The week in politics: Youth commission on way to renewal after failed Gov. Bill Lee-backed bid to dissolve it

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A General Assembly subcommittee this week recommended extending the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth for another four years, just months after a Gov. Bill Lee-backed bill to dissolve the commission shocked the juvenile advocacy community in the state.

The Joint Government Operations subcommittee voted on the recommendation on Tuesday, opting to extend the commission that focuses on child welfare and houses several other functions, such as oversight to the Department of Children's Services.

A Republican-backed bill to dissolve the commission arose suddenly in March, sparking widespread alarm among child advocacy groups amid accusations that it was a retaliatory measure directed by Lee's office after TCCY released an annual report finding Tennessee foster kids experience the highest levels of instability in U.S.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, quickly backed off the bill amid pushback from stakeholders in the child advocacy community, who argued the commission provides important cross-agency coordination of resources in service of Tennessee children. Johnson at the time said he and other lawmakers still had concerns about a "lack of accountability to taxpayers through the legislative oversight process."

Camper, Ragan sound off on military appointment issue

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, and House Minority Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis, have waded into an ongoing national political issue over U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville's, R-Ala., and his ongoing blockade of hundreds of military nominations. Tuberville objects to a Pentagon health care policy that covers the costs of traveling to obtain an abortion or other reproductive health care for military members.

Ragan, a veteran, earlier this month wrote to Tennessee's U.S. Sens. Martha Blackburn and Bill Hagarty requesting they support an elimination of the “military’s funding of travel and other expenses for military members to obtain abortions.”

Ragan called the policy a "worthless 'woke-ism.'"

"In summary, I am specifically requesting your support for elimination of the military’s funding of travel and other expenses for military members to obtain abortions," Ragan wrote. "Moreover, in general, please require the services to abandon the current, 'politically correct,' crusade for 'woke-ness.'"

Camper, also a military veteran, sharply criticized Ragan's letter in a lengthy statement.

“I am shocked by the level of vitriol and carelessness for the men and women in uniform expressed in this letter,” Camper said. “As a woman, as a veteran, and as a member of this General Assembly for many years, I have seen harmful and dangerous political posturing, but this is beyond the pale. For Rep. Ragan to write a letter encouraging the federal government to not allow placement of career military officials, who have no role in politics, is reprehensible. Even Tuberville’s own leader, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has said it is wrong and a mistake!”

Some Republicans have criticized the logjam, including former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, GOP presidential candidate, who said military families should not be used as "political pawns."

August revenues drop in new fiscal year

State revenue in August came in under budgeted estimates, the Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration reported.

August revenues reached $1.5 billion, $39.4 million less than budgeted. But the revenue figure was about the same as August 2022.

Commissioner Jim Bryson said the new fiscal year has been "a challenge" but the state remains "cautiously optimistic."

“As anticipated, August revenues were slightly lower than budgeted estimates but were generally level with receipts received in August 2022,” Bryson said. “Sales and use tax revenues, reflecting consumer activity from the month of July, outperformed estimates and continue to reflect strong growth for the state. Corporate tax revenues for August, a small collection month, were lower than estimated due to a $15 million one-time tax refund and lower quarterly estimated payments. Also, privilege tax collections continue to remain under pressure as high interest rates persist, subduing realty transfer and realty mortgage tax collections.

Democratic leaders to visit White House for gun office announcement

Top Democrats from Tennessee will visit the White House on Friday, as President Joe Biden is expected to announce a new federal office to focus on preventing gun violence.

Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, House Minority Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis, and Rep. Harold Love Jr., D-Nashville, will all attend.

“For a decade, Tennessee’s controlling party has made it easier for criminals to get guns and shootings have skyrocketed,” Akbari and Love said in a joint statement. “After a crushing state special session on gun violence where no action was taken, this announcement is welcome news for Tennesseans who want new approaches to stop future shootings.”

The office is expected to advocate for new laws focused on preventing gun crimes, including federal safe storage laws, and will coordinate between the Biden administration, Congress, and advocacy groups, according to a news release from Camper’s office.

“Gun violence is a plague on our city, our Tennessee communities and our country,” Camper said. “As a state legislator, I have seen laws passed at the state level that have put more guns on the street and policies that have led to more gun crimes, particularly here in Memphis. Our neighborhoods and our schools are less safe today than they were in the past. We should be able to shop, worship and learn without worrying about being shot.”

Ogles, Burchett oppose stopgap measure to avoid federal government shutdown

With a federal government shutdown looming as Congress continues to negotiate spending bills, Tennessee U.s. Reps. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, and Andy Ogles, R-Columbia, are two of the 18 conservative Republicans opposing a stopgap spending measure, in an effort to drive federal spending to pre-pandemic levels.

House Republican leadership proposed a Continuing Resolution that would extend current spending levels through Oct. 31 and reduce spending by 1% to avoid a shutdown. The Continuing Resolution also includes a border security measure that would restart funding to build a border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, enhance monitoring, and increase the number of Border Patrol agents. It does not include funding requested by Biden for aid and disaster relief in Ukraine.

A cabal of hardline fiscally conservative Republicans within the slim GOP majority is fighting back against other conservative Republicans, in an effort to force the House to pass appropriations bills that bring federal spending to pre-COVID levels.

“No CR,” Ogles wrote Tuesday in a post on X, the platform previously known as Twitter. “We in Congress need to stay late, work weekends until we have passed all approps bills. Enough is enough!!!”

Burchett said Thursday that he will decline his salary if the government goes into shutdown.

“We knew this date was going to happen yet our leaders failed to act,” Burchett said in a statement on social media. “Now we are going to punish hard working Americans and once again exempt Congress. This is unacceptable. If we go into a shutdown I refuse to be paid until it is over.”

Spending negotiations continue. The deadline to pass either the spending bills or a stopgap measure is Sept. 30, when the new federal fiscal year begins.

Lee visits state parks to highlight new investments

Lee traveled across the state in recent weeks visiting state parks to highlight his administration’s new spending on parks and brownfield cleanup.

At Lee’s request, lawmakers approved more than $371 million for improvements at Tennessee's state parks in this year’s budget, including funding to create four new state parks, build two new park lodges, and complete new trails. They also approved $5.3 million toward cleanup for 175 brownfield sites through a new state grant program.

“From Mountain City to Memphis, our state is blessed with natural beauty and rich natural resources,” Lee said in a statement. “Our resources will only be around for the future if we invest in them today. That’s why we’ve developed a conservation strategy that balances our state’s economic growth with a plan to protect our environment.”

Lee has proclaimed Sept. 23 to be “Tennessee Public Lands Day.”

State wins $44.5M in opioid settlement against Food City

Tennessee Attorney General Johnathan Skrmetti announced a $44.5 million settlement with the grocery store chain Food City, regarding opioid-related misconduct.

“Every entity that contributed to the opioid crisis must be held accountable,” Skrmetti said in a statement. “By paying a hefty price to resolve past misconduct, Food City provides critical resources to save lives and protect families and can now get back to the business of serving its customers and supporting Tennessee communities.”

Food City will also update its prescription validation process, monitor and report data related to suspicious activity, and provide new training to pharmacy staff, under the settlement agreement.

Funding from the settlement will go to the state’s Opioid Abatement Fund, which provides funding for counties to fund local opioid addiction prevention, treatment, recovery, and education programs.

Kelsey makes another court appearance

Former state Sen. Brian Kelsey on Thursday argued a federal judge should delay his prison reporting deadline pending his appeal to a higher court.

Attorneys for both sides made brief appearances Thursday afternoon, though the bulk of their arguments were laid out in previous court filings. U.S. District Court Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr. said he would consider the arguments and issue a decision soon.

Kelsey last year pleaded guilty to a campaign finance charge, a plea agreement he then tried to back out of this spring. Crenshaw didn't buy Kelsey's arguments that the trained lawyer and high-ranking former lawmaker didn't fully understand the consequences of his plea deal, and the judge did not allow Kelsey to renege on the agreement.

At Kelsey's sentencing this summer, prosecutors argued his attempts to back out of his guilty plea amounted to obstruction of justice and perjury, recommending the judge consider a longer sentence for Kelsey.

Kelsey now alleges this violated their 2022 plea agreement, and as such he should be allowed to withdraw his plea deal altogether. He wants to remain free on bail while that appeal plays out.

Crenshaw previously sentenced Kelsey to 21 months and ordered him to report to prison in October.

Catch up on the week

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Tennessee considering bill requiring age verification for porn sites

Tennessee has growing epidemic of guns stolen from cars. So why aren't there more arrests?

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This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: TN to renew youth commission despite Gov. Bill Lee push to dissolve