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 TN State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson to the studio.
During the second hour, state Senator Johnson discussed his role as Senate Majority Leader in relation to Governor Lee and how it’s slightly changed during the pandemic.
Leahy: We are delighted to have in studio with us our good friend state Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson. Good morning, Jack.
Johnson: Good morning. Michael good to be back with you.
Leahy: We are always delighted to have you on here. Your next career could easily be radio host. Right? You’ve done a lot of radio work.
Johnson: Well, I did, you know, I when I was in high school, I worked for our little AM radio station in this little small town of Burnet, Texas.
Leahy: Burnet, Texas. Where is Burnet, Texas, Jack?
Johnson: This is about 50 miles northwest of Austin. And yeah, so about population probably about 5,000 people. And there was a little AM country music radio station that I talked my way into getting a job there when I was about 14 years old. (Leahy chuckles) And I had a great time and great experience there and work there off and on throughout high school and in college.
And you know, you do it. So I think it did help maybe it was some of my developing some of my communication skills and learning to read and articulate and do those things. I love radio. I’ve always enjoyed it. Big fan of talk radio, music radio, and all of it. So so I always enjoy being in here with you.
Leahy: I always loved radio as well and my feeling is that a long-form talk radio program where you can have a guest in the studio is the very best way to communicate and have an interesting dialogue. Television to me, A, first you got to look pretty right. Yeah, which is at five o’clock in the morning very difficult.
Johnson: Challenging for anyone. It’s challenging. Yeah, it’s challenging for us anytime
Leahy: You said that right and then you’ve got like, you know two minutes and there’s no follow-up. And so I don’t like that. and of course, you know, the old saying is Well, you got a face for radio. And I think I do this morning at least. So we’re delighted to have you. What is going on in the country today Jack?
Johnson: I tell you the world it just seems as is upside down. And just when you think it cannot get more bizarre something else happens. Whether it’s the president being diagnosed with COVID-19 which is the latest thing I guess that’s kind of rocked the country. And thankfully it appears he’s doing well and on his way to a speedy recovery. I’ll be glad when 2020 is behind us.
Leahy: Isn’t that the theme of everyone?
Johnson: It really is and I just hope and pray and I believe and I’m optimistic that ’21 is going to be a much better year. And maybe we can try to start getting back to where we were before. And I’ll tell you on the state level and hopefully, we’ll have a chance to talk about it. Thankfully, you know, literally, I remember talking to rotary clubs and chamber groups and civic organizations back in December, January, and February of last year before this all happened about the incredible condition that the state of Tennessee was in absolutely the best fiscal condition we’ve ever been in. And I look back on that now with such gratitude because it has really put Tennessee in a good position to weather this storm and we are coming out of it from an economic standpoint. It would be helpful if Nashville would expedite its efforts.
Leahy: That’s a very kind way of putting it. I have been a little bit more direct but you’ve heard.
Johnson: Yes. I’ve heard. It would be helpful. The governor said so as well. But the reason I say that is because I’m so excited and anxious for Tennessee to get back. You know in February this year we had the lowest unemployment rate ever recorded for the state of Tennessee. More money in our savings account than we’ve ever had.
And so yes, we’ve taken a hit as every local government and state government has and the country has but I think that our impact has been minimal. It has been less than other states like California, New York, and New Jersey so we’re well-positioned to come out of it. So again, getting 2020 behind us and looking forward to a great 2021, which will hopefully get started here very soon.
Leahy: It’s hard to imagine how 2021 could be worse than in 2020. But you know, we didn’t anticipate 2020 would be so awful.
Johnson: No, we didn’t. We had no idea. And yeah and I don’t want to take anything for granted but I’m hopeful and prayerful that we’re going to turn a leaf here.
Leahy: Tell me a little bit about the job of the Senate Majority Leader state Senate. That’s a big job actually and it’s an important job historically here in Tennessee. Now, we’re not in session. What does your job entail when we’re not in session?
Johnson: Sure. That’s a great question. And I love kind of educating people about it because there is so much fixation and news coverage and discussions about Washington and how dysfunctional Washington is. And it is. I have no disagreement with any of that. But our state government works differently. And it’s important for Tennesseans to understand that we truly have what is referred to as a citizen part-time legislature.
And we’re actually in session meaning we are going to the Capitol every day and working on legislation and the budget and doing those things. That’s only about three to four months out of the year. There’s no set time. we can take as long as necessary. We convene on the second Tuesday of every year in January.
Second Tuesday in January. That’s in the Constitution. And that’s when we start our legislative session. And we typically wrap up late April early May. And so that’s when we’re really busy and focusing on the business of the state. During that time my role as Majority Leader is to effectively be the governor’s sponsor if you will of the governor’s legislative package. So if the governor has a legislative package that he wants to get passed. And he obviously runs the executive branch.
Leahy: You’re in the legislative branch.
Johnson: That’s right.
Leahy: But if he has an agenda and he wants to have the legislature look at it obviously, you’ve got the House. The lower chamber with 99 members. And then the Senate with a true 33 members, right? So you’re the guy that works with the governor then to introduce his agenda into the Senate.
Johnson: That’s right. And and and so we work very closely with the administration. And of course, it’s the governor and all the various department heads and that and that type of thing. And I’m there not just to be the governor’s yes man to be very clear. We do have separation of powers and that’s very important. We are the legislative branch. He’s the executive branch. and I’m a big fan of Governor Lee. And we’re very very good friends.
But it’s also it’s my responsibility to try to advance his legislative agenda as best I can. It’s also my responsibility to come back and say hey, I think we’re going to have an issue here. I’m not sure we can get this done. And so I work with our committee chairman and our members in the Senate to work through that. And perhaps the governor wants to get something done. But we need to tweak it or massage it a little bit before we can get it passed through the chamber. And and and by the way my good friend William Lamberth, I know you know William.
Leahy: Yes. And he’s a William and Mary graduate. My daughter went to William and Mary.
Johnson: Yes, and he is my counterpart in the house. He is the House Majority Leader. So I work very closely with him. There might be something that he can get passed in the House but I have trouble in the Senate or vice versa. So it’s that that that whole process there. So that’s kind of doing the legislative session.
And then when we’re out of session as we are now, we’re still meeting and talking about the upcoming session about what we want to get done. We’re in a unique situation right now because of the COVID situation and the financial impact it had on the state. We’ve had to make some significant cuts to our budget because we have to maintain a balanced budget, unlike Washington, our budget is truly balanced.
Leahy: Is that a constitutional requirement?
Johnson: Yes it is. It has to be balanced. And so we gave the executive branch at the governor’s office some broad authority to make cuts across state government. Even though we’re not in session there’s a lot of communication and and and and working together with the administration to make those cuts. And of course, right now I’m traveling the state. I’ve been all over the state recently and will continue for the next 26 days supporting our members who are up for re-election this year.
Leahy: That’s right and you focus mostly on the Senate side right now.
Johnson: That’s correct.
Leahy: What’s going on out there? What what are you finding out as you’re going out? Is it twenty-eight to five right now? 28 Republicans and five Democrats.
Johnson: That’s correct.
Leahy: So when you go out and talk, is there any indication here in Tennessee that there will be any significant changes from that mix in the state Senate.
Johnson: Really not. we have a couple of races that we’re watching very closely. But we feel very good that will hold our 28. People ask can you get 29 and the answer is really no. There are three Democrats that are in the Shelby County and in the Memphis area and two in the Nashville area. And so our target is to hold our 28 to five Republican supermajority. And I believe we’ll be able to do so. And let me just say and it probably won’t surprise you, Michael, there is enormous enthusiasm across this state for President Trump. (Laughs) It is off the charts.
Leahy: Is it off the charts? Obviously, these people haven’t been reading the polls.
Johnson: As it stands today, I really believe President Trump will not only meet but will surpass the numbers that he got for last year.
Leahy: Last year he won. I think 60-36 by about 24 points in Tennessee.
Johnson: It’s anecdotal. Yeah, but I tell you the enthusiasm is so incredible out there. It’s just very exciting.
Listen to the full second hour here:
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