Casada discusses goals, challenges as new House Speaker

 

BY LINDA BRYANT

The Tennessee House of Representatives began a new era in 2019 with the election of Rep. Glen Casada as Speaker of the House.
On Jan. 8, 2019—and in front of a capacity crowd—Casada accepted the gavel from Tennessee’s first female Speaker Beth Harwell, who had served for eight years.
The 59-year-old leader, who was first elected to the legislature in December 2001, is widely viewed as a staunch conservative Republican leader, who regularly takes strict stances on issues such as ending abortion, cutting taxes and imposing tighter limits on immigration. Yet, he also has a bipartisan approach. One of his first gestures as Speaker of the House was to pick two Democrats to lead key legislative committees.
Casada began his tenure as Speaker of the House with a few surprises by announcing what he called “historic changes” to the traditional committee structure, by establishing several new subcommittees. He said the changes would “usher in a new era of accountability and oversight for corrections, children’s services and TennCare.”
He also appointed the first woman to chair the House Finance Committee: Rep. Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet). The finance subcommittee will be led by Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden), who has voted against the Republican budget several times in recent years.
The District 63 Republican, who represents parts of Franklin and Thompson Station in Williamson County, also has a history of helping underrepresented populations in the public and private sectors. He has advocated for families affected by autism and has received numerous civic awards, including being named the 2015 Hero of Tennessee by the Tennessee Disability Coalition, Legislator of the Year by the Tennessee Cancer Association, and Guardian of Small Business by the National Federation of Small Business (NFIB).
Tennessee State Comptroller Justin P. Wilson, a friend and colleague, once described Casada as the legendary character in the classic country song, “The Gambler.”
“Like the gambler in the song, Glen knows when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, and can effectively articulate the reasons for this decision,” Wilson said.” That’s what makes him so effective.”

TT&C: Congratulations on your new position as Speaker of the House. Can you reflect on a couple of key lessons you’ve learned over your career of public service from starting as a Williamson County commissioner in 1994 until now? Are there consistent strategies or beliefs that have guided you over the past 25 years?
GC: The thing that stands out the most for me in terms of learning is this: You work in a group. You work in a legislative body and you present ideas then you build a consensus and move forward.

TT&C: Are many of the issues you deal with in the Legislature similar to local county and city issues but happening on a larger scale?
GC: The Williamson County Commission, where I served, has 24 elected positions. That’s one-fourth the size of the state’s legislative body, yet the principles are still the same. You find folks who understand your ideas and understand what you were trying to do and then you build consensus from there. That principle of building consensus is the common thread.

TT&C: When you became Speaker of the House you said that you, “accepted the gavel in the spirit of partnership and not partisanship.” What does partnership mean to you, and can you give an example of how you hope to or already have created those partnerships?
GC: Well, the first thing that hasn’t been done in at least 50 years is sharing the chairmanships with the minority party, which is the Democratic Party in this case. For the past five decades the party in power shared all the committees, but we gave two committees to Democrats this year. That was not only symbolic, but we are reaching out. And that’s important – that we are actually sharing power with the minority party.

TT&C: What inspired you to take this step?
GC: We have too many people in Washington D.C. involved in politics who think that unless you agree with them you aren’t equal, and that just doesn’t work in a democratic republic. You and I have to respect the opinions and thoughts of other people even if we think they are wrong. Even if we think they are definitely wrong we have to respect them. That was the genesis of my decision to focus on partnership.

TT&C: What kind of reaction have you received from your decision?
GC: Several people have commented that there seems to be a spirit of working together in the Legislature. I’ve reached out to Democrats and met with several in my office, and I get the sense that many of the minority party want to work with me. We have acknowledged that we are going to disagree, maybe even strongly, but at least we want to define our terms before we begin the discussion. Even if we think differently, we want an end result that we can all agree on.

TT&C: Can you share some ideas about where Republicans and Democrats can find some mutual territory?
GC: Something that is near and dear to my heart—and that I think everyone wants to address—is mental health. We have a lot of individuals in our state who are a danger to themselves, their families and the community at large. Many are without adequate mental health services. So, let’s start with that part of mental health and really address the issue together. Specifically, I think all parties want to address long-term care from the standpoint of providing beds and paying for long-term care.

TT&C: What about the statewide opioid crisis, that’s an issue that seems to have affected all strata of society.
GC: It’s very important to address. In the state of Tennessee, we have taken some positive steps for two years in a row, and it has yielded some positive results. We’ve begun on that path and will continue. We have a long way to go, but I think the next journey needs to be mental health.

TT&C: You recently made sweeping changes to committees in the House of Representatives and created new subcommittees that you said will “usher in a new era of accountability and oversight for corrections, children’s services and TennCare.” The newly created Higher Education Subcommittee will focus on academic, vocational and technical preparation for jobs and provide leadership on the Drive to 55 initiative to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with post-secondary credentials. The new Mental Health and Substance Abuse Subcommittee will focus on addressing Tennessee’s health issues and continue work to tackle the opioid crisis. Can you speak about why these new committees are significant?
GC: Starting with the oversight committees, it’s important that those entities are executive run and executive appointed, and they need legislative oversight. So, when I say legislative oversight what that means is the people of Tennessee’s elected representatives are intimately involved in corrections, children and family and TennCare. So, it just brings more Tennesseans to their representatives. It gets them involved in the process and increases transparency.

TT&C: What made you think of that approach?
GC: I have been thinking about it for a while. Several members over the last couple of years have had questions regarding DCS (Department of Children’s Services), Corrections, or TennCare, and it felt like they didn’t know how to get answers or be involved in that process. It spawned from that. The response has been very welcoming, and Gov. Lee is also open to it.

TT&C: Gov. Bill Lee is very supportive of rural economic development. Is this also a priority for you?
GC: Many parts of Tennessee, including my county [Williamson] are very prosperous, and we have a high increase in development, wealth and jobs to the point that we are having a hard time with our infrastructure. But there are a few parts of the state that are not seeing this kind of growth and prosperity. I think we need to expand growth in more rural parts of the state. A good way to approach that is with broadband. Broadband, workforce development and education are the best ways to bring economic prosperity to the rural parts of the state as well.
We took an important step last year and it has resulted in more Tennessee counties getting broadband. Last year we allowed for nonprofits and cooperatives to form and deliver service, and we provided grants. Since that seemed to have worked, I think we will see Gov. Lee and the Legislature support further expansion with more grant money, as well as legislation that would allow for cooperation with corporations and cooperatives with for-profits and utility districts. We need to continue what we have started in the broadband arena.

TT&C: What do you see as your biggest challenges in your new role as Speaker of the House? Are there certain aspects of the job that you know are going to be difficult?
GC: Yes, there are difficult aspects but what I think is important—what is always on my mind—is how to make the system and process work equitably for all people. Our House members are smart; they are leaders back in their districts. I don’t want to marginalize anyone. At the same time, there is a process and an order and decorum they must follow. Achieving that balance is my challenge, making sure it’s included but in a way that’s orderly and methodical and in a manner that can move us forward.

TT&C: You were never a supporter of the Affordable Care Act, but have been public about your support of an expansion of Medicare block grants as a vehicle for improving health care in Tennessee. Can you explain this stance?
GC: With the introduction of the Affordable Care Act we saw health care rates escalate dramatically, and that is because Washington D.C. passed on to the states this cookie-cutter formula that we had to comply with. It forced expensive insurance plans upon the public and people had trouble covering insurance and the costs of healthcare. I think it’s better to craft coverage that works specifically for Tennesseans. I think we can do it affordably, much more efficiently, and something that works more economically than the Affordable Care Act.

TT&C: Is there anything else you would like to say about the healthcare system? It’s certainly an issue that never seems to be completely solved.
GC: The more government is involved in healthcare the more it is further away from the free market. Everything in life is dictated by businesses competing for our business. It keeps the insurance down on our automobiles; it keeps our groceries low. So, competition—and knowing what is the standard you should pay —could exist in health insurance. With health insurance you pay a monthly fee and then you go to the healthcare provider and get what services you need. That drives up the cost of healthcare astronomically. But if those services have more transparency—and you know what you are paying for — then the competition will make it more affordable.

TT&C: So how do you view the balance of local control and state control of government? When is it appropriate for the state to intercede on a local situation?
GC: The Tennessee Constitution is the arbiter. State government not only created the federal government, it also created local government to address things such as planning, zoning, and law enforcement, just to name a few things. The state government would intervene when a local government enters into an area it’s not constitutionally authorized to do. To me that’s the line of demarcation. If local governments are doing something that’s not constitutional, the state has to step in and say, “Sorry, local government, you can’t mandate that – for example – a living wage.

TT&C: Tennessee has a reputation of being at the very top of business-friendly states. How do we remain business-friendly and continue to create more jobs and jobs training?
GC: If you talk to any business moving to Tennessee, there are two things that brought them here: low taxes with no income tax and low government regulation. Every two years we have an election in Tennessee for the House of Representatives. Tennessee citizens need to elect and re-elect people that are for small government, low government regulation and low taxes. That, in turn, will keep that [business-friendly] environment in good condition. It establishes an ongoing incentive for businesses, corporations and industries moving into our state.

TT&C: Tennessee continues to improve its public education results. Last year we recorded the highest graduation rate on record—89.1 percent. This year, more than 56 percent of districts with high schools saw their graduation rates improve when compared to last year’s rates. And that’s just one improvement. The state’s ACT participation is higher than ever and senior year retake scores are improved by 10-percent last year. It seems like we are on the right track, but how do we continue to get better?
GC: That is a sentence I really like: “We are on the right track.” For the past two years, we have led the states in education improvement. But improving is not an end destination. We want to be the best in education. What we have done—will continue to do—is require certain standards and competition amongst schools, and reward schools for doing well. I believe the state will continue on that track. Of course, Gov. Lee is advocating for expanding vocational education so that will be good for industry and manufacturing.

TT&C: What’s your relationship like with the new administration? How do you characterize your relationships with leaders such as Gov. Lee?
GC: I communicate with Lt. Gov. Randy McNally a minimum of once a week and with Gov. Lee probably twice a week. The three of us are good friends. We trust each other, and we are all committed to moving Tennessee forward. We have the same agenda so it’s a tremendous team; it really is.

TT&C: Is there particular legislation this year that’s really important to you?
GC: I hate to be redundant but I am committed to mental health. We have to address this along with opiate abuse in our state. Those individuals often cannot take care of themselves. Especially because of our economic success, we really want to help those people. Plus, we now have a surplus so that we can help those people that cannot help themselves.

TT&C: What stands out for you in your first few weeks as Speaker of the House? Has anything surprised you?
GC: Being in leadership for close to 12 years I knew what it entailed, but I did not realize the depth of it. The Speaker’s office and my staff are very dedicated individuals. We touch every aspect of state government—from appointing boards to working on issues with the garage and why it’s leaking. I’m honored that my colleagues elected me Speaker. It’s humbling to manage this legislative branch of government.

TT&C: What’s a typical day like in your new role as Speak of the House?
GC: Today I started at 7 a.m. and had breakfast with Gov. Lee. Literally every 30 minutes I meet with staff or members or individuals or with Tennesseans interested in legislation. It’s all encompassing.

TT&C: You still hold down a job in veterinary pharmaceutical sales. How do you balance this profession with legislative duties?
GC: Obviously, I’m on sabbatical this time of year, but it does slow down so that I can go back to work. The thing about government here in Tennessee is that it’s part-time. That’s good because, unlike Washington where it insulates itself, we work, go back home, and are accountable to our neighbors and still live in the community. That’s why state government is healthier than Washington, D.C.

TT&C: Tennessee government is doing a lot better fiscally than Washington D.C. Can you put into words what you think is going wrong at the federal level?
GC: A couple things that come to mind. One is that they [politicians elected to the federal level] are in Washington 85 percent of the time so they pass legislation and spend money on things a Tennessean would scratch their head about. They take us deeper in debt, and I think they’re out of touch with what functions in the business community. Of course, there are men and women in D.C. who are laudable and want to do well. They’re often just misguided in thinking that government is the answer to individuals having more freedom.
Tennessee is a very well-run state. Even compared to other states, I think we are the best run and best managed state, and we are even fully funded. And I think it’s because we take a very conservative, cautious, and incremental approach to governing. It works here in Tennessee, and I think that it should be a guide for Washington and many other states.

TT&C: Outside of state government, what occupies your time?
GC: I am a devoted member of the Brentwood Baptist Church. When I took the gavel, I asked that God to give me guidance and help me be a good Speaker. My faith is the most important thing to me. I have six grandchildren and four children, and love them all dearly. I spend a lot of time with my two girls and their families. They are the joy in my life.

TT&C: Can you think of one important thing you want Tennesseans to know?
GC: I believe it is incumbent that Tennesseans get to know their state representatives and their state senators on a personal level. We’re busy right now, but when there’s free time, call up your representative or invite him or her for a cup of coffee. Take them to your business or talk about whatever interests you. Educate them about what you do and what you think. Government should be something where all citizens have to be involved.