Live from Music Row Friday 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 Speaker Cameron Sexton to the newsmaker line.
During the third hour, Sexton explained his letter recently sent to the Tennessee General Assembly which agreed with Governor Lee’s decision not to send the city of Nashville a requested 89 million dollars. He added that they want to see how the pandemic money the city has received has been spent asking for transparency and accountability.
Leahy: We are delighted to have as our special guest, Tennessee Speaker of the House of Representatives Cameron Sexton. Good morning Speaker Sexton.
Sexton: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
Leahy: So we just got a copy of a very important letter that you have sent along with other members of the Tennessee General Assembly. Tell us what that letter is and what you want to have accomplished.
Sexton: Yeah, so it’s a letter signed by all house Republican leadership and what it is is us agreeing with the Governor Lee’s decision not to send an additional 89 million dollars over to the City of Nashville. We’re asking the Comptroller for a thorough review of all the federal CARES Act money that has come into Metro Nashville as well as state money that has come into Metro Nashville to help them during this pandemic.
And we want to understand how it was spent and if it was spent. We want more transparency and some accountability. And we don’t think that Tennessee should be writing blank checks to anybody and just letting them use the money how they want. So we’re asking for a thorough review from the Comptroller to really dig into Metro and see if they are using the federal CARES Act money and sort of how the state has used it.
Leahy: Well, they’ve been a lot of reporting about the problems of transparency and Metro Nashville government. What specifically brought this need to your attention?
Sexton: Well Metro Nashville has received over a hundred twenty $121 million of federal money already. The states have given them, we give them an additional $10 million, and then they turn around not too long ago last week and asked Governor Lee for an additional $89 million, which puts it over $200 almost to $250 million. And they’re requesting an additional revenue at the same time.
And that they’re trying to raise taxes by 34% to take in more additional revenue. And so what we’re saying is they’ve had years of mismanagement. This isn’t just the Mayor Cooper issue. This goes back a long time. And so Tennessee is in a very good spot financially and so we’re asking what seems to be the issue with inside Metro and why are they in the situation? And what we want to accountability on how they’ve been spending this federal money that they are requesting now.
Carmichael: If your letter doesn’t accomplish your goal, can you offer legislation to we can do a vote to get to the bottom of it first?
Sexton: Yeah. The first is the review I feel confident that the Comptroller will have some information within two weeks. As we get that information back if we need to go in and do a comprehensive audit have the Comptroller do that then we can do that as well. So that’s still an option. And then we can go back and when we get back in January and that gives us time to think about other things that we may have to do.
But you know the state of Tennessee over the last 10 years under Republican control has prepared ourselves for something like this. We didn’t know it’s a pandemic, but we’re very well off financially. If the federal money that we got we went straight to help businesses all across our state and to help families. And I’m not sure what Metro Nashville did with their money.
Leahy: Well is that’s the issue, isn’t it? I don’t think there’s been a lot of apparent reporting on what they did with their money.
Carmichael: What if the Comptroller came back and said they used it to make payroll. Is that okay?
Sexton: Well, I think we’ll have to see what kind of discretion they had the money supposed to be used for COVID related expenses. I think what a lot of cities and states that are more tax and spend areas are doing is they’re holding their money and waiting to see if President Trump wins.
And then if he if they get who they want, which is Biden and Harris and then they’re going to spend their money any way they want to and no there are no ramifications for going outside. So that’s one of the things we’re looking at which is how much do they still have left to spend and are they holding it waiting for the outcome of an election. We don’t know any of that information until we have the Comptroller. I’m confident that Justin P. Wilson will give us the details that we need.
Carmichael: That’s interesting.
Leahy: That’s a that’s a very important point. I hadn’t thought about that Speaker Sexton. But it makes perfect sense in terms of you know if you watch how Democrat-run cities and states operate that’s very consistent with their pattern of operation.
Let’s talk a little bit about the Comptroller, Justin Wilson. He’s been there for a long time. Everyone I talked to everyone all of our reporting gives him the highest marks for honesty and integrity would you say he’s probably the one of the best comptroller’s of any state in the country?
Sexton: Absolutely, and I’ll go even farther. I think all three of our constitutional officers are better than anybody else in America. You know, we if you want to talk about Justin P. Wilson, you know, I think he understands it and if you’ve seen what his department has done when he became Comptroller and holding all these local governments accountable through their auditing system and really going back and putting some parameters on these local governments to live within a certain budgeting mechanism. Because in the end, we don’t want these cities and counties to fail. Justin P. Wilson takes that job very seriously as well as corruption and that sometimes that happens inside of those halls of misuse of money.
Carmichael: I want to ask you a question on a related subject. But it’s not exactly on one point what you’re talking about. But here in Metro Nashville our mayor has shut down the schools essentially saying it’s going to be virtual learning. We now are getting reports that the children are suffering tremendously in their education, especially lower-income kids. President Trump says it getting a quality education is the Civil Rights issue of our time.
What can the state legislature do to let lower incomes to essentially take, you know, take the power that the teachers’ unions, which the teachers’ unions to me are the biggest problem we have in education and especially for lower-income kids? What can the state legislature do to essentially take away the power? Can the state just say that they’ll be no teachers unions in Tennessee at that if it’s so deemed that to be appropriate?
Sexton: I mean, theoretically you can pass a law to do whatever you want and the courts will determine if it’s constitutional and if someone challenges it. So so the answer to your question is yes. That’s a possibility. I will say that we have been doing is working with Governor Lee and his staff with the house leadership and House Education people as well with the Senate side to really try to figure out our education issue.
Because you know as Governor Lee mentioned the other day talking about the potential of dropped attainment levels across their state due to kids not being in school. I totally agree with Governor lie that the number one issue is schools need to be open and kids need to be in the classroom.
You know the other thing we’re talking about in that around is about BEP formula and in about how we fund the schools. You know, I mean schools aren’t open the question that a lot of our members have is if they’re not open should they receive those BEP funds.
If schools are doing more virtual learning than in-classroom learning should they get the same amount in the BEP for not being in the classroom and being virtual? Because that’s a lower-cost area because you don’t have to transport people. You don’t have meals at school. So it’s a lower-cost alternative.
Sexton: So we’re looking kind of everything at this point. We’re entering those discussions. and we’re hopeful over the next several weeks that will be able to come out and have some very firm ideas on how we’re going to progress in the spring semester next year.
Carmichael: Oh, I’m hoping that the goal of all of this is is to come up with legislation to give low-income parents more choice. at the end of the day more choice and better schools. Because if the government is operating a terrible government-run school then low-income parents need to have alternatives then sending their children to those kinds of schools.
I also would hope that that part of the process is looking into how money is spent in our school systems. This could be across the state, that is not spent in the classrooms. because there’s the stuff I read that generally speaking is that across the country now, there’s in metropolitan cities, there’s more than one non-teacher employee for every teacher employee more than one.
And so the amount of money we’re spending is ballooning upwards. the actual teacher may not be keeping pace because we’ve added so much bureaucracy and you can’t pay non-teachers that you just can’t pay teachers and fund all the waste. And so I’m just hoping because the lower-income kids need a shot. And they’re not getting a shot under the current system. I’m concerned that the approach of virtual learning is clearly not benefiting kids.
Sexton: Right. Yeah, I don’t mean to cut you off. I think I think there are aspects of virtual learning that you can do whether it’s one-on-one tutoring or reading comprehension help. But I think there are certain aspects that you could use but putting a kindergartener on the computer for five hours a day is not an option that’s going to be successful.
Leahy: Not a good plan. Speaker Sexton. Let me ask you this, has Comptroller Wilson responded to your letter yet?
Sexton: Well, we worked with him over the last couple of days to let them know him and chase them on power to understand what direction we were asking. So we’ve been in consulting with them. We sent it to him last night. So yes, we’ve been in conversation and they know.
Leahy: And if that happens when would you get it back to review it?
Sexton: We’re hoping to have it back in about two weeks and audit would take longer obviously. So we went with a thorough review first and then let the option open for an audit
Leahy: Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, thanks so much for joining us today on the Tennessee Star Report, and please come back and tell us what the results of that review are.
Sexton: Absolutely. Thank you and you all have a great weekend.
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Photo “Tennessee Capitol” by Ken Lund CC BY-SA 2.0