NASHVILLE - Tennessee lawmakers will head back to the state Capitol on Aug. 23 after Gov. Bill Lee set the date for a special legislative session so the GOP-led House can elect a new speaker.
Lee, a Republican, issued the call on Thursday, saying "it is in the best interest of our state to select a new Speaker of the House, and so I am calling a special session of the General Assembly for Aug. 23 to accomplish that purpose." The move comes amid Republican Speaker Glen Casada's expected resignation.
The governor also said he has asked the General Assembly "to take up approval of the recent amendments to the Supreme Court rules, in addition to settling these leadership matters. Any other procedural business would be at the discretion of the General Assembly."
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Casada has announced he will resign on Aug. 2 after overwhelmingly losing a May 20 no-confidence vote from his own GOP Caucus. That came after weeks of revelations from leaked sexually explicit text messages he exchanged with a top aide as well as multiple other controversies including hiring political operatives for no-show jobs at taxpayer expense.
But the governor's call immediately drew fire from House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart, of Nashville, who blasted Lee for calling the special session. Stewart charged it's a "joke" as well as a "continuation of a Republican scheme to cover their misdeeds."
Citing the estimated $40,000 per day cost for the 99 representatives and 33 senators to meet, Stewart called it "ridiculous to waste taxpayer money because Republicans are uncertain of the person they elected to serve as Speaker Pro Tempore."
That's a reference to Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, a veteran lawmaker who as speaker pro tem would automatically become acting speaker after Casada resigns the post.
"Their election of Glen Casada was a disaster and now they want Tennesseans to pay as they try to figure out who gets to ride in a limousine for the next four months," Stewart said, adding there is "no logical reason why this election couldn't be held in January when we come back into regular session. It's just a huge slap in the face to taxpayers."
Stewart also charged that Lee and GOP allies "working so hard" to replace Dunn quickly "raises serious concerns about whether this special session is only designed to block further investigations into Casada and his cronies."
And on another front, Michele Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, a health care advocacy group, called on Lee to ask lawmakers "to deal with Tennessee's health crisis" by approving an expansion of the state's Medicaid program, TennCare, with funding available under the federal Affordable Care Act.
"Since taxpayers will have to foot the bill for the special session, we ought to get more for our money than just cleaning up Rep. Casada's mess," Johnson said in a statement, noting recent polls showing health care remains at the top of Tennessee voters' list of concerns.
"Tennessee leads the nation in the loss of rural hospitals, the loss of health care coverage for children, the impact of medical debt on families, and in terrible rates of chronic illness," Johnson said, adding that state lawmakers have blocked expanding TennCare to an estimated 300,000 low-income adults.
"Governor Lee, please respect the will of the public and address the urgent concerns of Tennesseans," Johnson said. "Make the special session truly special by asking the legislature to vote to allow the use of all available federal health funds to solve our state's pressing needs."
Regarding Casada, the GOP Caucus plans to meet July 24 to nominate a new speaker who is expected to be a shoo-in on the House floor given Republicans' 73-26 membership advantage over Democrats.
A number of Republicans are vying for the GOP Caucus nomination. Reps. Mike Carter, of Ooltewah; former Speaker Pro Tem Curtis Johnson, of Clarksville; GOP Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton, of Crossville; Deputy Speaker Matthew Hill, of Jonesborough; and Rep. Jay Reedy of Erwin.
Others eyeing the contest include Rep. Robin Smith, of Hixson, and former Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams, of Cookeville.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.