Live from Music Row, Monday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson to the newsmaker line to discuss adjustments to the budget and explain the process by which a seat is filled after a legislator is expelled.
Leahy: We are joined on our newsmaker line right now by our very good friend, State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson. Good morning, Senator Johnson.
Johnson: Good morning, Michael. Hope you had a wonderful Easter weekend.
Leahy: I did. It’s been, how shall we say this, an eventful couple of weeks here in Nashville, hasn’t it?
Johnson: It has, there’s been a lot going on, some tragedy. And unfortunately some protests. And by the way, the protests are not bad. I celebrate protests. I celebrate the First Amendment. I celebrate people coming to the capitol, even when they’re protesting me. I just don’t support violence.
Leahy: Yes. I think we agree on that topic. Before we get into the details of the events of today and the whole Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, expulsion, and the consequences thereof, let me ask you about the general assembly. How much longer in the session, what more business do you have to do?
Johnson: This is the time of our session when we start to really shift our focus to the budget. As the governor proposes a budget early in session, when he delivers his state of the state address, and we start having hearings and going through all of the different things the governor has proposed in terms of funding, state government, basically the day-to-day operation of state government.
And then later in the session, we receive what is referred to as the administration amendment. And that’s a modifier to the original budget proposal. It contemplates revenue collections that we’ve received since that original budget was proposed and additional funding.
And sadly, tragically it was right as that was about to happen when we had this horrific event take place in Nashville at the Covenant School. And so obviously that had a significant influence on that amendment. I heard you talking earlier accurately about a significant amount of money that the governor has requested that we allocate appropriately toward school safety and I expect we will do so.
Leahy: The allocation of those monies towards school safety, that’s part of the new budget of the budget that you’re gonna pass, correct?
Johnson: That is correct. That is correct. And you mentioned this earlier as well, and it’s important for your listeners to understand. We’ve been having serious conversations about school safety for a long time, years.
And in fact, the governor at the beginning of this legislative session introduced a comprehensive school safety plan, a bill to deal with school safety, and that bill had been making its way through the legislative process.
And sadly again and tragically we were all made more apparent about the need for that. And so we have changed that made it even stronger now. And the House has passed it and then we will pass it this week.
Leahy: The other part to ask you about is how much longer do you anticipate the Tennessee General Assembly will remain in session?
Johnson: We typically try to, and constitutionally, we have no set time to adjourn, but we recognize that we need to get up there, get our work done, and get back home. We are a part-time legislature.
For those of us who serve it’s not our full-time job. In Tennessee, most of us have other jobs, other careers, and so we serve for three to four months every year and then get back home to our families and our communities and our jobs.
And I think that’s a better way. Side note, much better way to run a government than say the way they do it in Washington. But we aim to wrap up our business by the end of April. Occasionally we may have to spill over a day or two into May, and I expect that we will be prepared to wrap up our business by the end of April,
Leahy: So that’s about three weeks from now.
Johnson: Correct. Good.
Leahy: Let’s talk a little bit about the Tennessee General Assembly. You and I have talked about the differences between the state Senate and the State House before 99 members of the State House, 33 members of the state Senate. The controversy is happening over in the Tennessee House.
In the state Senate, what is the process by which, if there is a vacancy in the state Senate? I think you’re guided by the Constitution and I basically have written Article Two, Section 15. I wrote a piece about that process last night at The Tennessee Star.
Article Two, Section 15 says, in the event of a vacancy, if it happens more than 12 months before the next general election, the county legislature may, emphasis on may select an interim successor until there’s a special election.
Now, the key language there is successor, and if you look at the definition of successor it’s defined as another person. It’s a little unusual in this case. Has anybody ever been expelled from the state senate here in Tennessee?
Johnson: Yes, ironically just over a year ago we were forced to expel someone from the Tennessee State Senate, Senator Katrina Robinson from Shelby County. And her situation was, she was convicted of a felony and was indicted and at the time it was alleged, she was later convicted of committing fraud against the federal government relative to her business.
It had nothing to do with her legislative service that I’m aware of. Anyway, she was charged and tried and a jury of her peers found her guilty of a felony. You cannot serve in the Tennessee General Assembly as a felon. We called upon her multiple times to resign, which she should have done.
She refused to resign. And so we had to go through the expulsion process in the Senate and remove her. And I think it was, if not the only time, one of the only one or two times in our state’s history that’s happened in the Senate.
Leahy: The successor to that expelled state senator, what was the process at that?
Johnson: The Shelby County Commission did appoint an interim successor, and I’m thinking I have this right. Michael, I, it’s early in the morning, and I’m trying to get my brain fired on all synapses. But the person who holds that seat now is Senator London Lamar, and I believe she was appointed as an interim successor. She ran in a special election and was elected.
Leahy: So she was both the interim successor and winner of this special election. But she was another person. It wasn’t the same person.
Johnson: That is correct. That is correct.
Leahy: After the county then named her as the interim successor. What was the process by which that information was communicated to the state Senate and how did the state Senate decide whether to seat or not seat her?
Johnson: So again, this all happens through our clerk’s office, and I believe that I have this correct, is that the governing body and interestingly by the way, just a little side note, what do you do whenever you have a senator or representative who represents multiple counties. How do you decide which county gets to decide who the interim successor is? And the answer is, it’s the home county of the former member.
Listen to today’s show highlights, including this interview:
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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Jack Johnson” by Senator Jack Johnson. Background Photo “Classroom” by Wokandapix.