l-r; Eley Butch, Chief Operating Officer, Governor Bill Lee, Stuart McWhorter, Commissioner of Finance and Administration, and David Thurman, Budget Director, listen to a 2020 budget proposal from the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Tuesday, Nov. 5 at the State Capitol.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — Tennessee House democrats want to talk with Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter and Economic Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe. They want to ask about a $4 million rural community fund that is raising questions on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill. 

Former House Speaker Glen Casada asked for the creation of the fund shortly after Bill Lee’s inauguration in early 2019, according to the Tennessean. Lee put $3 million in his budget for the Rural Opportunity Fund (ROF). And in April 2019 Casada slipped in another million for good measure just before Lee’s budget passed unanimously. 

After several of his sexist texts became public last May, Glen Casada resigned as speaker. Cameron Sexton replaced him on August 23, 2019. 

Democrats claim the ROF fund, and its extra $1 million, was earmarked for freshman legislators from rural districts, who were persuaded to vote for Gov. Lee’s signature voucher bill in exchange for financial support for pet projects in their districts.  

If that’s so, they haven’t collected yet. 

On Tuesday Gov. Lee told the Tribune none of legislators’ requests have been funded and none of the $4 million has been spent.

“As of right now that whole process is on hold and there is no definite plan of how we are going to move forward but if that funding is released then it will be done in the way that was outlined originally and that was a vetting process that involved the Department of Economic and Community Development and the Finance and Administration Department,” Lee said.

“I don’t think anybody was made aware that that grants were structured in that way,” said Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Stewart. “People in the Republican leadership have been quoted saying they didn’t know anything about it,” said Stewart. 

Stewart said there is no other state grant program where the Department of Finance and Administration and the Governor’s office decide who gets the grants and the Dept. of Economic and Community Development simply disburses the funds. 

Sexton, (R-Crossville), said he didn’t know about the little known fund until last July. He said the governor’s office had reached out to him recently and that he is working with Lt Governor Randy McNally and the Lee administration to determine what happened and put in place safeguards for the future. “We are currently gathering additional information on this troubling issue,” Sexton said.  

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, (R-Oak Ridge), said he didn’t want to see the fund become a pork barrel for pet projects. 

Last week House committee members asked Rep. Martin Daniel, Chairman of the Joint Government Operations Committee, to invite Commissioner McWhorter and Commissioner Bob Rolfe to appear on November 17.  They have questions about the fund they want answered.

McWhorter said on Tuesday he had not been asked to appear before the committee. 

And he didn’t know if he would or not. “I have to understand more of the details,” he said. 

“The statute allows us to issue a subpoena. We will start out with the Governor’s people and then we will go from there,” Stewart said.

“We need to find out if there was a list and if so who had it—who walked around with it. If the answer is ‘yes’, that will tell us a lot,” Stewart said.