The 112th Tennessee General Assembly convenes Tuesday, ready to work on the state’s budget and address issues sidelined amid the COVID-19 pandemic response last year.
But that work is being overshadowed by a federal investigation that led to the search of multiple lawmakers’ homes and offices on Friday.
“We’re going to have to go back into session and continue to do what we were elected to do as we go through this investigative process,” Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton said in a press conference Friday.
Sexton represents Cumberland County in the Tennessee House of Representatives.
U.S. Attorney’s Office of Middle Tennessee spokesman David Boling confirmed searches of the homes Rep. Glen Casada, Rep. Robin Smith and former Casada chief of staff Cade Cothren. The office of Rep. Todd Warner was also searched.
“I think this day is a sad day for Tennessee and the General Assembly,” Sexton said. “These are our friends and colleagues that we’ve worked with for many years. It’s important to remember that this is just the start of the investigation and the process and not the end. Today does not necessarily imply guilt.
“I will remain transparent and communicate as more becomes known throughout this process.”
Sexton said he was contacted by federal authorities around the time he was elected speaker in August 2019 regarding an ongoing investigation related to the office of former Speaker of the House Casada.
“I have been and I will continue to be in full cooperation with the authorities as they continue their investigation,” Sexton said.
Sexton said the lawmakers would continue to serve in the General Assembly. Staff members who were part of the investigation will be on paid administrative leave until further notice.
He noted the search warrants were subpoenas and, to date, there were no charges or indictments against any of the lawmakers. As such, he said there were no ethics investigations under way against the lawmakers
Casada served as the Speaker of the House of Representatives from January 2019 until he resigned in August that year amid revelations he exchanged sexually explicit text messages about women with Cothren, his former chief of staff, years ago.
Cothren had resigned amid other controversies, including use of cocaine at a legislative office years before and allegations of doctoring emails to frame a young black activist, which both Cothren and Casada denied.
There were also claims of attempts to buy legislative votes as the House passed a controversial education voucher bill, which Casada has firmly denied.
Casada is a Republican lawmaker representing the 63rd House District, which includes a portion of Williamson County.
Smith, from Hixson, represents the 26th House District in Hamilton County. Warner, from Chapel Hill, represents the 92nd District, which includes Marshall County and parts of Franklin, Lincoln and Marion counties.
A look ahead to the
112th General Assembly
Earlier in the week, Sexton shared a preview of legislative priorities with the Chronicle.
The session begins with a special session devoted to educational concerns, beginning Jan. 19.
“We can all agree that there will be learning loss across the state,” Sexton told the Chronicle. “We’re really worried about the math and reading proficiency levels.”
The ongoing health crisis has disrupted school systems across the state. Cumberland County, like many counties, has offered a virtual learning option this year for students and families who wanted that option. Its in-person learning options depend on the number of active cases in the county, with mostly remote learning in place when active cases exceed 1% of the county’s population.
According to the Tennessee Department of Education, preliminary data projects an estimated 50% decrease in third-grade reading proficiency and a projected 65% decrease in math proficiency statewide.
The state struggled in reading proficiency before the pandemic began, when only one-third of third-grade students were reading on grade level.
Sexton said, “The pandemic has caused considerable disruption for our students, teachers and schools. Our goal is to make sure students are learning in the classroom, teachers have the resources they need, and our students have additional assistance in their educational journeys to improve their chances of success.”
The special session will look at learning loss, educational funding, accountability, literacy and teacher pay. The state plans to implement a new literacy program, Reading 360, using one-time federal relief funding to support a phonics-based reading program statewide. Details on other proposals will be released in the coming days.
Sexton said Basic Education Program funding will be looked at for school systems who have seen a reduction in enrollment. BEP funding is determined using enrollment data.
“And then not allowing test scores to be used this year for teacher evaluations,” he said.
“We’re hopeful the special session will put us on a path, maybe not this academic year, but this summer and next year to not allow kids to fall through the cracks. And to give teachers and schools the resources they need to be successful.”
The General Assembly also sets the state’s budget. Last year, lawmakers cut the budget amid fears the pandemic would lead to a shortfall in state revenues. Most recent reports show the state running 2.5-3% above 2019 figures.
“We’re cautiously optimistic about where we’ll be when January and February numbers come out,” Sexton said.
Teacher pay will be discussed. Cumberland County Board of Education had proposed a 2.5% increase in pay for its employees before changes in the state budget resulted in a $500,000 cut in state funding.
Sexton said, “I think the governor’s plan is to put the state employee and teacher pay raises back in. If the numbers hold, I think they feel confident they can do that.”
From the standpoint of the General Assembly, however, Sexton says the frustration is that the raises they approve are not always reflected in teacher paychecks.
The state makes its raises according to average teacher salaries and the number of positions funded by the complex school funding formula. However, most school systems employ more teachers and staff than considered in the funding formula, often reducing the amount each teacher receives. And, depending on how the funding is delivered, the money could also be used for other things, like paying for benefits.
“We want to make sure the teachers get the raises and the money is not diverted to other uses,” Sexton said. “Last year, Gov. Bill Lee was also looking to increase the starting teacher pay. I’m confident he has that on his radar for this year.”
Other areas that will receive legislative attention this year are health care and criminal justice reform.
Sexton mentioned reform of the Pharmacy Benefit Manager laws that impact consumer drug prices and certificate of need regulations that govern some medical service decisions.
The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services approved the state’s block grant for TennCare on Friday.
State Sen. Paul Bailey, who represents Cumberland County, applauded the move.
“This will give Tennessee the regulatory flexibility we need in order to better serve our citizens and increase quality and access to patient-centered health care in our state,” Bailey said. “I thank Governor Lee and our TennCare officials for a job well done in negotiating this waiver. They have done an excellent job in bringing us a waiver amendment that can be tailored to Tennessee and that will improve health outcomes for our citizens. I also want to thank our bill co-sponsors and legislative staff who worked hard on this legislation. I look forward to working with my colleagues to secure the votes needed for final legislative approval.”
Sexton said he hopes to see criminal justice reform include a truth in sentencing provision. This would require individuals convicted of crimes to serve the entirety of their sentence at 100%.
The state’s gas tax, which was raised in 2017, has been holding steady on revenue, Sexton said. That will support infrastructure investment in the state. Current state road projects in Cumberland County include the widening of Peavine Rd., which is nearing completion, and scheduled road projects on Hwy. 127 N. from Crossville to Fentress County and the Northwest Connector in cooperation with the city of Crossville.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.