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VOL. 43 | NO. 23 | Friday, June 7, 2019

Life after Casada: A ‘kinder, gentler’ TN House

By Kathy Carlson

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House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin, received a vote of non-suppport from the House Republican Caucus last month, leading to his announcement that he would step down from the speakership.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

Tennessee House members can expect a lower-key, collegial atmosphere when they return in January without Glen Casada as their speaker, several members say.

It’s also possible the number of House committees and subcommittees, 43, will return to the pre-Casada level of 28.

But lawmakers might not see much difference in the issues being tackled or in whether their bills are passed, and lobbyists are generally reluctant to talk about what a change in House leadership may mean to them and their clients.

Casada made his resignation official on Tuesday when he sent a letter to House members announcing he was resigning effective Aug. 2.

He also requested in the letter that Gov. Bill Lee call a special House session on that date to elect a new speaker.

Unless a special session is called earlier, Casada will continue to receive his salary as speaker, which is about three times the base salary for state representatives.

Lawmakers and others talked about how the House might operate without him as speaker.

“I think you’re going to see … kinder, gentler handling (of legislative business) on the floor,” says Ken Jobe, press secretary to the House Democratic Caucus. “It doesn’t necessarily mean bills will get passed, but there will be more of an effort to let people speak.”

Some lawmakers struck out in getting bills passed this year, the first year of the 111th General Assembly.

Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, unsuccessfully ran against Casada for the House speakership in 2018. In 2019, Hawk sponsored or was a main co-sponsor on 14 bills; none passed.

Two other Republican lawmakers, Bruce Griffey of Paris and Jerome Moon of Maryville, were unable to get any bills they sponsored passed.

Seven of 25 Democrats in the 99-member House saw none of their bills become law.

By way of comparison, two Republican and three Democratic House members had no bills passed in 2017, the first year of the previous General Assembly. Hawk, two years ago, sponsored or co-sponsored 50 bills. About half were passed.

Hawk says he purposely held back on the bills he introduced this year in anticipation of possible difficulties in getting them passed.

He says he was less concerned with legislation not getting passed and more concerned with what he saw as a “blatant patronage system, which, in my mind, goes back to the Governor Ray Blanton era.”

The atmosphere in the House this year was, “You scratch my back, I scratch yours,” he says. “There’s always been that aspect of politics. It was just in your face every day of every week during the legislative session.”

“No voter – Republican or Democrat – should ever question the effectiveness of their legislator based on internal politics,” says Michael Sullivan, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party. “…We should be focused on doing the people’s business and passing legislation that benefits all Tennesseans.

“One of the most important things that has developed from this is that Republican leadership as a whole saw an issue with a fellow representative … and began addressing the issue almost immediately,” he says. The issues broke just as the legislature ended. Legislators were holding town halls back in their districts, but they also organized a caucus meeting to discuss the issues.

“It was the absolute right process for them to take,” Sullivan says.

“The first step for House leadership will be restoring trust to the office of the speaker and to voters in what the legislature is working on,” he continues.

Hawk says the next speaker should reduce the number of committees and subcommittees to 28, the number under former House Speaker Beth Harwell. More committees mean greater opportunity for hiring staff, part of what Hawk calls a patronage system.

“I’m hoping a resolution comes sooner rather than later” to the question of who is House speaker, Hawk says. “We need to move on.

“The Tennessee legislature and the House has always had its ups and downs; the people’s House will survive. Unfortunately, there has to be a cleansing (of legislature) every so often.”

Casada, a Williamson County Republican, has served in the House since 2001. He was elected speaker in 2018 and began serving in January 2019. Colleagues and lobbyists have praised him for running an efficient and productive first session of the 111th General Assembly.

The House passed two initiatives that were key to Gov. Bill Lee’s agenda and that eventually became law:

• Education savings accounts, a school-choice measure resembling vouchers, passed by a single vote in the House.

• A bill to allow the state to seek block grants for federal matching money that currently provides about 65% of TennCare funding.

But the legislative accomplishments were overshadowed soon after the legislature adjourned with news reports of sexually explicit and racially derogatory text messages from Casada’s then-chief of staff, Cade Cothren, to Casada. Cothren resigned, but additional and unrelated revelations have followed. On May 21, House Republicans delivered a 45-24 vote of no confidence in Casada’s leadership.

Following the secret-ballot vote, Casada said he would resign as speaker at a date to be announced after he was to return earlier this week from a planned vacation. He also said he would continue to serve as a state representative for the rest of his two-year term.

Lee said May 21 he would call a special session of the legislature to remove Casada as speaker if he did not step down. In early June, Lee spokeswoman Laine Arnold said in an email:

“We have had conversations with a number of House members, including the Speaker,” Arnold says.

“Given the Speaker’s clear intent to resign, we have no plans to call a special session at this time.”

Upon Casada’s resignation, House Speaker Pro Tempore Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, becomes speaker until one is elected, either in a special session or when the legislature returns in January.

Dunn says he is interested in running for speaker, as have Reps. Matthew Hill, Cameron Sexton and Mike Carter. Depending on who is elected, other positions in the House Republican leadership may open up.

Jim Brown, the Tennessee state director for the National Federation of Independent Business and a registered lobbyist, says a change in House leadership won’t affect his group.

The NFIB’s political positions are set through continual polling of members, he explains. NFIB has 6,000 independent business owners/members in Tennessee who are polled about once a year.

It also stopped making contributions to political action committees several years ago, although it does make campaign contributions to lawmakers who support NFIB positions.

Key issues for the group involve labor law, workers’ compensation, unemployment compensation, taxation, regulation and finance laws.

Other lobbyists declined comment.

Lawmakers from both parties have called for new procedures and greater opportunity for all viewpoints to be heard in the House.

“There’s a whole lot of people who are going to speak up in the House for new procedures,” says Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis.

The new House speaker needs to adopt a process in which all members are recognized and heard in committee, she adds. Under previous speakers, she continues, people were able to be heard, even if their proposals never gained support or votes.

The dynamics of running the Senate differ from those in the House, in part because the Senate has 33 members, compared with 99 in the House. Some limits, such as on how long a member may speak, are appropriate for the House, but everyone should be able to have their concerns heard, she says.

In the Senate, Kyle says, “I’ve always been allowed to speak to my issues, always.”

Rep. Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, says a new speaker will help get more bills out of committee and onto the House floor.

He says he would like a speaker who is “someone we don’t feel is trying to overshadow us, to look over our shoulders, to monitor what we’re doing.” He says he wants a calmer atmosphere, more trust and more confidence.

A representative for the National Conference of State Legislatures talked about the bigger picture.

“As you can imagine, change, at any level is always constant in the legislative environment. The legislative institution is built to sustain change and has proven time and time again to remain stable during that time,” says Mick Bullock, director of public affairs with the NCSL.

“NCSL encourages all leaders to share best practices with one another, but through our research and relationships we have gathered the following advice: New leaders should pay special attention to listening – to their caucus, their chamber, other leaders and their constituents. Communication is key at this stage – ensuring the path forward is communicated well and wide – do this by setting a vision.

“Lastly, to ease any tension and make the transition smooth, the best advice we can offer is to seek solutions – within your own caucus, across party lines, and within your own leadership team.’’

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