State house speaker talks COVID response, economy, Forrest bust during visit to upstate

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Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) during a visit to Gray hosted by presumptive 7th District Rep Rebecca Alexander (R-Jonesborough) Sept. 21.

GRAY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Tennessee’s conservative fiscal approach helped it weather COVID-19’s economic storm better than many other states, House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) said during a visit to Northeast Tennessee Monday.

Sexton covered a range of issues with reporters, including the current response to COVID, rural broadband, the integration of new House members into the General Assembly and gubernatorial powers — including the process for potential removal of a Nathan Bedford Forrest bust currently housed in the State Capitol.

Sexton met with Rebecca Alexander and Tim Hicks, two political newcomers who knocked off incumbents Matthew Hill and Micah Van Huss in August’s 7th and 6th House district GOP primaries.

Alexander is unopposed in the general election for the 7th District seat after beating eight-term incumbent Hill 63 to 37 percent in the primary. Hicks, a general contractor, faces Democrat Brad Batt in the 6th District race after defeating four-termer Van Huss by 15 percentage points in the primary.

Sexton, who also spent time listening to needs expressed by Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy and Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock and City Manager Pete Peterson, said any relocation of the Forrest bust issue had a new checkpoint to pass.

Gov. Bill Lee supports moving the bust to the State Museum and that proposal had reached the State Historical Commission — which people thought was its last hurdle. Sexton said that’s not so, and that he and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) recently perused the statute governing any movement of a statue or other memorial.

The bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest is displayed in the state capitol Wednesday, July 1, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

“Before it goes to the historical commission it needs to come to the State Building Commission,” Sexton said. He and McNally both sit on that body, and while he said he’d decide on his vote later, Sexton hinted at his position.

“I’m hesitant on removing history from us, good bad or ugly, and so we’re gonna have those conversations and I think most Tennesseans agree with that approach,” Sexton said.

“I think as we continue to move forward we’re going to follow the process and see what happens, and we just want to make sure it’s followed from the beginning to the end and if Governor Lee decides it’s the direction he wants to go and the votes are there to do that, so be it.”

A fan of Lee’s COVID approach

Sexton said he believes Lee has struck the right tone when it comes to grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor has let local governments make most decisions about school reopenings, mask mandates and restrictions on business reopenings.

“Governor Lee has committed to he would like to have students in school, he prefers to have businesses open and I think you’ve seen that all across our state except for maybe two communities in the bigger cities that we’re working with.”

In Sexton’s opinion the approach is far preferable to more restrictive measures some states have taken. He said restrictions should be up to businesses themselves.

Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton speaks during a stop in Gray Sept. 20.

“They have every right to impose how they want to keep their employees safe and how they want their customers to interact, so that’s first and foremost. Government can’t do that, I don’t think, I think that’s a role of the businesses in the community.

“We’re hopeful to get out of this without government mandating your life and destroying the economy and destroying businesses and destroying families,” Sexton said. “I think there’s a way to do this without going through that approach that other states have done.”

Sexton said that, along with Tennessee’s strong fiscal condition prior to the pandemic, has helped in the state’s economic recovery. The state’s revenues have exceeded budget the first couple months of the 2021 fiscal year, which began July 1.

“There’s a lot of sectors that are up that are making a difference where other sectors are down,” Sexton said. “So we’re very hopeful as we go through and look forward to a good budget year.

“A lot of our rural counties … their revenue is up locally compared to what it was last year, so Tennessee’s doing very, very well on the recovery.”

Sexton said the state has taken a broad approach to using CARES Act funds, from helping small businesses on the brink of shutdown and aiding non-profits to pumping money into Tennessee’s unemployment trust fund to keep it above $1 billion as unemployment remains high.

If the fund fell below a certain amount, businesses that contribute to it would have faced a 300 percent tax increase “for nothing they did other than have a pandemic,” Sexton said.

While he supports Lee’s approach to the pandemic, Sexton acknowledged he and McNally are looking at alterations to Tennessee’s approach to gubernatorial powers. He said the current statute is very broad and barely limits a governor’s executive powers in an event such as a pandemic.

“We’re looking at other states, what we can do to give the governor flexibility in some things but also still continue oversight as we go down the road,” Sexton said. He added that “in the wrong hands” the current level of authority “could be really detrimental to our state.”

In with the new

Sexton’s office had called Alexander and offered some time to meet, the future House member told News Channel 11 Monday morning. She said she pitched the idea of a sit-down with Grandy, Brock and Peterson.

Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (second from right) listens to Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy Monday as 6th and 7th-district House Republican candidates Tim Hicks and Rebecca Alexander and Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock (far right) look on.

“We want to come up and continue to meet and (determine) what needs are for this community, work with our two new members, and work with their communities and really start this relationship off,” Sexton said.

He said Alexander and the 6th District winner won’t have to worry too much about their inexperience. About three quarters of the legislature has turned over in the past decade, Sexton said, and the leadership’s job is to “work with the new members that the community has voted for.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that they’re successful for your community and that they’re in positions with their passion and things that they love, on those committees to make a difference for their communities,” Sexton said.

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