An education voucher plan that squeaked through Tennessee’s legislature this spring probably would not have passed if a texting scandal involving House Speaker Glen Casada had broken just days or weeks earlier, says a Republican House leader.
Casada, a Republican who strong-armed the bill through the House, announced Tuesday that he will step down from his speakership in the coming weeks. His impending resignation closely follows news of racist and sexually explicit text messages exchanged by his former chief of staff, Cade Cothren, and another one-time aide, as well as sexist texts sent between the speaker and Cothren. Cothren resigned earlier this month.
The speaker’s fall from grace came just weeks after he pushed Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account proposal through the House, where similar voucher proposals have stalled for a decade. The historic vote opens the door to a major new education program that will allow some parents to use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition and other education services.
“It took strong leadership to push that through the House,” Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who voted for the bill and chairs the powerful House Education Committee, said Tuesday. “For those who wanted passage, you would have to give Glen the credit. I don’t think it would have passed otherwise.”
At one point on the House floor, Casada refused to announce a 49-49 tie, which would have killed the bill, and instead held the vote open for 38 minutes while he convinced Rep. Jason Zachary, a Knoxville Republican, to flip his position in favor of the governor’s plan.
Subsequent compromise legislation forged between the House and Senate bills passed on May 1 after months of negotiations and revisions.
But Casada never got to take a victory lap. The day after the vote, the first news report aired about Cothren’s racist text messages and other questionable behavior, unleashing a string of daily coverage about the activities of the speaker and his staff. One report said the FBI was investigating whether improper incentives were offered to pass the governor’s voucher bill, and others questioned why the speaker had white noise machines installed in his office. As support for Casada eroded, some lawmakers worried that the speaker may have installed listening devices in their offices — concerns that Casada denied.
The barrage of criticism and questions culminated on Monday when the legislature’s Republican caucus issued a vote of no confidence in Casada’s leadership, followed soon after by the governor’s call for him to step down. Casada, who pledged on Tuesday to resign in early June, will become the first House speaker in 126 years to be ousted from the chamber’s top job.
Asked on Tuesday if the House would have passed the voucher bill had Casada already been under the cloud of a scandal, White said “probably not.”
“It sat there on the floor at 49-49. That was a very, very close vote,” White said.
An ambitious politician from an affluent bedroom community near Nashville, Casada was sworn in as House speaker in January after years of seeking the position. He was determined to deliver on the legislative package of Lee, Tennessee’s popular new governor who took office soon after and enjoyed a Republican supermajority.
Now Casada finds himself ousted from leadership by his own party and marginalized by Lee, who tweeted on Tuesday that the outgoing speaker made the right call to step down. “I look forward to working with the legislature to get back to conducting the people’s business and focusing on the issues that matter most to our state,” the governor said.
Casada will be replaced — at least temporarily until a new speaker can be elected — by Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who holds the House’s No. 2 leadership position and who helped shepherd the governor’s voucher bill this year. Dunn has served in the legislature since 1994 and is a respected and active member of the House Education Committee, where some of his highest-profile bills have been for vouchers and against expanded funding of public pre-K programs.
Meanwhile, the voucher bill has not yet been signed into law. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally signed off last Friday, and the legislation now awaits Lee’s signature.
Democratic lawmakers used the latest development on Tuesday to urge the governor to veto the measure as more questions swirl around its passage.
“It was Speaker Casada’s ability and willingness to horse trade that put this bill over the threshold without a vote to spare,” said Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis. “If we ran this bill back through the House again, I think people would vote on the merits of the bill and there would be a different outcome.”
“It’s tainted and it was immoral” added Rep. Antonio Parkinson, of the bill that targets his Memphis district along with Nashville’s. “When you have legislators who say that a bill is good for another person’s district but not for your own, then that’s immoral.”
Rep. Gloria Johnson called for a housecleaning and said it’s time to reassess how both the legislature and administration should work together.
“The governor wanted this voucher bill so bad that he was calling people into his office to convince them,” said the Knoxville Democrat. “I think this really speaks to a culture of corruption within the Republican Party and the people who didn’t believe in this bill but also didn’t speak up.”
Lee told reporters earlier this month that he spoke with many lawmakers about his passion for giving parents more education choices for their children. His press secretary did not immediately respond when asked on Tuesday if Lee would consider vetoing his own plan.
White said a veto is unlikely and that it’s time for the state to press ahead.
“I didn’t like every aspect of this bill, but I voted for it and I think the concept is worth giving it a shot,” White said. “We’ve made a lot of improvements in Tennessee over the last decade, and we’ve got to continue to think outside of the box. This program is another tool to try.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that Lt. Gov. Randy McNally has signed the bill.