Tennessee Government Update – January 15, 2021

January 15, 2021
Firm Publication

The 112th General Assembly of the state of Tennessee convened on Tuesday, January 12, for an organizational session to begin the first year of the two-year session. During the organizational session, members were sworn in and leadership elections were held. Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) were both reelected. The three state constitutional officers’ elections were also held. Treasurer David Lillard and Secretary of State Tre Hargett were both reelected. Jason Mumpower will serve as the new Comptroller of the Treasury. Mumpower’s predecessor, Justin Wilson, announced his retirement in 2020.

Committee Structure Changes and Assignments

After former Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) resigned from his position after a vote of no confidence in 2019, Speaker Sexton inherited a committee system that had been expanded by Casada to reward political allies with leadership positions that had not existed previously. This week, Speaker Sexton reduced the number of committees in the House by eliminating certain sub-committees and consolidating other committees. The restructuring of the House committees is expected to streamline the legislative process in the House. The list of committees and committee chairs for the House can be found here.

In the Senate, Lieutenant Governor McNally made fewer changes. The committee structure in the Senate will remain the same, but there were some changes to the composition of the committees. The biggest changes come to the Education Committee and the State and Local Government Committee. Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Collierville) will be the new chair of the Education Committee. Kelsey has been a longtime advocate for school vouchers. Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) will serve as the chair of the State and Local Government Committee. Briggs has served on the committee for several years and will be replacing the former chair of the committee, Senator Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville). Dickerson lost his reelection bid in November. The list of committees and committee chairs for the Senate can be found here.

FBI Investigation

The start of session has been overshadowed by an ongoing FBI investigation. Just last week, the homes and offices of three lawmakers and several current and former staff were raided. Former House Speaker Casada, Representative Robin Smith (R-Chattanooga) and freshman Representative Todd Warner (R-Lewisburg) were all the subject of a search. While there have not been any official announcements as to the target of the investigation, there is speculation the investigation is related to the improper use of campaign funds related to the primary election between Warner and former Representative Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg). Tillis, brother of U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina), was defeated by Warner after being on the defense against a flurry of attack ads and mailers funded by outside money.

Medicaid Block Grant

In what is typically an organizational week, both the House and Senate have adjusted their rules to allow for the immediate consideration of the Medicaid Block Grant before the inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden. Last week, the federal government agreed to authorize Tennessee to expand parts of its Medicaid program while allowing the state to keep significant control over the program’s administration.  Tennessee will be the first state to receive funding for its Medicaid program in a lump sum. The House and Senate are expected to pass a resolution giving final approval of the program today.

Special Session on Education

The General Assembly will return next week for a special session related to education. Governor Lee called the special session so that lawmakers may focus on these five key education issues: learning loss, funding, accountability, literacy, and teacher pay. In his post-election speech, Speaker Sexton emphasized the importance of all students attending school in person despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It is expected that the legislature will find creative ways to force local school districts to resume in-person learning.

After the special session, the General Assembly will return to resume normal business on February 8, and the bill filing deadline will be February 11. The Bass, Berry & Sims’ Government Advocacy and Public Policy Group will be on the ground ready to assist you in matters where business and government intersect.