Live from Music Row Thursday 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 former Tennessee Speaker Beth Harwell in studio to talk about her background and weighs in on the Texas Democrats that fled their legislative duties.
Leahy: We are delighted to welcome to our microphones the former Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, Beth Harwell. Good morning, Beth.
Harwell: Good morning! Good to be with you this morning.
Leahy: Well, it’s great to be with you as well. And, you know, we were talking a little bit off-air about this. One of the things that we’ve tried to do with this program is to bring state legislators in and to kind of talk to them, get to know them, and learn kind of what their motivations are.
One of the things that are interesting is when we started this, we have a particular ideology that we promote. And there were a couple of contentious issues.
And we know that some of them were moderate members of the House and the state Senate. We kind of took exception to some of our reporting.
But what we found is many of those people we’ve had in studio here, and we’ve got to know them and talk to them about it, and it’s very interesting because once you get to know somebody well – you probably know this from your long record in public service – you just sort of understand their motivations and you don’t get focused so much on the ideological differences. And so we found it very interesting to talk to these legislators.
Harwell: And I just wanted to thank you for that. I reached out to you just to say thank you for covering state government so well and including state legislators.
At the bottom of the day, state and local government impact your life within the federal government. We may not realize that, but it’s certainly true.
And I’m just pleased to see that we have a strong state legislature that’s doing its job and commend you for covering them.
Leahy: The greatest state in the United States of America, beyond a doubt, is Tennessee.
Harwell: You got it.
Leahy: It really is.
Harwell: It is. You understand that. You see all these people moving here, there’s a reason.
Leahy: Who wouldn’t want to live in Tennessee?
Harwell: That’s right.
Leahy: I mean really, no state income taxes, nice people, a good business environment, and a state legislature that is not full-time.
Harwell: That’s correct. I think that’s really refreshing. You hear so much from people in Washington who come and say to you that they’re visiting in their district. (Leahy chuckles)
Well, my legislators don’t visit in their districts, they live in their districts. They go to church with their fellow citizens. They are members of exchange clubs and Rotary Clubs, so they’re involved in their community.
And I think that makes a tremendous difference. And the other vital thing to realize is that they live under the laws that they pass for everyone else. And that’s a great thing.
Leahy: Just as an aside as a former speaker of the Tennessee House, what’s your reaction to this, this is my term, not yours, the flea baggers, 67 Democrat members of the Texas House of Representatives, who when the governor called a special session to address election integrity bills, instead of participating in that, these 67 Democratic state legislators got in two chartered private planes not wearing their masks – a violation of numerous FAA rules and regulations, I believe.
And then they flew off to Washington, D.C. so that the Texas House of Representatives now does not have a quorum and can’t conduct business.
As a former speaker of the House of Representatives in Tennessee, how do you react to that?
Harwell: Well, it angers me. It truly angers me. And I absolutely agree that when they return home, they should be arrested.
They have a responsibility. If they don’t want to live up to that responsibility, you don’t run for office. But at the state legislative level, you have to be in attendance for the legislature to conduct its business.
And that’s totally unacceptable for them to have walked off. And it was just a publicity stunt. What was the point in going to Washington, D.C.?
Leahy: To have lunch with Kamala Harris apparently.
Harwell: Yes, apparently so.
Leahy: As I say, the legal but not legitimate vice president of the United States. My words, not yours. Beth, it’s interesting about this.
I saw that Governor Abbott, who is a pretty clever guy, said if we do these special sessions, I call them in 30 days, and if they’re not here and the 30 days is over,
I’m going to call another special session until the election of 2022. Apparently, these Texas Democrats may be outside the state for some time.
Harwell: For some time, yes. And, you know, it’s kind of a shame because they’re not even living up to their responsibility as the minority party.
As the minority party, you have a responsibility to try to make legislation better, to give your input. And they’re not doing that.
And now I’m a big believer in strong elections and strong controls on elections. And I think anyone that believes in fair democracy will believe that’s a good idea.
So I’m supportive of what the Tennessee legislature is wanting to do. But even if I wasn’t, I feel like I’d have a responsibility to sit at the table and try to help.
Leahy: During your time in the Tennessee House of Representatives, do you recall ever any members of the House of Representatives while you were a regular member or while you were a speaker, running away from their duty?
Harwell: I don’t. Now they came close during the agonizing state income tax.
Leahy: The agonizing state income tax back in 1999 to 2002. (Laughs)
Harwell: But we stayed and we worked it out. But there were some threats during that time. But during my tenure, I don’t recall any of that.
And by the way, I have to say on that note, you mentioned it earlier, we can be very proud that we don’t have state income taxes.
And one of my major goals when I became speaker was to eliminate the haul income tax. Because until we did that, we still technically had a state income tax.
Leahy: And tell our listeners what the haul income tax is – and I’m gonna say this – what it was.
Harwell: Yes. What it was. Which is a beautiful word.
Leahy: That’s a beautiful phrase.
Harwell: Yes. What it was. Well, it was a tax on dividends. And it really hurt working people because they save their money all these years.
And then when they came to retire, they had to pay this tremendous haul income tax – was a real incentive for people to move their assets to Florida. And we knew that we were losing people because of that.
Leahy: Of course. People are logical and rational.
Harwell: Right. But what I respected was we figured out a way to phase it out over a number of years so that the state budget was not harmed at the time.
We were not flooded with money the way they are now. So we did it in a very fiscally responsible way. But to eliminate a tax when you have the ability, that’s a wonderful thing.
Leahy: I should know this, Beth, but I’ll just ask you here on air, where are you from originally?
Harwell: Originally, I’m from Pennsylvania. I grew up there. But I came to Tennessee in 1974 to attend David Lipscomb University.
Leahy: David Lipscomb. Did you go to Lipscomb?
Harwell: Yeah. Went there for four years. Loved it.
Leahy: No kidding? Are you Church of Christ?
Harwell: Yes. I was raised Church of Christ. And in Pennsylvania, there are not many of them.
Leahy: No, they’re not. Well, we have something in common. I’m also a Church of Christ.
Harwell: I didn’t realize that.
Leahy: Converted just before I married my lovely wife, who’s from Texas. And, of course, as you know, the Church of Christ is centered in Tennessee and Texas.
Harwell: And Texas. Right. I had a sister who went to Abilene Christian.
Leahy: My lovely wife went to Abilene Christian. My daughter went to wait for it … Pepperdine.
Harwell: Pepperdine! Okay.
Leahy: Which is technically Church of Christ.
Harwell: It’s Church of Christ.
Leahy: But it’s in Malibu.
Harwell: My other sister went to Harding. So we’ve got all the Church of Christ covered this morning.
Leahy: Absolutely. In Searcy, Arkansas. Lots of people in Nashville went to Harding.
Listen to the full second hour here:
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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 “Texas Democrats” by Dan Patrick.
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 TN (R) Senator Paul Bailey to the newsmakers line.
At the top of the second hour, Bailey discussed plans for the upcoming special session which would revisit education options for students and offering a potential summer session while managing budget expectations. He also outlined plans for TennCare and Medicaid ensuring that people currently served would not suffer any reduction in services.
Leahy: We are joined now by State Senator Paul Bailey who is the chairman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. Welcome, Senator Bailey.
Bailey: Well, thank you very much for having me this morning Michael Patrick.
Leahy: Well, we’re delighted to have you on here Senator Bailey. And I just have to say your official portrait at the Tennessee General Assembly is just is fantastic. (Bailey chuckles) You’ve got a cowboy hat on and you just you know, you look great. (Chuckles)
Bailey: Well, thank you. You know most people know back in the district that that my family and I we ride and show quarter horses. So I just thought it would be kind of a different look and I’d stand out above all the rest if I had my cowboy hat on in my official state photo.
Leahy: Well, officially we like the look Senator Bailey. So that’s great.
Bailey: Well thank you.
Leahy: That’s a good move on your part. So that as Chairman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee you have a very important job in the state senate. And there are only 33 members of the state senate. I think what is it this time? Is it 27 Republicans and six Democrats this time I think?
Bailey: Yes, sir. That is correct. We did lose a member from Davidson County. Steve Dickerson a Republican member so that moved our number from 28 down to 27.
Leahy: So the General Assembly convened yesterday and I guess this week it’s mostly an organizational activity going on. And then next Tuesday you will convene in a special session to deal with education issues do I have that right?
Bailey: Yes, you do. Now, let me say this week we’re also going to tackle passing a resolution to accept a block grant offer from CMS in regards to TennCare. Back in 2019, I carried legislation sent to CMS to revitalize their TennCare system through a block grant. We were the first state in the nation to actually apply for the block grant.
The Trump administration is offering this to us. And so we are trying to get a resolution passed by the end of this week. So we may go through into Friday to get this done. So everyone knows that unfortunately, Trump’s going to be leaving on the 20th. So we have to have this resubmitted to his administration to Seema Verma who is the CMS director for approval and that’s huge news for the state of Tennessee.
Leahy: And it looks like a little curveball has been thrown it seems to me. Again I’m just reading the news and perhaps get your reaction to this. So Jim Cooper the representative from the Nashville area in the House of Representatives apparently has sent a letter calling on President-elect Biden to cancel this block grant. Have you seen that?
Bailey: Yes, I have heard that. And so here’s the thing. Tennessee’s current TennCare waiver and Medicaid waiver is due to renew on June 30 of this year in 2021. We will be negotiating with CMS for a new waiver regardless. So this is a new innovative idea that we work with Senator Alexander’s office. We work with the TennCare folks. We work with a whole host of people putting this block grant together.
If we’re allowed to do this, there’s absolutely no reduction of people currently served. And that’s one of the things that Jim Cooper and some of my Democratic colleagues will tell you that we’re going to throw people off. That’s absolutely not true. There’s no reduction in people served. There’s no reduction in benefits. There’s no reduction in provider rates. And there’s no reduction to the quality of care that they’ll get.
The idea behind the block grant is it’ll give us the ability to actually address broad. It’ll also give us the ability to restructure benefit packages to better cover the people that we currently serve. And also revitalize the pharmacy program. But here’s the big thing in this Michael Patrick. We will be able to share 50 percent in the savings that we’ve been sending back to Washington without another Tennessee taxpayer dollar being spent.
And when I say that there’s currently a budget neutrality cap. And we’ve been far below that within our Medicaid program for several years now. And this new block grant program will allow us to share in 50 percent of that cost savings and that’s where we’ll be able to administer a more efficient program.
Leahy: State Senator Bailey, what can we expect in the special session on education that starts next week?
Bailey: Well, basically the governor is focusing on learning laws, literacy, and also to work towards making sure local school districts and your local counties know that they will have the same budgeting formula, which is called the BEP formula to address, you know, their next upcoming school year which will be the ’21-’22 school year and teacher pay.
So what we’ve seen is that since this pandemic a lot of school districts are not doing in-person learning. We’ve seen a big decrease in our proficiency rates. And also you know our literacy of our third and fourth graders who are just not proficient in reading as they should be and math. So there’s going to be an offer for a summer program. It’ll be permissible by the state to the local school districts so if they choose to do this they can. And then of course basically focusing on teacher pay.
Leahy: So those are the two pieces of legislation you expect. When you say focusing on teacher pay, will this be an attempt to provide more pay for teachers?
Bailey: Yes, it will be.
Leahy: And then the second thing would be funding for summer programs?
Bailey: Summer programs. Exactly. And then of course the big piece is that legislators have been hearing from their school districts basically saying what do we need to expect in our BEP formula for the next school year? Because it’s all based on attendance. In-person attendance. And that’s the way Tennessee funds our school systems. And so when you’ve been and virtual learning and you’ve not actually been in attendance at the school, then school districts have gotten concerned that they are not going to be receiving the same amount of funding that they have been in previous years when students were actually doing in-person learning.
So they’re just wanting to know that they’re going to be able to receive at least the same amount of funding that they had been given in our last budget moving forward into the ’21-’22 budget because we assume that all districts should be back to in-person learning. I mean, I think that’s one of the biggest travesties that we’ve seen is these school districts have not gotten these students back in class and learning in class. And I just think that every school district in the state of Tennessee should have their students back in in-person learning.
Leahy: Senator Bailey, how long do you expect the special session to last? Then when would you go back into the regular session of the Tennessee General Assembly?
Bailey: Well again, there’s no set in date. The start date will be next Tuesday. There’s no said end date. I assume that we will finish it up by Thursday or Friday of next week. I can’t guarantee that. It could flow over into the following week. It just depends on how fast the committee system can work. It’ll be in the education committee and then it’ll move through finance and then ultimately to the floor. We may get all of this done next week because during the special session that’s the only legislation that will be being heard in committee.
And so it’ll be totally focused on that. So if they need to meet Tuesday, Wednesday Thursday through the committee process, they’ll do that and then go to the floor on Friday to vote. That’s what we’ll do. Or we may come back on Monday. But I’m assuming that it will be the same as this week and we’ll be asked to keep our calendar open for next Friday so that if we end up having to go to the floor and vote on this final proposal that’s coming out of committee system that’s what we’ll do.
Leahy: To your knowledge, has when was the last time that a General Session of the Tennessee General Assembly, a regular session was interrupted in the middle by a special session?
Bailey: When Governor Haslam was proposing expanding the Medicaid program during his second term. Which would have been about six years ago. That was the last time that I remember when we came into session that we immediately went into a special session.
Leahy: Interesting. I had forgotten about that. And how effective was that special session back then?
Bailey: Well, obviously it went on for a week and ultimately his proposal hunted make it out of the first committee and the Senate. So it was pretty much dead on arrival there. And so the session ended in about three days, I believe the special session for the Medicaid.
Leahy: Do you have an expectation that this special session will be different? And that the legislation will move forward to completion during the special session?
Bailey: Yes, I do because education is something that the legislature deals with annually. It’s a huge part of the state budget and we’re just trying to make sure that our school districts understand that they’re going to be receiving their funding for their ’21-22′ school year. We want to make sure that we’re addressing the literacy programs that the governor is proposing to the general assembly.
So I expect this to be totally different I expect that lawmakers will get in there. They’ll work through the minutiae. Which again education is minutiae to me. But they’ll work through and make sure that we have legislation that will be passed and that way it’ll give our school districts and their children and frankly their moms and dads comfort in knowing that they’ll have a good education system moving forward.
Leahy: If this had been addressed as part of the regular session of the Tennessee General Assembly whatever the past would have happened that would have taken place when typically by April as opposed to January?
Bailey: Yes, sir. And that’s the thing. So a lot of counties are working on their budget as well as the school districts. And so they’re up against a deadline. And so they’re needing to know whether or not they would have to adjust their local budgets for any reduction in state funding. So that’s another reason that we wanted to go ahead and address this early so that your local governments have some comfort there in knowing that the state is going to continue to fund our schools in a way that they needed to be funded.
Leahy: So it sounds like the governor’s thinking was are these school districts around the state having planning problems because they don’t know what the revenues are going to be. If we just address this in the regular session and they don’t find that out till April it will make the fall a lot more difficult for them to plan for it. Is that the rationale then for the special session?
Bailey: Yes sir. I think so.
Leahy: Well good. You seem to be optimistic that it will in the in a couple of weeks yield the legislation that the governor seeking?
Bailey: I think so. Obviously, this is the governor’s special session. He is going to be presenting his proposed legislation. This is not the legislators’ legislation until it comes into the committee system. And then we ultimately pass it. There will be tweaks to it. There will be you know, legislators will get in and they’ll put their fingerprints on it.
And we’ll be hearing from our local school districts as far as whether or not they think that this is a good program and what they would like to maybe see changed. I can tell you that my local school districts back in the Upper Cumberland are very optimistic about what the governor’s proposing. And they’re looking forward to seeing exactly what we pass.
Leahy: You know, I think it’s been very helpful to our listeners to explain the rationale here for this and it makes sense as you explain it in terms of the timing. One last question on education. Do you anticipate during this special session any attempt to revisit the Education Savings Account or voucher bills at all that is currently in litigation?
Bailey: Well, I’m not 100 percent sure. And I think the keyword that you’ve mentioned is the litigation and what just took place in there unfortunately in the House of Representatives this past Friday. We’re not all 100 percent sure that they were just there to raid those offices.
Listen to the full second hour here:
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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.