Absentee voting well ahead of 2016 primary, nearing level of last presidential election

Secretary of State Tre Hargett speaks with Rep. Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville) before Gov. Bill Haslam’s final State of the State address on Jan. 29, 2018 in Nashville. (Photo credit: Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Requests for absentee ballots are well ahead of the number cast in the August 2016 primary and are already coming close to matching the levels of that year’s November presidential election, according to data gathered by The Tennessean‘s Joel Ebert and Carmel Kookogey.

The Secretary of State’s office said it doesn’t keep track of absentee ballot requests, referring the newspaper to local election commissions. The newspaper contacted officials in all 95 counties. Eighty provided information on how many mail-in ballots had been requested as of last week, nine refused to release data, and six did not respond.

A judge last month ordered the state to allow anyone who fears infection by the coronavirus to cast absentee ballots. The state is appealing that ruling, but it’s unlikely the Supreme Court will decide the issue before the Aug. 6 primary.

About 57,000 absentee ballots had been requested as of last week. That compares with about about 12,000 for the August 2016 primary and 64,000 for that year’s general election.

A look at the percentage difference between absentee ballot requests this year and the number cast in August and November 2016 follows after the jump.

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Deadline to register to vote in Aug. 6 primary is upon us

Image: Secretary of State’s office.

Tuesday is the deadline to register to vote for the Aug. 6 primary.

Registrations can be mailed or handed in to county election commissions or submitted online to through the Secretary of State’s website. Choosing the online route will make first-time voters ineligible to cast absentee ballots.

Early voting begins on July 17.

This year’s primary election includes a hard-fought contests for the Republican nominations to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Maryville) and U.S. Rep. Phil Roe (R-Johnson City). There’s also several open races and contested primaries for state House and Senate seats.

Coming soon to a store (or keyboard) near you: Two sales tax holidays

The House meets at the state Capitol in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

As part of a late-session compromise between the House and Senate, lawmakers agreed to double to the cap on the price of clothing, computers, and back-to-school items for the annual sales tax holiday. And then they decided to hold it on consecutive weekends. Gone in the legislative deal was a House proposal to also hold a sales tax holiday for automobiles, which would have been a far pricier proposition.

Here’s a release from the state Revenue Department about the sales tax holiday weekends starting July 31 and Aug. 7:

NASHVILLE — Mark your calendars. For 2020 only, the Tennessee General Assembly has approved two sales tax holiday weekends to help Tennesseans save money and support the economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first tax-free holiday weekend focuses on clothing and other back-to-school items. It begins at 12:01 a.m. on Friday, July 31, and ends Sunday, August 2, at 11:59 p.m. During this time, consumers may purchase clothing, school supplies, and computers and other qualifying electronic devices without paying sales tax. Certain price restrictions apply. For school supplies and clothing, the threshold for qualifying items is $200 or less. For computers and other electronics, the price threshold is $3,000 or less. Download our list of tax-exempt items here.

Exempt items sold online are also eligible. Consumers must purchase items for personal use, not business or trade.

The second sales tax holiday weekend focuses on restaurant sales. It begins at 12:01 a.m. on August 7 and ends Sunday, August 9, at 11:59 p.m. During this time the retail sale of food and drink by restaurants and limited service restaurants, as defined in Tenn. Code Ann.  § 57-4-102, is exempt from sales tax.        

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused immense economic strain on Tennessee families. These sales tax holidays will allow them to keep more of their hard-earned money and support Tennessee businesses,” said Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. 

“We want to remind everyone about these opportunities for tax relief,” Revenue Commissioner David Gerregano said.  “It’s a good opportunity to save money during these difficult times.”

For more information about the sales tax holiday weekends, visit www.tntaxholiday.com. You can also read our frequently asked questions, as well as this important notice.

The Department of Revenue is responsible for the administration of state tax laws and motor vehicle title and registration laws, as well as the collection of taxes and fees associated with those laws. The Department collects around 87 percent of total state revenue. During the 2019 fiscal year, it collected $15.3 billion in state taxes and fees and more than $3 billion in taxes and fees for local governments. To learn more about the Department, visit www.tn.gov/revenue.

 

Lee signs order allowing county mayors to mandate mask wearing

Gov. Bill Lee, left, announces a $200 million relief program for businesses affected by the state’s stay-at-home order for non-essential businesses at Arnold’s restaurant in Nashville on June 2, 2020. To his right are House Speaker Cameron Sexton, Senate Speaker Randy McNally, Rep. Pat Marsh, and Rep. Harold Love. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has signed an executive order giving power to the mayors of 89 of 95 Tennessee counties to mandate wearing masks in public to help stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. In the remaining six counties, Shelby, Davidson, Knox, Hamilton, Sullivan, and Madison), the decision will be left up to the local health department.

“While our densely populated urban areas continue to have the highest COVID-19 case rates, our local governments expressed a need for greater flexibility in addressing a rise in cases and that includes setting stronger expectations around masks,” said Lee said in a statement. “This targeted approach ensures we protect both lives and livelihoods and safely keep our economy open in Tennessee. We encourage every Tennessean across the state to use a face covering or mask, make sure to socially distance and wash hands frequently.”

Here’s the full text of the order:

AN ORDER PROVIDING LOCAL GOVERNMENTS WITH AUTHORITY CONCERNING FACE COVERINGS

WHEREAS, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) remains a threat to our citizens, our healthcare systems, and our economy, and each Tennessean should continue to protect themselves and others by following applicable health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other leading medical experts to slow the spread of this virus, including practicing social distancing, effective personal hygiene practices, and “wear[ing] cloth face coverings in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain”; and

WHEREAS, importantly, wearing a cloth face covering is a simple step that each Tennessean can take to slow the spread of the virus, which prevents having to take more drastic and disruptive measures for our economy and job market, like requiring the closure of businesses; and

WHEREAS, whether to require or recommend wearing a face covering may depend on the spread of COVID-19 or lack thereof in a particular community, which varies widely across the State, and local governments are therefore better positioned to make this decision based on the conditions in their communities; and

WHEREAS, in addition to the other powers granted by law, Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 58-2-107, provides, among other things, that during a state of emergency, the Governor is authorized to suspend laws and rules regarding the conduct of state business if necessary to cope with an emergency, utilize all available state and local resources needed to combat an emergency, and take measures concerning the conduct of civilians and the calling of public meetings and gatherings, among other things, as well as delegate such powers as the governor may deem prudent; and

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Lee announces review of law enforcement policies, training

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday announced a review of law enforcement policies and training standards in Tennessee.

“Tragic, preventable events across the nation have challenged us all to confront the difference between law enforcement and police brutality and also challenged us to examine troubling, inconsistent citizen experiences with law enforcement,” Lee said in a statement.

Here’s the full release:

NASHVILLETenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced a partnership with the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, the Tennessee Highway Patrol, The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association and the Peace Officer Standards & Training Commission to enhance policies, improve information sharing and increase officer training.

“The intent of this partnership is the desire to ensure law enforcement are consistently reflecting the values of the communities they serve,” said Gov. Lee. “Tragic, preventable events across the nation have challenged us all to confront the difference between law enforcement and police brutality and also challenged us to examine troubling, inconsistent citizen experiences with law enforcement. I am proud of our law enforcement agencies for spearheading efforts to ensure Tennesseans’ rights, dignity and humanity be at the forefront of policing.”

Review of Use of Force and Duty to Intervene Policies

Law enforcement agencies across the state will review and update Use of Force and Duty to Intervene policies over the next 60 days.

  • Use of Force policies should be reviewed and updated to ensure choke holds are not used as a restraining technique. 
  • Duty to Intervene policies should be reviewed and updated to require officers to act to prevent or stop any act, even by officers, that violates law or policy.

“The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security looks forward to supporting local agencies in the review of policies,” said Commissioner Jeff Long. “The Tennessee Highway Patrol has recently conducted a thorough review of its Use of Force Policy in comparison with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, State and Provincial Academy Directors, and National Tactical Officers Association. The department’s policies go above and beyond the recommendations for established guidelines and we advocate for this approach across Tennessee.”

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Distressed no more: Four Tenn. counties come off list

Gov. Bill Lee welcomes delegates to a summit on economically distressed counties in Linden on Aug. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Fentress, Jackson, Morgan, and  McNairy counties are no longer officially designated as distressed by the Appalachian Regional Commission. Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is hailing the news as evidence of the effectiveness of its efforts to prioritize economic development in the poorest areas of the state.

Here’s the full release:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced that Tennessee has the fewest distressed counties statewide since 2007, down from 15 in 2019 to 11 counties according to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

“McNairy, Jackson, Fentress and Morgan counties have shown tremendous improvement and we are proud to support continued efforts for greater stability and prosperity,” said Gov. Lee. “As these counties improve beyond distressed status this means more residents have access to quality jobs and economic security and we are committed to efforts that sustain this progress.”

Each year, ARC prepares an index of county economic status for every county in the United States. Economic status designations are identified through a composite measure of each county’s three-year average unemployment rate, per capita market income, and poverty rate. Based on these indicators, each county is then categorized as distressed, at-risk, transitional, competitive or attainment. More information is available here.

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Top TNJ: On the Hill posts of 2020 so far

A man scrubs graffiti off of a building following protests in downtown Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

As we hit the halfway mark of a tumultuous year, here is a look at the the most popular posts on the TNJ: On the Hill blog so far (again with a hat tip to our friends at the Nashville Post, from whom we have stolen the idea on more than one occasion).

1. Sethi on the air with new ad hitting ‘Leftwing Lockdown.

June 11: Republican U.S. Senate candidate Manny Sethi has a new TV ad out in which he goes after what his campaign is calling liberals’ double standard on the coronavirus lockdown.

2.  So what’s essential? A look at Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order.

March 30: Here are details about which businesses are exempted by Gov. Bill Lee’s order for non-essential operations to shut down to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. It’s a long list, ranging from marinas to dry cleaners. It also includes “any other business or organization that operates at all times with ten or fewer persons accessing the premises.”

3. Give me refills or give me death? Protest organizer laments need to pay for extra iced tea.

April 20: According to The Tennessean’s Natalie Allison, a top lament of an anti-lockdown protest organizer at the state Capitol is that he can’t get free refills for his iced tea under social distancing rules.

A sign outside the Pink Cadillac drive-in movie theater in Centerville advertises church services on May 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

4. Lee announces end of stay-at-home order for 89 of 95 counties.

April 20: Gov. Bill Lee has announced stay-at-home orders will expire next week in all but six of Tennessee’s 95 counties. The counties that will continue to be covered by local bans on nonessential business are Shelby, Davidson, Knox, Hamilton, Madison, and Sullivan.

5. Candidate blasting China for COVID-19 married to man convicted of mislabeling drugs from … China.

May 11: Kingsport pharmacist Diana Harshbarger has been making a splash in Tennessee’s open 1st Congress District race by self-funding a series of television commercials. One of her latest spots attacks China for the coronavirus pandemic. Left unsaid is that Harshbarger’s husband pleaded guilty to federal charges of distributing misbranded drugs from China in 2013.

6. From urging to requiring: Lee makes stay-at-home mandatory.

April 2: Gov. Bill Lee is ramping up his stay-at-home directive, moving from urging people to avoid all non essential activities to requiring it. The move follows an uptick in traffic and movement around the state.

7. Lee orders statewide ban on gatherings of more than 10 and on dine-in restaurants, bars.

March 22. Gov. Bill Lee has issued a statewide ban on gatherings of more than 10 people and  ordered all restaurants be limited only to drive-thru or takeout service.

The doors of the state Capitol were closed to the public on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

8. Lee extends state of emergency until Aug. 29.

June 29: Gov. Bill Lee is extending Tennessee’s state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic until Aug. 29.

9. Election officials instructed not to immediately comply with judge’s order on absentee ballots.

June 5: A Nashville judge has ordered the state to start issuing absentee ballots to any registered voter who requests one, but State Election Coordinator Mark Goins is telling local officials not to immediately comply.

10. Should toppled Carmack statue be repaired at Tennessee Capitol?

June 1: Protesters over the weekend tore down the statue of Edward Ward Carmack, a newspaper editor and U.S. Senator who was gunned down in the streets of Nashville in 1908. Carmack was a notorious segregationist, though it’s unclear whether the demonstrators specifically targeted the monument (a historical marker commemorating Nashville’s lunch counter sit-ins in 1960 was also destroyed).

State troopers guard the toppled statue of Edward Ward Carmack outside the state Capitol on May 31, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Lee extends state of emergency until Aug. 29

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference on Tennessee’s coronavirus response in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is extending Tennessee’s state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic until Aug. 29.

Here’s the full release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee today signed Executive Order No. 50 to extend the State of Emergency related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to August 29, 2020. The order allows the continued suspension of various laws and regulations and other measures in these orders to facilitate the treatment and containment of COVID-19 through regulatory flexibility, promoting social distancing and avoidance of large gatherings, and protecting vulnerable populations. 

Gov. Lee also signed Executive Order Nos. 51 and 52, which extend provisions that allow for electronic government meetings subject to transparency safeguards and remote notarization and witnessing of documents, respectively, to August 29, 2020.

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Abortion law must take effect before judge considers injunction

The Tennessee Senate meets on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

U.S. District Judge Chip Campbell says he won’t decide about whether to impose an emergency injunction on sweeping abortion restrictions passed by the General Assembly until Gov. Bill Lee signs the legislation into law.

Despite earlier assurances that the Senate wouldn’t take up the abortion bill in its return from a 75-day coronavirus hiatus, the chamber abruptly brought the measure up for a vote after midnight on the last night of the session. It passed 23-5 in the Senate and 70-20 in House.

Neither House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) nor Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) has yet signed the engrossed bill. Once that occurs, the governor has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign,  veto, or allow the bill to become law without his signature. Lee, who originally proposed the measure, is expected to sign the bill quickly once it reaches his desk.

The bill seeks to enact a nearly universal abortion ban once a fetal heartbeat is detected. If successfully challenged in court, the bill seeks to automatically impose successive abortion bans eight, 10, 12, 15, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23 and 24 weeks of gestation.

Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the law the same day the bill gained final approval in the General Assembly.

The plaintiffs asked Judge Campbell to take up their motion for an emergency temporary restraining order without waiting for the state to file its response, which is due by Friday. Campbell said he won’t rule on the injunction until the bill has been signed into law and that he will consider the state’s response if it is filed by the time the governor puts his signature on the bill.

Trump taps Haslam as Wilson Center chair

Then-Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at an event at the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville on Aug. 28, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

President Donald Trump is appointing former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam as the chairman of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center was founded in 1968 and describes itself as “the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum for tackling global issues through independent research and open dialogue to inform actionable ideas for the policy community.”

Haslam served as governor from 2011 to 2019.

Wilson Center board members are appointed to six-year terms. Haslam will succeed fellow former Republican Gov. Scott Walker as chair.

Walker took over following the death of businessman and GOP fundraiser Fred Malek last year. Malek was the finance chair of the Republican Governors Association from 2008 until his death. Haslam was elected chairman of the RGA in 2015 and 2018.