No GOP Presidential Endorsement from Haslam Yet

With just over six months to go until the Republican presidential primary in Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam isn’t ready to pick a favorite.

Given that he’s still serving as chairman of the Republican Governors Association — a post he was tapped for last November, and will hold until a new chairperson is selected this November — Haslam said Thursday he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to take a side yet.

“We have four existing governors running and five former governors, so it’s probably best for me to stay out of it until I am either not in this role or that field narrows some,” Haslam said following a stop off in Shelbyville on his tour across the state to discuss transportation and road funding.

The sitting governors include Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and John Kasich of Ohio.

The former governors are Jeb Bush of Florida, Rick Perry of Texas, Jim Gilmore of Virginia, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and George Pataki of New York.

Seventeen recognizable candidates are currently hunting the GOP nomination.

Haslam said he doesn’t doubt that front runner Donald Trump is hitting on themes that resonate with Tennessee Republican voters, just as he is across the country. National polls show the blunt-spoken New York billionaire plainly leading the GOP field — and even in other some of the establishment-favorites’ home states, like Bush’s Florida.

But Tennessee’s governor said a lot of debating and campaigning has yet to be done before the Volunteer State’s GOP presidential primary on Super Tuesday — March 1 — and he suggested that politicians with real-world governing experience will gain ground as the candidates’ policy proposals get fleshed out and vetted.

“More and more, the race will turn down to who can actually solve the very real problems that we have,” he said.

Secretary of State Anticipates 2016 Retention Election for Justice Wade’s SCOTN Replacement

State elections officials and the attorney general’s office spent last week keeping mum about uncertainty over the timing of retention elections for Supreme Court judges in wake of Tennessee voters ratifying Amendment 2 last year.

But the Tennessee secretary of state’s office — which oversees the division of elections — appears now to have concluded that the successor to retiring Supreme Court Justice Gary Wade should first face a retention election next August, and not in 2022, as some have speculated.

“Per Tenn. Const. Article VII Section 5 there will be a retention election in 2016 for Justice Wade’s vacancy,” Adam Ghassemi, director of communications for Secretary of State Tre Hargett, wrote in an email to TNReport Friday evening.

The provision of the state Constitution cited in Ghassemi’s statement declares in part that should an unscheduled judicial opening arise, “such vacancy shall be filled at the next biennial election recurring more than thirty days after the vacancy occurs.”

The “next biennial election” for Tennessee judges is next August.

Justice Wade, who won a new eight-year term to the Supreme Court last August, unexpectedly announced his retirement from the bench on July 24.

Wade’s departure, effective Sept. 8, will take effect approximately seven years ahead of schedule, and it will create the first vacancy on the five-member Supreme Court since voters endorsed new judicial-selection procedures in November.

Those revisions were contained in the Amendment 2 referendum, which won approval from 61 percent of  the ballot-question’s vote during the 2014 general election.

Amendment 2 eliminated a pronouncement in the Tennessee Constitution declaring, “The judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state.”

In place of that sentence, which had been part of the state’s guiding document since 1870, Amendment 2 established a new system in which the governor picks the judges to serve on appeals courts and the Supreme Court. Those appointments are then subject to an as yet unestablished legislative confirmation process and, later, retention elections in which voters choose to keep or reject the judges.

However, the portion of the Tennessee Constitution cited by the secretary of state’s office on Friday, Article VII, was in fact not altered by Amendment 2.

Article VII addresses “State and County Officers.” Amendment 2 rewrote only Section 3 of Article VI, which is titled, “Judicial Department.”

Amendment 2 modified the Tennessee Constitution so that it now declares that the state’s most powerful judges “shall be appointed for a full term or to fill a vacancy by and at the discretion of the governor.”

In wake of Wade’s retirement announcement, Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration indicated confusion over whether their new Supreme Court appointee will stand for a retention vote in August 2016 — the next regularly scheduled judicial election — or in 2022, when Wade’s full term was scheduled to expire.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported last week that Haslam’s office had determined that the timing for Wade’s replacement to face retention election is “unclear at this time.”

“We anticipate the General Assembly will address the question when they reconvene early next year,” the governor’s deputy director of communications told the Commercial Appeal.

Current Tennessee statutory code, which was in effect before passage of Amendment 2, requires judges to win retention within two years of being appointed to the court.

The new constitutional mechanisms contained in Amendment 2 were sold to voters under the promise that they would add “checks and balances” and provide “more clarity” to the state’s process for selecting appeals and high-court judges.

Wade Departure Sets in Motion New Procedures for Picking Supreme Court Judges

Just a year after mounting a zealous and richly financed campaign to keep his seat on the Tennessee Supreme Court, Justice Gary Wade announced Friday that he’s retiring from the bench later this summer.

The 67-year-old judge told the Knoxville News Sentinel over the weekend, “I just don’t have as much energy as I used to have.” Wade may take a job as dean of Knoxville’s John J. Duncan Jr. School of Law at Lincoln Memorial University, according to the story.

Wade, who from 2012-2014 served as chief justice of the state’s high court, said last week in a statement through the Administrative Office of the Courts that his resignation will take effect Sept. 8. His current term began Sept. 1, 2014 and was scheduled to expire in 2022. The release offered no reason for Justice Wade’s decision to step down, although a spokeswoman for the court told the Chattanooga Times Free Press, “He just said he thinks it’s time.”

Democrats Likely Losing Control of 5-Member Court

Wade and two fellow Tennessee Supreme Court justices, Sharon Lee and Cornelia Clark, won fresh eight-year terms in retention elections last August after surviving an ouster attempt funded heavily by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s political action committee.

The three justices, all appointed by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, ran a “coordinated campaign” to retain their seats. They raised more than a million dollars in the effort — much of it from the state’s legal community and the Tennessee Democratic Party.

In a statement on Facebook Friday, Ramsey congratulated Justice Wade on his retirement and called him “a good friend and a formidable opponent.”

“I look forward to this historic opportunity to give Tennessee its first ever Republican Supreme Court majority,” wrote Ramsey.

Wade’s retirement will set in motion an as-yet unsettled and untested new process for selecting and approving new appellate-level judges that was ratified by Tennessee voters last year.

Voters Gave Power to Governor  

Driven by a massive campaign effort bankrolled by a broad coalition of powerful special interests and backed by a bipartisan confederation of political establishment elites, “Amendment 2” won statewide approval in November with about 61 percent of the electorate in favor. Very little was comparatively raised in opposition.

Although Tennessee voters weren’t expressly told so on the ballot, Amendment 2 blotted out a nettlesome sentence that had been part of the state’s foundational government document since 1870: “The judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state.”

Despite that language, the state’s most powerful politicians and judges had for decades prior to Amendment 2’s passage denied that traditionally understood definitions of elections were ever constitutionally mandated for judges in Tennessee. They opted instead to codify a “merit selection” and “retention election” plan similar to that outlined in Amendment 2.

The judicial appointment process now in place is not much different than what’s been used since 2009: The governor will appoint a replacement for Justice Wade from a slate of suggested names sent to him from a “Council for Judicial Appointments.” The council will have 60 days to make its recommendations after formally being requested to do so by the governor.

Confirmation Biases

Once the governor announces his choice to serve on the court, the state’s constitution as altered by Amendment 2 now directs that a legislative confirmation process take place when the General Assembly meets again in January.

There’s a small problem with that, though. The actual procedure by which confirmation is to be deliberated upon, or the appointee rejected, hasn’t yet been established by the General Assembly.

The GOP supermajority-controlled Legislature failed this past session to agree upon or approve a procedure for confirming or potentially rejecting a judicial nominee sent to them by the governor.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey, the Shelby County Republican who authored Amendment 2, also sponsored a bill this past session outlining a proposed confirmation process for the General Assembly.

But that legislation stalled on the final day of regular legislative business, April 22, when the 99-member House and 33-member Senate couldn’t stop squabbling over how to weight the votes of their members in such a process.

In his “2015 Yearly Review,” Kelsey wrote that the confirmation legislation “awaits final reconciliation next year.”

Appearances of Accountability

The new legislative approval-or-rejection component was in fact a key selling point Amendment 2 backers promoted to convince voters the constitutional rewrite included appropriate checks and balances, as well as “greater clarity and accountability,” in the judicial selection process.

Sen. Kelsey dubbed Amendment 2 a “Founding Fathers Plus” plan when he first started floating it a few years ago. He said it was designed to mimic and improve upon the U.S. federal government’s judicial selection system.

“It is called the ‘plus’ plan because the Senate plus the House are included in confirmation, as opposed to the federal plan, in which confirmation is limited to the Senate,” Kelsey wrote in a 2013 op-ed.

The “Yes on 2” campaign last year played up the lawmaker-oversight aspect of the amendment as well. Amendment 2 was written to introduce “a new layer of accountability by having our elected representatives in the legislature confirm or reject the Governor’s appointees,” the Yes on 2 campaign proclaimed.

But Amendment 2 also contained a provision, now enshrined in the Tennessee Constitution, enabling judges to circumvent legislative confirmation if lawmakers can’t agree on a nominee or a way to approve or deny a governor’s selection — as happened this last session.

“Confirmation by default occurs if the Legislature fails to reject an appointee within sixty calendar days of either the date of appointment, if made during the annual legislative session, or the convening date of the next annual legislative session, if made out of session,” the Tennessee Constitution presently declares.

20150726_130100That matter was addressed earlier this year by Tennessee Attorney General Herb Slatery, who wrote that the governor can appoint judges as he sees fit, and if the General Assembly can’t speak with a unified voice then there’s nothing they can do to stop judges from taking a seat on the bench.

“(T)he Legislature may reject an appointee only by taking affirmative action to do so within the specified time limit. Confirmation, on the other hand, may be by affirmative action or by inaction,” Slatery wrote in a March 27 opinion in response to a query by Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, the Tennessee House’s sponsor of Amendment 2.

Slatery concluded, “The Legislature may act affirmatively to confirm, but if it does not act within the specified time limits either to confirm or reject, the appointee is confirmed by default.”

Under current state law, the new member of the Tennessee Supreme Court Haslam appoints will presumably stand for retention election in August 2016, along with Justices Holly Kirby and Jeff Bivins, who Haslam appointed last year.

Amendment 2 declared that after judges are appointed and confirmed, they “shall be elected in a retention election by the qualified voters of the state.”

The General Assembly hasn’t yet approved statutory language regarding judicial retention elections since passage of Amendment 2. But the Kelsey legislation, Senate Bill 1, would require — as is the case under current law — that judges appointed to fill a vacancy “face a retention election…at the next regular August election following confirmation, and the retention election shall be for the remainder of the eight-year term.”

TNReport is awaiting clarification from the Tennessee secretary of state’s office on the timing of the new Supreme  Court appointee’s retention election.

Gov. Haslam in a statement Friday thanked Wade “for his years of service to Tennessee as a dedicated member of the judiciary.”

“I greatly appreciate Gary’s commitment to justice and his love for our state,” the governor said. “Tennessee will miss his service on the Supreme Court, and I am grateful for his good work.”

 

Election Dates Set to Fill House Seat Vacated by Haynes

Special primary and general election dates have been set so that voters can select a replacement for former state Rep. Ryan Haynes of Knoxville, who resigned his seat last month after being tapped to chair the state Republican Party.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday issued a “writ of election” directing election officials in Knox County to hold a primary election Aug. 12 and a general election Sept. 29 for the Tennessee Legislature’s House District 14 slot.

There are 99 members in the lower chamber of the General Assembly. Minus Haynes, Republicans still hold 72 seats to the Democrats 26, which constitutes a comfortable supermajority for the GOP caucus.

At first glance, Democrats don’t look to have good odds of flipping the seat their way.

Haynes won reelection three times after first snagging the seat in 2008. Only once did he even face competition. In 2012 Haynes captured 75 percent of the district’s vote against Democratic challenger Jerome Miller.

The Knox County Administrator of Elections is currently issuing qualifying petitions, according to the secretary of state’s office. The deadline for filing is July 2. Early voting for the primary election will begin on July 23 and run through August 7.

Slatery: Legislators’ Health Coverage Financing is Public Information

Tennessee’s attorney general has weighed in on the dispute over disclosure of financial information related to health benefits that members of the state’s General Assembly receive.

Figures released to the media revealing how much that individual lawmakers pay for insurance coverage — and how much of their coverage costs in turn get picked up by taxpayers — is not “protected health information” under federal law, declared a June 5 opinion signed by Attorney General Herb Slatery and Tennessee Solicitor General Andrée Sophia Blumstein.

Protected health information “does not include — either in the general statutory definition, or as it is commonly understood — the kinds of records that were disclosed here, i.e., records that pertain only to insurance coverage and that have nothing to do with treatment, diagnoses, or medications, and especially not of any individually identifiable person,” according to the opinion.

Requested by Republican state Reps. Kevin Brooks of Cleveland and Rick Womick of Rockvale, the opinion was published on the attorney general’s website Monday.

It added that “the mere fact that any individual member or his or her family members participated in the State’s health insurance program cannot reasonably be deemed (protected health information), especially now when federal law requires every individual to have health care insurance coverage.”

But even if such information was confidential under federal law, Slatery and Blumstein wrote that Tennessee’s Public Records Act would, in effect, trump it. The federal privacy protections contain an exemption that allows for release of otherwise private information when “required by law,” the opinion stated.

In this case, the state’s Public Records Act indeed required it, Slatery and Blumstein wrote.

“The information released comes within the Act’s definition of ‘state record.’ It was made or received by the State as part of its official business, particularly as the employer of the members of the General Assembly,” the opinion reads. “The request for the information was made by citizens of Tennessee. The State was, therefore, required to make the information open for inspection, and those in charge of the records were required to make them available since state law does not provide otherwise.”

This spring media outlets in Tennessee used the Public Records Act to obtain tallies on government spending and premium contribution levels for the health coverage lawmakers receive as part-time employees of the state.

But legislators’ coverage doesn’t end when they leave office. Up to now, members have continued to receive benefits after retirement. And until recently they were allowed to keep their government-funded coverage even if they were removed from office for misconduct or convicted of illegal activity.

The Tennessean reported last week that data released by the state’s Department of Finance and Administration indicates sitting and retired lawmakers pay, on average, about 30 percent of the cost of their insurance plans, with taxpayers picking up the rest.

Haslam Signs Statewide Ban on Snapping Photos, Shooting Video Inside Polling Stations

A bill passed this year by the General Assembly prohibiting people from using cellphones to record images at voting sites in Tennessee has been signed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

Starting in 2016, state law will permit using “a mobile electronic or communication device” for “informational purposes to assist the voter in making election decisions.” But it will forbid Tennesseans “from using the device for telephone conversations, recording, or taking photographs or videos while inside the polling place.”

The GOP-sponsored initiative passed 75-23 in the House and unanimously in the Senate.

Rep. Mary Littleton of Dickson and Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown pitched their bill primarily as a new privilege for citizens. It grants people statutory permission to use their smartphones for accessing ballot information, like that provided by the secretary of state’s election app unveiled last year.

“There are some county election commissions that prohibit cellphones and cellphone usage inside the polling places, and I think probably for good reason,” Kelsey told members of the Senate State and Local Government Committee during a hearing on the bill back in March. “It can be disruptive if you are talking on the phone. Or, potentially, if you took pictures of things that were going on there you could cause a problem with revealing confidential information in there.”

The language of the proposition drew no opposition in the Senate, but debate took a quarrelsome turn on the House floor when Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville proposed an amendment granting exemption from the image-capturing ban for people engaged in a “good faith effort to record unlawful activity,” such as “voter fraud or intimidation.”

Stewart worried the measure as-written will thwart a citizen’s ability to document potential electoral irregularities or improprieties.

“Obviously, we don’t want people chatting on the phone and disturbing other voters. However, I think it’s important that we don’t inadvertently prevent voters from using their cameras to record intimidation or fraud in the polling place,” Stewart said during the full chamber’s April 6 debate on the bill.

Republicans showed no interested in Stewart’s suggested edits. Glen Casada, chairman of the House’s 73-member supermajority caucus, reproached Stewart for not raising the issue sooner in the legislative process.

“There’s a reason why we have a committee system,” said the Franklin lawmaker. “Things like this have unintended consequences. Now, it sounds good, it sounds eloquent, but just to throw something on the floor — you don’t even consult with the sponsor — that alone should be a telltale sign that there is something wrong with this amendment. Next time, run the amendments by the sponsor. Next time, let’s use the committee process, that’s where we do the heavy lifting.”

Despite Stewart’s protestations that his “simple amendment” was straightforward and didn’t involve “some sort of tricky financial issue,” it died along party lines, 68-26.

Afterward, Nashville Democrat Bo Mitchell declared that without the watchdog protections, the state’s new law will “harm election integrity.”

“We are going to open up our elections to fraud — which I have heard since I have been down here that we are trying to stop election fraud. When now, if a law-abiding citizen sees something happening in a polling place, we are going to have them creating a crime by trying to stop criminal activity,” he said.

Casada didn’t like Mitchell harping on the failed amendment, and rose to cut him off, whereupon Mitchell remarked, “I guess the gentleman from Williamson must be for voter fraud, and he wants to talk so I’ll let him speak.”

Casada responded by accusing Mitchell of violating the lower chamber’s “decorum.”

“You don’t try to be insulting or infantile, and if members cannot abide by House rules, then maybe they lose their right to speak,” said Casada.

Only two Democrats, John DeBerry of Memphis and Brenda Gilmore of Nashville, ultimately joined House Republicans in voting for the bill.

Because the law doesn’t take effect until January, the Legislature could feasibly revisit the issue before next year’s primary and general elections.

Butt Walks Back ‘Not Verifiable’ Comment

Sheila Butt is no stranger to saying things that rile her political opponents — only to then equivocate and prevaricate and as a last resort repudiate when angrily confronted by the dudgeon-afflicted.

It happened again to the Republican member of the Tennessee House of Representatives during the last days of the General Assembly’s 2015 regular session.

Lawmakers were contentiously debating a bill to require women seeking abortions to undergo a 48-hour waiting period after their first visit to a doctor about obtaining the procedure.

Most of the chamber’s Democrats opposed the measure outright and were seeking to attach provisions to derail or weaken it — although it eventually passed unamended, 79-18.

At one point, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, proposed exempting women from the requirement in cases where their pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.

Butt stepped up to speak against that idea, and it was subsequently killed by the GOP-dominated chamber. “This amendment appears political because we understand that in most instances this is not verifiable,” Butt said of Fitzhugh’s proposal. “Let’s make sure that these women have the information and understanding to act.”

The next day Democratic Rep. Sherry Jones of Nashville, a reliably cantankerous voice of opposition to the Republican supermajority, chastised Butt for her choice of words.

“There are 206,000 women in Tennessee who unfortunately can attest to the fact that rape and incest are too verifiable,” Jones said. “Those women have endured horrors that we cannot imagine, and for it to be said that the violent crimes that they suffered are not verifiable is to suggest that they are somehow not legitimate rapes. That’s dangerous and it is insulting, to say the very least.”

“What we say in this room matters,” continued Jones. “And I would ask that members, especially my fellow female members speaking about rape and incest, remember that before they make any remarks.”

Butt retorted to Jones a few moments later. She claimed Jones had misrepresented her words.

“When we quote our colleagues on this floor, I think we respect each other enough to quote each other properly,” said Butt. “And I did make a comment yesterday that there are times when that those things are not. And so let’s make sure that we are quoted properly on the floor. I would appreciate that, and I would do that for you.”

However, over the weekend Butt’s hometown newspaper, the Columbia Daily Herald, ran a story indicating that Butt at some point began having second thoughts about the import of her pronouncement during the legislative debate.

Butt told the paper that when she used the word “verifiable,” that wasn’t exactly what she “intended” to say after all. Rather, Butt said the words she meant to use were “in most cases rape or incest is not verified at an abortion clinic.”

The Daily Herald further quoted Butt as saying, “Of course, we know that rape and incest can be verifiable, and I am grateful for that. I misspoke in my comments on the House floor, and I am sorry for the confusion that has caused.”

“We all make mistakes,” Butt reportedly said. “We all disagree on things. However, we can disagree with civility and respect and without hatefulness and contention and work together on the things on which we do agree. As a community and as human beings, we owe each other that.”

Bill Mandating TBI Collection of Crime Data Demographics Headed to Governor

The General Assembly has passed a requirement that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation start including more demographic information in yearly state crime reports that the agency presents to lawmakers and law enforcement.

Sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, the bill would mandate the TBI report percentage breakdowns of suspects, crime victims and convicted offenders “based on race, gender, age, nationality, and any other appropriate demographic.”

The TBI’s report is a compilation of data from state, county, and municipal law enforcement and correctional agencies, as well as courts.

Harris told upper-chamber lawmakers Wednesday that he wants to build on “a data-driven approach to law enforcement,” a process which has “resulted in large reductions in crime in big cities.” This includes Memphis, which Harris added has “credited a 31 percent decrease in the crime rate between 2006 and 2010” as a result of using data to inform policies.

During criminal justice reform hearings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee last summer, several criminal justice policy experts testified on the need for better crime data to help inform data-driven policies.

The House version passed Monday on a consent calendar, 94-0.

But the legislation did hit some resistance in the upper chamber Wednesday, where some of Tennessee’s senators fretted about issues that might arise from collecting crime data specifying racial and ethnic demographics, including the fear this would contribute to racial profiling.

Harris explained that while he is generally “loathe” to base policy “on race,” his bill is based on “a variety of demographic categories that may be helpful to law enforcement.”

Lawmakers also voiced concern the additional reporting requirements would cost law enforcement time and money in cases when the data isn’t already being produced.

Harris said the TBI already collects the information and was neutral on the legislation. He added there was no fiscal note indicating that any additional state or local budget resources would be necessary for implementation.

The Senate ultimately approved the measure 23-4. Six lawmakers refused to vote one way or another. The Senate’s three freshman Democrats joined a majority of Republicans in voting to approve the measure.

Voting against the measure were Nashville Democrat Thelma Harper and Republicans Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, Randy McNally of Oak Ridge and Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains.

Members who refused to participate in the vote were Republican Sens. Paul Bailey of Sparta, Mike Bell of Riceville, Rusty Crowe of Johnson City, Joey Hensley of Hohenwald and Jim Tracy of Shelbyville, as well as Memphis Democrat Reginald Tate.

The measure is headed next to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk for his signature.

Last year, Haslam announced a Sentencing and Recidivism Task Force, to study Tennessee’s criminal justice system with the intent of addressing the Volunteer State’s prison overpopulation problems.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.

Don’t Believe Your Hearing, ‘Voice Votes’ May Be Dummy Rounds

The General Assembly’s online voting record doesn’t appear to reflect actual votes that have occurred in at least one House subcommittee.

Two Republican-sponsored gun bills died on tight Civil Justice Subcommittee votes in the lower chamber recently. One was House Bill 684, Jonesborough Rep. Micah Van Huss’s open carry legislation, and the other was House Bill 481, a proposal by Tullahoma Rep. Judd Matheny to allow permit-holding gun owners to keep a firearm in their vehicle on school property.

Both bills failed on a “voice vote.” In both instances, archived footage of the hearings shows the subcommittee’s chairman, Bartlett Republican Jim Coley, voting “no” on the proposals — HB684 on March 11 and HB481 on March 18. Then, in declaring the outcome of the votes on both measures Coley says, “The ‘noes’ have it, the bill fails.”

However, according to the General Assembly’s website, Coley is listed on both bills, along with fellow committee member Jon Lundberg, as having abstained from the votes.

That would seem to mean the “noes” didn’t really “have it.” The votes on the two gun bills were deadlocked 2-2-2, with Republicans Mike Carter of Ooltewah and Leigh Wilburn of Somerville in favor, Nashville Democrats Sherry Jones and Bill Beck opposed. A bill needs favorable votes from a majority of those present and voting to advance.

Coley acknowledged to TNReport following the failure of Van Huss’s open-carry bill last week that he requested his vote be changed after the fact, and suggested Lundberg did the same.

A tie vote in a legislative committee means a bill stalls where it is, although Speaker Beth Harwell or Speaker Pro Tem Curtis Johnson can choose to vote to move a bill along. After a tie vote, a bill can later be brought up for reconsideration if the sponsor can convince someone on the committee who didn’t vote in favor of it to commit support.

Coley told TNReport he changed how his vote was recorded because he didn’t want his constituents to draw the conclusion that he’s “not in favor of firearms.” To the contrary, Coley asserted that he’s “very strongly in favor of firearms,” but also believes gun-owners should obtain a permit from the government in order to carry in public, in keeping with current law.

Lundberg’s rationale for abstaining is that Tennessee has passed a lot of pro-gun legislation the last few years and he “just didn’t think that this was the time to put (the issue of allowing people to carry guns without permits) in the forefront.”

The Bristol Republican added, though, that he doesn’t expect debate over mandatory permits for public possession of a firearms to go away. “That conversation will carry on and continue,” said Lundberg.

John Harris, the Tennessee Firearm Association’s executive director, said Thursday that he’s made inquiries to House Clerk Joe McCord to explain the vote tallies. On Friday morning, Harris said he hadn’t yet gotten a response.

Harris described what occurred with Coley and Lundberg changing their votes after the fact as “intentionally falsifying public records” so as “to mislead the public.”

State lawmakers’ committee voting records are “frequently used in elections” by issue-advocacy groups like his to serve as a reality-check against a candidate’s campaign rhetoric, Harris said.

McCord was not available for comment late Thursday or Friday morning. (UPDATE: TFA forwarded TNReport an email sent along Friday afternoon by McCord’s office. It is posted at the end of this story.)

Senate Bill 784, the upper chamber companion bill to Van Huss’s open carry legislation, is being carried by Mt. Juliet Republican Mae Beavers. It’s currently scheduled for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on March 31.

The Senate’s version of Rep. Matheny’s guns-on-school-grounds proposal is sponsored by Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown. It passed the Judiciary Committee March 10 on a 6-2 vote, with Maryville Republican Doug Overbey abstaining.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey noted Thursday that, unlike in the House, all votes taken in the Senate’s committees are done using the “roll call” technique — meaning each lawmaker is asked publicly and individually during a hearing to declare whether he or she is opposed, in favor or wishes to pass on a piece of legislation.

Neither online streaming video or detailed web-accessible vote-tallying existed prior to his becoming Senate speaker in 2007, Ramsey said. “We take roll call votes on every bill in the Senate,” he said.

Gun Bill Rising from the Dead 

Yet another bill that also met a quick demise in the lower-chamber’s Civil Justice Subcommittee may get a breath of new life. In an unusual move, Covington Republican Debra Moody has put HB173 back “on notice” for discussion next Wednesday in the wake of it failing even to get a seconded-motion for a hearing.

The measure Moody is sponsoring would make it legal for permitted gun carriers to have their firearm on them at property that is in use by a school.

House rules say a bill can be reconsidered if the sponsor requests it, and a majority of the committee votes in favor of reconsideration. However, once a bill fails twice it cannot be brought back up for consideration. Moody’s bill failed March 11 when no committee member seconded a motion to hear the legislation.

The Senate version, sponsored by Clarksville Republican Mark Green, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 6-2 with Overbey abstaining.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.

Copy of email reply to TFA from House Chief Clerk Joe McCord:

The House Rules state that, “No bill or resolution shall be reported from a standing committee unless it shall have received a recommendation for passage as written or for passage with a recommended amendment by a majority of those members of the committee present and voting thereon, a quorum being present.”

House Bill 481 and House Bill 684 failed to receive a majority vote for passage.

During a voice vote, all members are recorded as having voted on the prevailing side. Those wishing to be recorded as voting other than the prevailing side may request to do so.

If you have any further questions, please contact me.

Joe McCord
Chief Clerk
Tennessee House of Representatives

Black Caucus Wants Butt Out of House GOP Leadership

Members of the Tennessee’s Legislative Black Caucus are demanding Sheila Butt get booted from her position as House Republican floor leader.

The higher-ups in the GOP-controlled lower chamber, however, don’t appear willing to yield that outcome. And judging by the supportive reaction Butt’s fellow Republican caucus members gave her Thursday on the House floor after she addressed fallout from her impolitic Facebook faux pas, neither do the supermajority rank and file who elected her to the post.

A motivational speaker from Maury County, Butt has been under fire the past couple days for a comment she posted online last month suggesting that “it is time for a Council on Christian Relations and an NAAWP in this Country.”

Butt made the comment, which she apparently soon afterwards deleted, on a Facebook post criticizing an open letter by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The CAIR letter called on 2016 Republican presidential candidates to “Engage Muslim Voters, Reject Islamophobia.”

A story published Wednesday on the Nashville Scene‘s “Pith in the Wind” blog speculated that Butt’s use of the acronym “NAAWP” was a meant to denote “National Association for the Advancement of White People.” Butt later denied that. She claimed she’d concocted it at the spur of the moment when she wrote the comment, telling the Associated Press that in her mind the “WP” referred to “Western People.”

No Apologies

In statement she issued soon after the story broke, Butt wrote, “It saddens me that we have come to a place in our society where every comment by a conservative is automatically scrutinized as being racist.” She added that “liberal groups have once again incorrectly and falsely jumped the gun.”

Criticism of Butt escalated swiftly, with both CAIR and African American lawmakers rejecting her explanation and calling for disciplinary action against her.

On Thursday, Butt took to the podium on the House floor to defend herself, claiming she’s simply been the victim of a lack of understanding. The “acronym that I had made up,” and the comment in general, was “never intended to offend anyone,” she said. Rather, it was “meant to be inclusive of every gender, culture and religion.”

“I am disappointed that some in this body misunderstood,” Butt said. “I strongly believe that this nation is better off when we all adhere to our Christian values and beliefs, when we all work together to solve the problems that beset every single one of us.”

Butt said she was trying to be “inclusive” when she posted the Facebook comment. She suggested critics of her comments, by contrast, are “being divisive.” And that, she said, “is something that should not happen in this body.”

Butt also cast disapproval of her comment as something of an attack on freedom of speech and religion. “I stand today for every one of us, our First Amendment, our religious beliefs and our religious liberty in this body, in this state and in this country,” she said.

Republicans applauded Butt for about ten seconds after she concluded.

On the other hand, members of the Black Caucus, all of whom are Democrats, didn’t regard Butt’s brief homily as inspiring so much as “insulting.” They called a press conference after the House session and denounced her forthrightly.

They expressed outrage that Butt’s remarks contained not contrition but accusations that were “demeaning,” “derogatory” and “divisive.”

“She needs to realize that we too made America,” said Memphis Rep. Johnnie Turner. “It was our blood, sweat and tears that has allowed each of us to be here. It was because of the sacrifices of our forefathers that African Americans were finally elected to the Legislature so that we could have a voice.”

“We want an apology and we want her removed out of leadership, and we want it posthaste,” said Joe Towns on Memphis.

Harwell Taking Hands-Off Approach

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, pointed out that Butt’s leadership role is a Republican Caucus post. Therefore, Harwell maintains she is not in an appropriate position to intervene in the matter.

“The Speaker does not have the authority to remove a member from a leadership post that is chosen by the caucus,” Harwell’s spokeswoman, Kara Owen, said in an emailed statement.

Brenda Gilmore of Nashville, who chairs the Black Caucus, said Harwell tried to assuage their anger by offering assurances that Butt “did not speak for the Republican Party.” But Harwell’s refusal to commit support for Butt’s expulsion from GOP leadership or even extraction of an apology left Gilmore “with a heavy heart.”

“I feel like that even though formally she did not place Rep. Butt in that position, as the leader and president of this General Assembly for the House of Representatives, she is a woman of great influence just by her sheer positions,” said Gilmore. “When we witness a wrong that is occurring and we stand by and do nothing, and say nothing, then I say we’re just as guilty as the person who has afflicted the victim,” said Gilmore.

Casada Backing Butt

Not to be confused with the role of House majority leader — which is a top-tier agenda-setting post held by Chattanooga Republican Gerald McCormick — Butt’s job as floor leader is essentially an organizational or logistical aide to GOP lawmakers who’re bringing legislation to a vote before the full chamber. Butt was elected to the post in December.

Franklin Republican Glen Casada, on the other hand, is the House GOP Caucus chairman, and is in a position facilitate a disciplinary action of some sort against Butt. Members of the Black Caucus said Thursday they’re planning to take their grievance against Butt to Casada next week.

Casada, though, has already given clear indications that he’s got Butt’s back on this one. He issued two statements Thursday on the matter.

“Instead of using their energy attacking conservatives in Tennessee, CAIR should instead refocus their efforts on stopping the spread of radical extremists in their own religion in the United States and across the world,” Casada’s said in his first release, issued in the morning just after Butt’s floor speech. “I call on my colleagues in the General Assembly to join me in defending western values and culture against radical Islam.”

On Thursday afternoon, Casada declared, “Representative Butt does not need to step down from her leadership position, and she has my full support as Caucus Chairman. The Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Black Caucus need to stop this foolishness and quit acting like they do in Washington, D.C.”

On her Facebook page Thursday evening, Butt posted a message that read, “Equality is not every group demanding preference. Let’s do away with all of the factions and do just what Martin Luther King, Jr. said; let every person be judged, ‘by the content of their character.'”