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Lee slowly shies away from reporters in first 100 days

April 29, 2019
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee talks to reporters at the Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee on Thursday, April 25, 2019. Lee on Thursday declared it was a "historic day" after the Republican's voucher-like bill advanced out of the Senate despite being drastically scaled back and directly at odds with the House version of his legislation. (AP Photo/Kimberlee Kruesi)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee talks to reporters at the Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee on Thursday, April 25, 2019. Lee on Thursday declared it was a "historic day" after the Republican's voucher-like bill advanced out of the Senate despite being drastically scaled back and directly at odds with the House version of his legislation. (AP Photo/Kimberlee Kruesi)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has steadily reduced his availability for media questions during his first 100 days in office and instead has increased his use of photo-only events throughout the state.

His diminishing access emerged in a review by The Associated Press of the Republican’s press schedule since he was sworn into office in January.

Lee’s office has denied public record requests seeking the governor’s schedule, claiming that such documents are exempt under state law by citing the “deliberative process privilege.” However, Lee’s team does notify reporters about his availability each week.

Over time, Lee’s schedule has seen a noticeable uptick in events marked as “photo only” — meaning he doesn’t take any questions — since taking over Tennessee’s top executive seat.

“The governor has been focused on passing his legislative agenda and budget, and as session picks up, there are more obligations to meet in a short amount of time,” said Laine Arnold, Lee’s press secretary, who described Lee’s declining media availability as “really more of a question of timing.”

In February, only of one of Lee’s 27 press events was marked as photo only. By April, 14 out of Lee’s 25 press events were photo only.

Lee’s diminishing face time with reporters comes as voucher-like legislation he supports has narrowly gained traction inside the GOP-dominant General Assembly. Just last week, as the House and Senate battled over the education savings account plan, Lee’s team said the governor would hold a press conference Thursday.

It was the only media availability Lee scheduled that week, yet when the event started, Lee announced it would actually be a much more casual affair. He declined to take a stand on which voucher bill he preferred and eventually took just 12 minutes of questions before leaving for a separate engagement.

In total, Lee has listed 99 events on his public schedule over the past 100 days. More than half of those have been held in Nashville, though the governor fielded questions at less than a third of them.

Lee attended the most media-available events in March, with nearly 40 different stops on his list of media appearances. Sixteen of those were just photo only, while his schedule said he would take questions at 23.

Lee only publicized eight events in January, the month he was sworn into office.

Lee’s weekly announcements of press availability follow a pattern set by former GOP Gov. Bill Haslam, who also warned reporters when his open events did not include time for reporter questions — though he sometimes took them anyway. Lee, a first-time politician who defeated Democratic candidate and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, has vowed to make government more transparent and has praised the importance of media. Soon after he won in November, the Republican proclaimed that “taxpayers deserve a transparent and open government.”

The governor has since implemented a system for the public to comment on bills before he signs them into law but has not yet followed through on a promise to overhaul Tennessee’s public records and open meeting laws that he initially promised during his transition to governor.

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