Speaker Cameron Sexton: The State Budget is the Top Priority Before Session End

Speaker Cameron Sexton: The State Budget is the Top Priority Before Session End

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 Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton to the newsmaker line to discuss federal education funding, charter schools, choice lanes, the top priority before the session ends, and more.

Leahy: On the newsmaker line now, a very good friend, Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives Speaker Cam Sexton.

Good morning, Speaker Sexton.

Sexton: Good morning. How are you?

Leahy: Doing well and we’re delighted to have you on here this morning. And it has been an eventful session so far of the Tennessee General Assembly. You got a lot done. You got the bill that stopped gender mutilation for kids under the age of 18. So congratulations on that. That went through pretty quickly.

Sexton: It did. It did. We were able to do a couple of things early that moved us through the committee. Usually, we take a little bit of time to get committees up and going, but this year we got off with a sprint and we’re still moving along.

Leahy: I’m a big fan of the idea that you suggested that we look at telling the federal government, we don’t want their Department of Education money. There’s a bill that’s gonna set up a task force to look at that.

Commissioner of Education, Penny Schwinn’s set to head that up. Six legislators, two superintendents, and two teachers, but no conservative talk show hosts on that task force. (Laughter) Are you gonna fix that problem?

Sexton: We can. We can always have testimony. I think it’s something important for us to do. My thought is, we talked about state’s rights and the 10th Amendment, but we continue to take federal money that takes away the state, our state’s rights places burdens and restrictions on us to use that money, and when those areas are federal education dollars because they also use Title IX to come through on the backside because we take the money and try to put things in our classroom or requires to do different tests in the classroom.

And I think that those burdens are more than they should be. And so I think fund that money ourselves instead of allowing the Department of Education to fund it for us.

Leahy: So this interesting development last week, of course, the Speaker of the State Senate Randy McNally involved in these embarrassing social media posts. We’ve called for his resignation because he’s passed his prime. I think that’s an example of it.

But interestingly, there’s this weird situation where there’s a state representative in the House, not in the state Senate, but in the House. Representative Todd Warner, he’s been in the doghouse, I think, for any number of reasons. So he puts out a letter and says it’s time for the state Senate leader to resign. Any thoughts on where that’s going to go?

Sexton: No, not yet. We’re, I think from what I hear based on the senators, none of them have come out and expressed that. My understanding is the Lieutenant Governor has called all of them personally and had conversations.

There are a lot of people who have opinions on it and it’s really a decision of the State Senate, whether or not they want to do anything. It doesn’t seem like at this point that they want to, so we’ll just have to wait and see what they decide or if they decide to do anything at all.

Leahy: Did you have any conversations with State Representative Todd Warner before or after he put that letter out? It’s not really a state House representative issue, it’s a state Senate issue.

Sexton: It’s a Senate issue. There were things used in there that you would have to know the person. I don’t think he’s ever sat down and had any conversations with him. That’s his opinion. He can say what he wants to, we live in a free country, and so he’s entitled to that. I don’t know if people agree with how he worded it or what he said.

Some may agree with the conclusion as you do on what needs to happen. But I will say, he’s never been in the doghouse. I think he likes to say he’s been in the doghouse. Leadership didn’t try to stop him or stop any of his bills or anything. I think that’s the way he wants to word it. Sometimes that’s just simply not the case.

Leahy: Tell me what’s on the agenda for the remaining couple weeks of the Tennessee General Assembly session.

Sexton: The biggest thing is the budget. We’re waiting for the governor’s appropriation amendment, which will be probably about two or three weeks. And then that will give us our timeline on when we’ll be able to be out of there. I think if you’re looking at different things that are still in play, I think choice lanes are up this week.

Saving the lives of mothers is up tonight on the House floor. We have some legislation dealing with charter schools. So there’s still a full plate to come. Constitutional carry on the House. True constitutional carry is being passed through the House.

So we’re hopeful that we will get that to the floor. We’re waiting to see what direction the Senate Judicial Committee wants to go. But there are still some big items coming through, at least on the House side.

Leahy: With the charter school legislation, would that expand charter schools? What are the details of the charter school legislation?

Sexton: Yes, the charter school legislation, there are a couple of different pieces. One is looking at residential boarding schools for at-risk kids. You have kids in some parts of our state that are homeless and living out of cars with their families and that’s not the best environment. You also have children whose parents are incarcerated, and one-parent families in high-crime areas.

Then numerous different types of things for at-risk kids. And trying to give them an opportunity their parents an opportunity to allow them to go to a boarding school like a public charter school that would give them a fresh opportunity to be successful and get out of a bad situation that they’re in to allow the family maybe to get back up on their feet as well.

That’s one idea coming. The other is offering a hybrid charter school program for people to go to a charter school for three or four days a week and then do remote learning from home one or two days a week to give parents also a little different alternative to what they’re being offered in their normal K 12.

Leahy: What’s the prospect for the choice lane legislation? We had Butch Eley here in the studio to talk about it. I think there are a lot of people who like it and a lot of people who don’t like these ideas. Where do you think that’s going to go?

Sexton: Right now, I would say it has the votes to pass on the House floor. I don’t know the exact vote count, but based on how it came through different committees it seems like the votes are there to pass it. It’s one alternative to improving our roads. It doesn’t change any road currently that’s being driven on, it’s only for new types of roads that are being built in highly congested areas.

And there are all four big cities in our state that have that issue. But it would also allow us to continue to build out, enroll communities in suburban areas, improve the roads, and build new roads.

And the main reason is that the congestion is gonna cost us about $26 to $29 billion. And so we’re trying to develop new ways to help fund those areas. But at the same time, do not lose focus on the rural areas and suburban areas that need roads as well.

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 Reporwith Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Cameron Sexton” by Speaker Cameron Sexton. Background Photo “Tennessee State Capitol” by Thomas R Machnitzki. CC BY 3.0.


Tennessee Commissioner of Transportation Butch Eley Explains the Choice Lane Plan

Tennessee Commissioner of Transportation Butch Eley Explains the Choice Lane Plan

Live from Music Row, Tuesday 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 Tennessee’s commissioner of transportation, Butch Eley in studio to discuss how the state researched the option to create choice lanes and where it’s been proven successful.

Leahy: I am delighted, capital D, delighted to welcome my very good friend Butch Eley, the commissioner of transportation here in Tennessee, to our studios. Butch, thanks so much for coming in today.

Eley: Hey, it’s great to be here, Michael. I know that your listeners know you as a great host, but you and I go back a long way. And for you listeners out there, you should also know that he’s a great professor because I heard you say earlier, 25 years. I think it’s been a little longer than that.

Leahy: I think it has been. It’s almost 30, maybe.

Eley: I think it’s been a little longer than that. But, you know, you were my professor at Belmont in entrepreneurship.

Leahy: Yes. And you did a study, wasn’t it, about public or private companies providing services to state governments, and you turned that into a very successful company.

Eley: Yes. I would say your remarks a minute ago were a little humble in that you have had a lot more influence over a lot more students through your time of teaching. That really made a difference and certainly did in my life in giving me the encouragement to do what I did and leave a job that I had to go start all over and do something.

Leahy: So you’re going to blame me for starting all over? (Laughter)

Eley: No, it was great.

Leahy: Let’s just add because we do not want to be in the land of embellishing resumes here. Because I was an adjunct professor at Belmont. When you say adjunct professor somewhere, that basically means you’re not really a professor. You’re just you’re teaching a course. That’s it, basically. It’s a part-time thing. It was a lot of fun. And I remember it was a great class that you were part of.

Eley: It was.

Leahy: And I recall that and what a great student you were. And I think it would be fair to say that the student has far surpassed the teacher because you, sir, are the deputy governor of the state and the commissioner of transportation. Of course, we went to church together.

Our families knew each other. And so I’ve always been a big admirer of what you’re doing. Let’s talk a little bit about the infrastructure plan. You’re responsible for it. Before I was an adjunct professor at Belmont, I was actually, wait for it, a liberal Democrat, and I was just kind of transitioning back in 1984, living in Dallas, running a computer retailer there for a big company, and a professor of economics. John Cain, a specialist in transportation, came to Dallas, and he was an advisor to the Dallas Area Rapid Transit about how they should handle their growth.

Of course, I was a left-wing liberal at the time. I hate to say it, but I was friendly with this guy. We had lunch frequently while he was there. And I would say, well, what are you going to put mass transit in when are you go put mass transit in? And he looked at me like I was a complete idiot, which I think I was on that issue.

He said, Mike, let me explain something to you. Subways work in highly dense areas like New York City. Dallas is not like that. And he laid out a plan that includes basically now a version of choice lanes, and it’s been very successful in Dallas. Tell us about the choice lane plan. I guess you went down to Dallas there to look at it.

Eley: Thank you. Yes, the governor did as well. We’ve both been down there. At the beginning of this process, he asked me to kind of scan the country and say, what have other states that have already been where we’re headed? What have they done? What lessons are there to be learned from other states that have already been where we’re headed?

And you’ve probably heard me say we are in Tennessee; I believe, at a very critical juncture when it comes to transportation. I think it’s imperative that we do something. And so when we went down and looked at what they are doing in Texas, and if you think about it, our lifestyles, our quality of life, our philosophies are pretty similar to Texans.

And so when I and the governor looked at what they did and how they have brought these choice lanes along to where they are, in addition to the old interstates, there are new lanes. And people are literally given a choice each and every day whether they want to get in that lane and pay a user fee or not.

They can stay in the regular lanes all they want to. They can make that decision if they need to get to one of their child’s soccer games or if they need to get another stop made on their job in the day. They can choose to get in that. And so it’s something that people are choosing to do and are very favorable toward doing it in Texas.

Leahy: I will tell you, driving in from the Leahy manse in Spring Hill- Thompsons Station at 4:15 am in the morning, there’s no problem. (Eley chuckles) But if I’m going back during rush hour, I’m choosing fast. I’m paying for it. Because for me, time is what matters.

Eley: That’s what they have learned, time does matter.

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 Reporwith Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.



Transportation Commissioner Eley: If All Goes Well, We Will See Choice Lane Projects Begin During Gov Lee’s Second Term

Transportation Commissioner Eley: If All Goes Well, We Will See Choice Lane Projects Begin During Gov Lee’s Second Term

Live from Music Row, Tuesday 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 Tennessee Commissioner of Transportation, Butch Eley in studio to discuss the public-private legislation needed to implement choice lanes in the state.

Leahy: We are delighted to have in our studio a very good friend for many years, I guess this now over 30, Butch Eley, the commissioner of transportation. Butch, you were describing the choice lane concept.

And I guess one of the questions we have is particularly, you know, on I-65, coming in from even from Franklin up to Nashville, it has those lanes. And I’m thinking, well, how do you add another lane there? The right of way becomes a bit of an issue. Tell us how that would work.

Eley: Yes, that’s a great question, Michael. And there’s actually more right of way than most people realized back in the day as the interstate system was formed. There’s more land than what typically is known. And so most of this can be done in those areas with existing right of way. There will be some situations that are tight.

We’ve had a lot of construction, and a lot of growth in the Middle Tennessee area. But it’s important to recognize that this is not just an urban issue. You live in the suburbs of Nashville. The rural areas also are seeing this pressure.

And so what we’re looking at is being able, if we can invest with these public-private partnerships, it allows us to reallocate those dollars that we would otherwise have to spend just in the urban area and be able to expand some of our interstates. We think we’ve got certainly the engineering capability to do that.

Leahy: To illustrate the issue of growth, we moved right around the time I was teaching at Belmont in 1997. We moved from Nashville to the Thompsons Station Spring Hill area. I thought we’d moved to the far side of the moon. (Eley chuckles) 

You may recall, Cool Springs hadn’t been up there. One day we were looking for a place to buy, and we just kept driving and driving and driving and driving. This is too far away! Well, right now it’s right smack dab in the middle of suburbia. And it makes your point about growth and how you’ve got to have a solution for this. To me, logically, this sounds like a pretty good solution.

Now, on our side, a lot of people look at this and you said something that occasionally sort of makes folks on our side shiver. When you say public-private partnership, explain that a little bit and how that’s worked in the past, and how that will benefit taxpayers in Tennessee.

Eley: Yes, well, the biggest benefit to public-private partnership is the private sector. We’re inviting the private sector to come in and invest in our infrastructure. The important thing to note is that our roads are our roads. We own them.

We’ll never sell any of our infrastructure assets in that way. So they would come in for a long-term lease to where they would finance, design, build, operate, and maintain that roadway.

Leahy: But we own it.

Eley: We own it at the end of that agreement, then it’s ours.

Leahy: But they get some of the revenue from the choice lane.

Eley: That’s exactly right. They’re making that upfront investment, and so they’re getting some of the fees from the choice lanes. Now there is a threshold once you get to where the state shares in that, but basically, it’s to pay back that original investment.

Leahy: So the taxpayers of Tennessee don’t put up the cash.

Eley: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. In Texas, what they have seen is that in some situations, the cost of the project was so large it may be a $500 million dollar project, let’s say. So they would have to put some amount of subsidy out, but they would get, let’s say, 80 percent of the project paid for, which allows them to make that investment into other projects. The important thing too is we’re doing this without raising taxes at all and we’re not issuing any debt. And so I think it’s important that people realize that that’s one of the major reasons we are doing this.

Leahy: This bill is before the Tennessee General Assembly as we speak. How’s it going there? What kind of response are they getting? Are you answering the questions? Do we think this is going to pass? And, of course, the big question will the governor sign the bill if it passes? (Laughter)

Eley: Yes. Let me say this, this is his idea and his bill.

Leahy: So you think he’ll sign it?

Eley: Yes, I think he’ll sign it if it comes to his desk. But really the response of the legislature has been great. Both the Speakers have been good to talk to about this. They understand the situation that we’re in. Our House leadership in the Transportation Committee Chairman Howell and then in the Senate Chair Becky Massey.

They really understand this issue, and they’ve been very helpful in designing this idea that they believe, and I believe, certainly will help Tennesseans. And so it’ll be working its way through committee.

Actually, starting this week, we will be in the Senate and in the House talking about this, and answering questions from members. And so there are several steps that it will go through over the coming weeks, but it’ll continue to proceed and I think be dealt with during this legislative session.

Leahy: That’s what it looks like to me. Also, I believe that a bill with some modifications will be passed by both Houses, will be presented to the governor for signature. He’ll probably sign it. And then that means by June or July; this will be law. If all goes well, when does the implementation begin, and when will people start seeing the choice lane options be taken?

Eley: Yes. That’s a great question because it’s important to recognize what this legislation actually does. And that is to give us the authority to do these public-private partnerships. Right now in Tennessee, we’re one of only a handful of states that does not have that capability. And so we’re seeking that authority.

We know from congestion studies that we have already done that there are existing bottlenecks and projects, good potential projects out there, but we’ve got to do our deep dive due diligence to find out which ones are economically feasible and which ones give us the most optimum result.

And so we’ll be doing that over the coming months, and then we’ll be coming back to the legislature this next session and being able to show them which projects we’re looking at. What the governor has also said is we need to do this in every part of the state and then we also need to do rural projects in conjunction with this so that everybody in the state benefits.

Leahy: Would it be fair to say that by the end of Governor Lee’s second term, which will be three or four years from now, we’ll start to see some of these projects come to fruition?

Eley: If I have it my way, I’m here four more years, and we’ll see one of these projects get started.

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 Reporwith Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Bill Lee” by Gov. Bill Lee. Background Photo “Tennessee Capitol” by Ron Cogswell. CC BY 2.0.


State Senator Jack Johnson Outlines Problems and Solutions for Tennessee Transportation Infrastructure

State Senator Jack Johnson Outlines Problems and Solutions for Tennessee Transportation Infrastructure

Live from Music Row, Wednesday 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 Tennessee State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson in studio to discuss the problems with Nashville’s transportation infrastructure and practical and proven solutions to fix it.

Leahy: In studio, State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson. Jack, I watched the State of the State address from Governor Bill Lee, and I’d give it fairly good reviews, a little mixed. I thought he handled the protesters very well when he called for civility. I thought that was a very good moment for Governor Bill Lee.

Johnson: I did too.

Leahy: And everybody really applauded that response. I did have a couple of questions about this proposed $100 million for pregnancy crisis centers. I kind of think that’s a role for the private sector non-profits, not for the state government. And also toward the end, he threw in $350 million for sports facilities in Memphis. I don’t know where that came from. I have big questions about that. I don’t think that’s a good idea at all. But he also had what I thought was a good starting point to explain his transportation plan. And he has this idea of choice lanes, said my friend Butch Eley, the Commissioner of Transportation, apparently Governor Lee and Butch Eley went down to Dallas to see how it works there.

I’ve seen it work in Dallas. I think it’s a very effective way to go, but it’s controversial because some people think it’s toll roads, which I don’t think it really is. Can you explain from your point of view what this transportation infrastructure proposal from the governor is?

Johnson: Sure. Happy to. And by the way, I joined the governor and Commissioner Eley, along with some other members in flying down to Dallas.

Leahy: Oh, you went with them?

Johnson: I did.

Leahy: I didn’t know that.

Johnson: I think they had gone several times, but we joined them on one trip, and we met with the TexDot That’s what they call their Department of Transportation in Texas because it’s not a perfect analogy, but if you look at the Dallas Fort Worth metropolitan area, the metroplexes, as they call it, you know, there are some similarities to where they are now or where they were 20 years ago and where Nashville is now. And when you look at the growth trends and growth patterns, they started dealing with this about 20 years ago.

Leahy: A story on that. Population density-wise, Dallas and Nashville are more comparable than, say, Nashville and New York City, for instance.

Johnson: 100 percent.

Leahy: They do mass transit in New York City. It makes sense with high population density. But I’ll tell you, I lived in Dallas in 1984 when a Harvard professor and friend of mine John Cain went down to advise the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Group. I was a liberal then, Jack, I’m sorry to say, and I thought mass transit was the way to go.

And he explained to me, and I thought, this makes some sense. You can’t do it in diverse areas like this, and you need choice lanes and toll lanes. And frankly, I go to Dallas like, once or twice a year. I think it’s working great down there, but your thoughts on this?

Johnson: First of all, people need to understand the problem, and I think the governor did do a good job with that. And before we talk about a solution, it’s important to define the problem. And the problem is this. When you add up every road project that is warranted in the state of Tennessee right now, everything from widening interstates to widening a little two-lane road in a rural part of the state, adding a turn lane, these are all important projects to these communities.

You add all of those up, it comes to about $26 billion in today’s dollars. And when you’re building these projects, sometimes it takes years to get them done. And so you have to factor in inflation. Our budget for new projects in Tennessee right now is about $500 million a year. So $500 million a year, $26 billion price tag.

So you can start to see the magnitude of that. The governor made very clear earlier that we’re not going to do a couple of things. We’re not going to raise taxes. We’re not going to raise a gas tax. We’re not going to take on any additional debt. We don’t owe any money on our roads right now.

Leahy: And let me just interject. Those are two great things. Don’t raise a gas tax, which, of course, was the big issue that got us started here six years ago at The Tennessee Star. And don’t raise the gas tax and no debt. These are really fiscally smart things to do.

Johnson: When you look at Texas again, they have tens of billions of dollars in bonds that they’ve issued over many years. A big part of their budget goes to pay debt service on roads that were built 10-15 years ago. We don’t have that problem, thankfully, and we don’t want to create that problem here. So what do you do?

Some of the most expensive projects that make up that $26 billion price tag are massive, major improvements to high congestion, and high-capacity interstate facilities. I always use Murfreesboro to Nashville. I 24. Everybody in Middle Tennessee knows what a nightmare that is.

Leahy: That is high traffic. High traffic jammed up every day, every morning.

Johnson: And so to add a lane or to add a couple of lanes would be tremendously expensive. And that’s part of that $26 billion price tag. And so what Texas, Ron DeSantis, and Brian  Kemp have done in Georgia, and there are other states as well, and previous governors in those states is they’ve formed a public-private partnership where you bring in an outside private sector entity. They will come in and build that facility and add that capacity.

Leahy: On their own nickel.

Johnson: On their own nickel, using their money, and they’ll go raise the money through investors, and then we own it. We don’t sell our roads to any other entity. We still own the facility. But in exchange for them paying for the construction of that added capacity, we then give them a long-term lease, like a 50-year plus lease, and then they can monetize that.

And so they can charge people to use that additional capacity, that additional lane, and get a return on their investment. I want to make one thing very clear, Michael. If there is a piece of asphalt on the ground right now in Tennessee, you will never be charged to use it more than what you pay.

Now, in terms of a gas tax, this is only for newly added capacity. Using my example, Murfreesboro to Nashville, you add a lane towards Nashville, you add a lane coming back, or in some cases, it might be just one lane that in the morning goes one way, in the evening it comes the other way. That’s added capacity, that will be a choice lane. So if traffic is bad, a driver can make the decision, and I’m willing to pay $5. I’m willing to pay whatever in order to get on that lane.

Leahy: Let me tell you what I would do. So I’m driving along and let’s say they’ve added this extra lane you got to pay for. And I got an appointment I want to make. I’m just going to tell you, I’m zooming and I’m paying.

Johnson: It’s worth your time. Exactly. For many people. And here’s the thing. For those who don’t want to pay, whatever the charge is, the people who are making that decision are getting off of the existing lanes, creating more space for them. So it’s a win-win.

Leahy: In theory, it makes a lot of sense to me. But I think the devil will be in the details.

Johnson: 100 percent.

Leahy: You could see this being poorly implemented, people’s screaming and yelling about it.

Johnson: Absolutely. There’s a lot of work to be done and a lot of conversations.

Leahy: But in Dallas, I could tell you they’ve done a very good job with this in Dallas.

Johnson: Yes. People love them.

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to The Tennessee Star Reporwith Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Nashville Traffic” by Cheryl A. Austin CC3.0