MURFREESBORO, Tennessee - Since taking office in January 2019, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has yet to veto any bill approved by his fellow Republicans who dominate the General Assembly, that despite a growing list of bills he has refused to sign and sometimes criticized publicly.
The latest examples of that includes a "truth in sentencing" crime bill sponsored by the powerful House and Senate speakers. It requires felons convicted of some violent crimes to serve 100% of their court-imposed sentence before being released. Lee said data does not support the effectiveness of the measure and let it become law without his signature.
Another measure, now law, targets the homeless by making it a felony to camp on public property ranging from parks to freeway underpasses unless it is already allowed.
During a media event in Murfreesboro on Thursday following a speech to state grocery and convenience store association members, Lee explained to reporters in response to questions why he hasn't vetoed anything despite disagreements.
"I think that finding the way forward, working together with the legislature, understanding the process, working to make bills something that we both can live with - we did that on a number of occasions," said Lee, who became the first person elected governor since Republican Winfield Dunn in 1971 to assume the post with no prior elected government experience.
"But," Lee added, "at the same time, still expressing my concerns and the things that we want to look at closely going forward. That's what we did in our signing statements."
One of the "processes" Lee faces is a state constitutional provision that makes it pretty easy for the legislature to override a gubernatorial veto. All it takes to override a governor is the same number of votes it took to pass the bill in the first place: 50 votes in the 99-member House and 17 in the 33-member Senate.
Just five other states besides Tennessee have similar veto override provisions. Most have two-thirds or even three-fourths supermajorities to override.
"Gov. Lee does not appear to have the support among many legislators that some previous governors have had," said Billy Stair, a co-author of the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History & Culture who served as a former top aide to then-Democratic House speaker and later two-term Gov. Ned McWherter.
"In fairness to Gov. Lee, because he came in as an outsider, he did not fully understand the culture and the relationships that are critical to succeeding with the legislative process," Stair added during a Chattanooga Times Free Press phone interview on Friday.
Governor Vetoes, Overrides Bill Lee (2019-present) 0, 0 Bill Haslam (2011-2019) 5, 0 Phil Bredesen (2003-2011) 8, 3 Don Sundquist (1995-2003) 24, 3 Ned McWherter (1987-1995) 1, 0 Lamar Alexander (1979-1987) 62, 14 Total 100, 20 Source: Tennessee Legislative Librarian Eddie Weeks. Figures do not include line item vetoes.
Lee cited the truth-in-sentencing bill as an example of his approach.
"We worked together to make changes that we both could agree on," Lee said of the bill that ultimately cut the original number of felonies requiring 100% of sentences imposed and moved them to another category allowing them to be released after serving 85% of their sentence. "You know, it's part of the process. People can agree to disagree. They can work together to find a way that works for both interests on an issue. That's what we tried to do on that piece of legislation. And I think we were successful to make a compromise."
When refusing to sign the speakers' truth-in-sentencing bill into law, Lee outlined his objections in a letter to House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Senator Speaker Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge.
"My concern with HB 2656/SB 2248 is that data does not support the basic premise of the legislation," Lee said in the letter. "Similar legislation has been enacted before and resulted in significant operational and financial strain, with no reduction in crime."
The governor's statement resulted in a strong and public push back at the time from Sexton.
"You can protect criminals or you can protect victims," said Sexton, who made the legislation one of his top priorities in this year's session. "I stand with victims, as do members of law enforcement, our district attorneys and criminal judges across Tennessee."
During an interview Thursday in his legislative office, Sexton discussed his views of the power relationships between the governor and the legislature as well between the House and Senate.
"I think with the administration, you know, they have ideas - which is great. But we have 99 members here, and they [senators] have 33 in the Senate, and not everybody is going to agree with everything of the administration or much less what we want to do here," Sexton said. "The second thing is continuing to work with the governor and build a relationship."
Sexton was elected speaker in August 2019 after his immediate predecessor, Glen Casada, was forced to resign the post following a racist-and-sexist texting scandal involving his chief of staff, Cade Cothren. Casada was much more amenable to Lee and his agenda, muscling through a school voucher bill that remains tied up in the courts.
Both Casada and Cothren later became embroiled in a scandal involving government-funded constituent mail accounts, which led earlier this year to then-Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, pleading guilty to a political career-ending federal wire fraud charge.
"I think we agree on 90, 95% of everything," Sexton said of his and Lee's views. "But you're just going to have disagreements. You're going to have a disagreement internally in the House and then internally in the Senate, between the House and the Senate, between the administration and here.
"But you can't allow those things to stop you from working in future endeavors," Sexton said. "You just have to see that it's an argument over one item, not a list of the whole plan he was wanting to do."
Sexton said the House and Senate under his and and Senate Speaker McNally's leadership communicate frequently and function well on legislation and related issues in a process that begins prior to the actual start of a legislative session.
He said he'd like to extend that to the governor and top administration officials.
"I think having the House and the Senate really functioning well together, if we can continue to work with the administration and be able to build more trust and a better relationship, which you're always working on, earlier on before we get to session about budget and policy and really have those conversations, I think it will really enhance how we move forward."
Other bills passed this year that Lee refused to sign but became law without his signature include a COVID-19 bill that recognizes "natural immunity" as preventing people from becoming infected by the diseases and puts it on equal footing with vaccines.
As a result of the bill, state and local governments as well as businesses must accept in their policies that a prior COVID-19 infection is equivalent to getting vaccinated, despite objections from medical experts that it is not the same level of protection from an infection and also wanes more quickly. An administration lobbyist raised concerns, but that didn't stop lawmakers.
Another measure stripped Lee of two of his five appointments to the nine-member State Board of Education, increasing Sexton and McNally's from two to three. Lee didn't sign the bill.
Asked earlier this week in Murfreesboro whether he envisions himself seeing a bill he would veto, Lee offered this: "Well, speculation. Certainly the veto is there. If there is something that rises to that level, it's there for me to use. Haven't done so so far," the governor said before moving on to another reporter's question.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.