointed Senator Brian Kelsey (R- Germantown) to chair Education, while and Richard Briggs (R- Knoxville) will now chair State & Local Government. Other than these appointments and the additions for two new members, Senator Page Walley (R- Bolivar) and Senator Heidi Campbell (D- Nashville), the Senate witnessed few changes in organizational session.
For your review, attached please find two documents that summarize the House and Senate Committees of the 112th General Assembly.
Medicaid Block Grant Initiative Approved
By virtue of having finally received federal approval last week, Tennessee is now nearing the goal line regarding its much-discussed Medicaid block grant, with the final hurdle likely coming as soon as tomorrow morning. On January 8, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) approved of a block grant that the legislature passed during the 2019 legislative session, making Tennessee the first state in the country to be approved for the new process of handling Medicaid. The block grant would cap funding for TennCare, which covers about one-fifth of Tennessee residents, instead of the federal government paying for two-thirds of the cost.
As contemplated, if the state ends up saving money on the program, it can share in those savings provided the state keeps half to reinvest in government programs. Thus, the key is for the state to operate the program with less cost than the cap or improve quality of aid. Those savings would focus on maternal health coverage, serving additional needy population, clearing wait list for services for those with intellectual and developmental issues, and addressing state specific health issues.
Critics worry that the program will not provide enough funding for participants if there is a surge of enrollees. However, there is a sliding scale of federal funds if enrollment were to increase in TennCare. As the debate began on the issue, Democrats constantly questioned the urgency with approving the waiver. Republicans argued it made sense to pass the resolution under the current federal administration.
Now that the federal government has given its final approval, lawmakers are currently in the process of considering the final plans regarding the waiver, which is the final step before the plan can take effect. While a final legislative approval along party lines could come as early as Friday morning, there is a chance that the program may be short lived. The in-coming Biden administration can reverse the block grant plan before it takes effect, which could take months. While Governor Lee does not expect the Biden administration to do so, opponents of the plan say otherwise.
Special Session on the Horizon
In December, Governor Bill Lee (R-Franklin) called a special session to begin Tuesday, January 19 where lawmakers will consider various education bills related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The special session will focus on 5 key issues: learning loss, funding, accountability, literacy and teacher pay–important initiatives of the Lee administration, which were put on hold due to the pandemic last year. Governor Lee called the session to ensure these issues get resolved before the end of the academic year, with the vocal support of leadership in the General Assembly. Governor Lee remarked “even before the virus hit, and despite years of improvement, too many of our state’s students were still unable to read on grade level. I’m calling on the legislature to join us in addressing these serious issues so we can equip our hardworking educators and districts with the resources and supports they need to set our students on the path to success.” The special session was widely applauded by legislative leadership, and the session is only expected to last one week.
FBI Raid Causes Commotion, Speculation, Uncertainty
Early last Friday morning, FBI agents raided the homes and legislative offices of a number of prominent legislators and staff members, including former Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) and Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixon), leaving with boxes full of items. Newly-elected representative Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) also had his home searched, as did Casada’s former Chief of Staff. While speculation has been high, details and solid information have been slow to come. Officials have only revealed that there is an ongoing FBI investigation, but the nature of the investigation and the expected timeline have not been revealed. Speaker Sexton has placed those legislative staff members that were subject to search warrants under administrative leave, and reminded the public that the raid was “just the start of the investigation and the process, and not the end. Today does not necessarily imply guilt.” Governor Lee characterized the situation as “certainly very concerning. I know very little about that. There’s been no FBI outreach to us but I am confident that Speaker Sexton is on top of this situation as it unfolds.”
The General Assembly quickly wrapped up their organizational session this week and transitioned into regular session to take up, consider, and pass legislation, with a focus on the anticipated approval of legislation involving Tennessee’s Medicaid block grant waiver. Next week, the General Assembly will conduct business under the call of the special session and is expected to conclude their work by the end of next week. It is anticipated that the General Assembly will recess for two weeks and reconvene for regular session the week of February 8th. As always, please do not hesitate to reach out to us if you have any questions. Have a great weekend.