Bill Lee

State Funding Board meeting canceled

A meeting of the State Funding Board scheduled for this week has been canceled.

The panel comprised of the comptroller, treasurer, secretary of state, and finance commissioner is tasked with coming up with the state’s revenue estimates and approving incentive deals for economic development projects.

Gov. Bill Lee told reporters over the weekend the State Funding Board would be meeting to discuss the fiscal “metrics” the state’s spending plan will have to be adjusted to.

A State Funding Board spokesman says this week’s meeting was canceled because there were no items on the agenda to discuss. Revenue projections could be discussed at a future date, though nothing has been scheduled.

State lawmakers plan to return to the Capitol complex next week to start laying the groundwork for their return into session on June 1.

(This post has been updated with comments from a spokesman for the State Funding Board)

Lee: ‘Metrics’ will be available for lawmakers to plan budget cuts

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at an event in Nashville on April 2, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee says lawmakers will have the revenue data available to plan for further budget cuts when they return into session on June 1.

While the full set of tax collection information usually isn’t released until the middle of the month, the General Assembly won’t have to wait that long to make adjustments to the state’s annual spending plan, the governor told the Daily Memphian over the weekend.

“It’s a challenge to project, but there are metrics which you use to make projections,” Lee said.

The governor said several state economists are assembling data and the State Funding Board will meet again to make recommendations before the legislative session resumes.

Tennessee to allow large attractions to reopen, lift limits on restaurants and stores

Large Tennessee attractions can start reopening next Friday, while restaurants and retail stores will no longer have to limit their capacity as long as social distancing guidelines are followed.

The attractions in question include racetracks, amusement parks, waterparks, theaters, museums, and auditoriums. The announcement comes a day after NASCAR announced plans to hold a race at Bristol Motor Speedway next weekend without any fans present.

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

Nashville, Tenn. – As Tennessee continues to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the state’s Economic Recovery Group announced today it will lift capacity restrictions on restaurants and retail to instead focus on social distancing best practices effective May 22 and issue guidelines to facilitate the safe reopening of larger, non-contact attractions on or after May 22. New Tennessee Pledge guidelines will be released early next week. Six counties – Shelby, Madison, Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Sullivan – may continue to follow individual, county-specific reopening plans created in consultation with State and local health departments.

“Tennesseans have worked incredibly hard to do their part and help slow the spread of COVID-19 so that our state can begin to reopen. Thanks to their continued efforts, we’re able to allow restaurants and retail businesses to operate at greater capacity and large attractions to open in a safe and thoughtful way,” said Governor Bill Lee. “Our state continues to see downward trends in case growth and meets the White House criteria for a phased reopening. This progress has been hard-won, and we can build upon it by reopening while also maintaining common-sense safety measures like mask-wearing and good hygiene. By taking the Tennessee Pledge, our businesses can reopen in a way that protects the health of their customers and employees, and protects the livelihoods of hard-working Tennesseans.”

The new Large Attractions guidance applies to those businesses that can effectively practice social distancing with strong measures to protect both employees and customers, including racetracks, amusement parks, waterparks, theaters and dinner theaters, auditoriums, large museums and more. Restrictions on social gatherings of more than 10 people remain in place for the time being. Updates to Restaurant Guidance will include a lift on capacity restrictions, allowing for increased service as long as social distancing guidelines are adhered to, including 6 feet between tables. 

The updated guidelines come as Tennessee continues to meet the White House state gating criteria for phased reopening. The gating criteria include:

  • Symptoms
    • Downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses (ILI) reported within a 14-day period; AND
    • Downward trajectory of COVID-like syndromic (CLI) cases reported within a 14-day period
  • Cases
    • Downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period; OR
    • Downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period (flat or increasing volume of tests)
  • Hospitals
    • Treat all patients without crisis care; AND
    • Robust testing program in place for at-risk healthcare workers, including emerging antibody testing

 

Hospital capacity remains sufficient to meet the needs of patients, while the state continues to meet the goal of testing 2 percent of the population per month.

The Economic Recovery Group (ERG), composed of 30 leaders from the public and private sector, is crafting guidance to assist businesses in a safe reopening. The industry representatives participating in the ERG collectively represent over 140,000 Tennessee businesses that employ over 2.5M Tennesseans. 

McWhorter leaving Lee administration for higher education, private sector

Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter, right, and Deputy to the Governor Lang Wiseman confer before Gov. Bill Lee’s first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Former Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter is leaving Gov. Bill Lee’s administration after overseeing the “unified command” for the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

McWhorter will become a senior adviser to Clemson University, his alma mater. He will also return to the private sector. Butch Eley has taken over as finance commissioner.

Here’s what The Tennessee Journal wrote when McWhorter stepped down as finance commissioner in March:

McWhorter, the chairman of a healthcare venture capital firm who had served on the board of the Lee Co., was an early backer of Lee’s long-shot gubernatorial bid. He eventually served as the campaign’s finance chairman and was one of Lee’s first appointments following the 2018 election. The finance commissioner is traditionally the governor’s chief Cabinet officer, though McWhorter has appeared at his least comfortable when pressed by reporters about controversies ranging from school vouchers to the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust at the Capitol. He has been more content to focus on the budget planning elements of the job, in which he has presided over a wild roller-coaster ride from the days of overflowing tax coffers to having to cut about $1 billion of the upcoming spending plan to account for the expected economic fallout from the coronavirus.

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

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced next steps for the Unified-Command Group as Stuart McWhorter departs the administration at the end of May to go back to the private sector and to take on a senior advisory role at Clemson University.

“Stuart has been a tremendous asset to my administration, first as the commissioner of Finance and Administration, then in his role as director for our COVID-19 response through Unified-Command,” said Gov. Lee. “His ability to apply private-sector expertise to public-sector challenges has served our state well and I wish him the best in his new chapter with his alma mater’s entrepreneurship and innovation planning.”

The Unified-Command Group, comprised of the Tennessee Department of Health, the Tennessee Department of Military and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, has established working procedures for testing, procurement, hospital capacity contingency planning, data analysis and other core functions in the fight against COVID-19. The Unified-Command Group
continues to coordinate with the Economic Recovery Group through planning and executing on the safe re-boot of Tennessee’s economy.

“The strong work of Unified-Command will continue as we address the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis,” said Lee. “This group has optimized our state’s response and we will keep this model in place for as long as needed.”

TRANSCRIPT: Judge says no offense taken at Lee comments, but declines to lift stay on vouchers

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Nashville Chancellor Anne Martin said Thursday she didn’t take offense at Gov. Bill Lee’s comments earlier this week that he was still encouraging parents to apply for school vouchers even though she had ruled the program unconstitutional. Events were moving quickly, Martin said, and she assumed the governor “was not prepared for the question, particularly at a COVID-19 press conference.”

Martin took greater affront at the state Department of Education for not including any hint of the pending litigation or her ruling finding that the program was unconstitutional on its website.

“It is confusing to parents and indicates a disregard of the court and the rule of law,” she said.

The judge declined the state defendants’ motion to lift a stay on processing voucher applications while her decision is appealed.

Here is Martin’s full ruling from the bench:

“The court has before it a motion filed by the defendants to stay implementation of its injunction against the operation of the ESA program pending appeal. Both the plaintiffs in the Metro case and those in the McEwan case object to this request. In their filings, they provided the court information regarding the state defendants’ failure to honor the injunction, specifically based upon the Department of Education’s continued acceptance of applications through its website, its failure to notify families of the true status of the program, and the statements of Gov. Lee at a COVID-19 press conference the day after the injunction was issued.

Those issues were not discussed as much today as much as I anticipated. But I did read everything that was submitted, including the caselaw. The defendants have tried to assign blame to the plaintiffs for the unfortunate and necessarily expedited nature of these proceedings in relation to the upcoming school year. It has put pressure on families, the private schools that wish to participate in the program, the public-school systems affected, and the state. But the rulemaking on the ESA Act did not finish until mid-February. The state decided to implement the program for the upcoming school year. Lawsuits had to be prepared and motions filed to intervene and for relief. We are where we are, and the court does not believe that anyone has unreasonably sat on their rights.

The court has responded by moving as quickly as possible to hear motions and issue its opinions. While I know the defendants do not agree with the court’s opinion and are appealing it, I thought it important to act quickly, cover the issue thoroughly, be clear in my reasoning, and cite the authorities to support my decision. I believe that I did that, and it is up to a higher court to decide if I got it right.

I also did my best to tee up this case for immediate review by approving interlocutory appeal to the Court of Appeals without the necessity of a motion and identifying the basis upon which defendants could seek to skip that process if the Supreme Court were willing to reach down and take the appeal.

In the meantime, there is the issue of what, if anything, the state defendants can do in relation to the ESA program and also, very importantly, what the public is being told about the status of the program and what applicants should be doing to plan for the 2020-2021 school year. It is not helpful when representatives of the state make statements to the public and the press that are inconsistent with the court’s ruling and the true status of the program. It is confusing to parents and indicates a disregard of the court and the rule of law. However, in addressing the governor’s statements at a state conference on May 5, 2020, the court does not take offense. Honestly, things are moving very quickly, the decision had just come out the evening before, and the court assumes Governor Lee was not prepared for the question, particularly at a COVID-19 press conference.

The court is more concerned about the mixed messaging from the Department of Education since there is not reference to the lawsuit or the status on the website. The current status is the program is enjoined as enacted, because it was enacted in an unconstitutional manner. Whatever happens on appeal will happen. But the current status is the program is not going forward and parents need to be told and to have Plan B.

The court is going to deny the relief requested under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 6203. The court will allow the state to continue taking applications through today, which is the newest deadline. That deadline has moved several times, but Deputy Commissioner Amity Shuyler said in her declaration that the deadline is now today.

The state remains enjoined, however, from using state resources otherwise to process applications, engage parents in schools, and remit any funds in support of this program.

Further, the court is ordering the state to post on the ESA website a notice to the public that the program is currently enjoined, that the ruling is appealed, that the state is hopeful of success on the appeal and to put the program into effect for the upcoming school year. But that remains uncertain at this time and families need to have a backup plan for school next year. And it sounds like what you said, Ms. Bergmeyer, that’s already in process. But the state defendants should file a notice with the court regarding its compliance with that requirement and a copy of the website notice. The court also expects the state defendants to be consistent with that message in speaking to the public.

Lee backs off of keeping voucher applications going after judge’s ruling

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 backing down from a pledge to keep encouraging parents to apply for the state’s school voucher program even after a judge declared the law unconstitutional and enjoined the state from implementing the Education Savings Account Act.

Lee told reporters on Tuesday that applications would still be processed while the state sought an appeal. Late Tuesday night, the attorney general’s office submitted a legal filing asking Nashville Chancellor Anne Martin to lift her order to allow the state to keep taking applications. A hearing has been scheduled for Thursday.

Lee spokesman Gillum Ferguson issued the following statement on Wednesday afternoon:

While we disagree with the court’s ruling, we respect it and believe we are in full compliance. If there are differences of opinion regarding the specific terms of the court’s order, we expect further clarification, soon. In the meantime, the Department of Education has not and will not be taking any action to process, administer, review applications, or further implement the program until this matter is resolved in the courts.

 

Asking for permission after the fact? State seeks judge’s OK to keep taking voucher applications

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at an event in Nashville on April 2, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday declared the state would plow ahead with laying the groundwork for school vouchers while appealing a judge’s ruling that the program is unconstitutional. The governor’s declaration raised eyebrows in legal circles because Nashville Chancellor Anne Martin had explicitly enjoined the state from “implementing and enforcing” the Education Savings Account Act.

Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s office appears to be trying gain some post hoc approval for the governor’s plan to keep encouraging parents to apply for the program while the state appeals the decision. In a court filing submitted to Martin at 10:21 p.m. Tuesday, the defendants “respectfully move to stay the injunction ordered by this Court,” WPLN-FM’s Sergio Martínez-Beltrán reports.

“The trial court’s injunction preventing state officials from implementing and enforcing the ESA Program will result in irreparable injury,” according to the filing. “… Participating students and parents who have begun the application process for participation in the ESA Program are now facing the prospect of returning to underperforming schools.”

Left unsaid in the filing is that nothing in the voucher law limits eligibility to students attending failing schools. The law allows families meeting income requirements whose children attend any public school in Nashville and Shelby to apply.

The Lee administration has pressed ahead with launching the program this fall, much to the consternation of Republican leaders like House Speaker Cameron Sexton. While the controversial state law allows the governor to launch the program this year, it doesn’t actually require the program to go online until the academic year starting in August 2021.

The state’s filing argues that putting a hold on the school voucher program while the appeals are pursued would negatively affect the families of more than 2,500 students who have already applied and could lead private schools to lay off teachers they had hired in anticipation of growing their enrollment.

Voucher law ruled unconstitutional, Lee vows quick appeal

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

A Nashville judge has ruled Tennessee’s school voucher law violated the Tennessee Constitution because it was written in a way to only apply to two of the state’s counties and passed without residents’ consent.

Debate over the the school voucher bill dominated the 2019 legislative session, with the Lee administration starting out with a bill applying to at least five counties. The bill was successively whittled down affect fewer and fewer counties, ending up with just Nashville and and Shelby County in order for the bill to be narrowly approved.

Chancellor Anne Martin found that based on “the legislative history detailing the extensive tweaking of the eligibility criteria in order to eliminate certain school districts to satisfy legislators (rather than tweaking to enhance the merits of the Act) that the legislation is local in form and effect.”

Gov. Bill Lee’s office is promising a prompt legal challenge.

“We strongly disagree with the court’s ruling and will swiftly appeal on behalf of Tennessee students who deserve more than a one-size-fits-all approach to education,” Lee spokesman Gillum Ferguson said in a statement.

Lee administration issues guidance for church activities

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

Gov. Bill Lee’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives has issued a set of guidelines for church services amind the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s what the Lee administration is recommending:

Guidance for Gathering Together in Houses of Worship

Tennessee is stronger because of our citizens and communities of faith. Governor Lee is thankful to the houses of worship and faith communities that have played a large part in Tennessee’s success to slow the spread of COVID-19 through social distancing and other means of worshiping together without physically gathering.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I of the Tennessee Constitution protect the right of Tennesseans to worship and freely exercise their religion in every aspect of their lives according to the dictates of their own consciences. Additionally, the Tennessee Religious Freedom Restoration Act (T.C.A. § 4-1-407) provides additional protections for religious liberty. Thus, state and local governments must ensure these core constitutional and statutory rights are protected.

This resource is an aggregation of suggested protocols from various faith communities across Tennessee. Not all suggestions will be appropriate for each faith community. These suggestions are included as a courtesy for your convenience. These suggestions are not, and should not be construed as, mandates or requirements by the State of Tennessee, the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, or any other entity of federal, state, or local government.

Moving forward, people should continue to exercise caution while COVID-19 remains present in Tennessee. To minister to vulnerable populations while also protecting those populations and continuing our state’s progress to contain COVID-19, faith communities are strongly encouraged to continue offering online services and other creative methods of worship and ministry. Faith communities should conduct
as many activities as possible remotely and should follow the recommendations in this guidance when deciding to begin gathering in person once again.

Continue reading

Poll dives into Tenn. attitudes amid COVID-19

A poll conducted by Harvard, Northeastern, and Rutgers universities found 64% of Tennesseans approve of Lee’s handling of the coronavirus response, while 14% disapprove.

The online survey of 513 Tennesseans (41% Republicans, 30% Democrats, and 24% independents) has a margin of error of ±4 percentage points.

Here are some of the findings for the Tennessee portion of the poll:

How concerned, if at all, do you currently feel about the following: – Getting coronavirus yourself:

  • Not at all concerned: 14%
  • Not very concerned: 18%
  • Somewhat concerned: 38%
  • Very concerned: 28%
  • Not applicable to me: 2%

How much, if at all, has your life been disrupted by the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak:

  • Not at All: 6%
  • A little: 13%
  • A moderate amount: 30%
  • A lot: 22%
  • A great deal: 32%

In the last 24 hours, did you get any news or information related to the current coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak from the following sources:

  • Friends and family: 49%
  • Radio news: 20%
  • Podcasts: 6%
  • Local TV: 56%
  • Network TV: 50%
  • Cable TV: 39%
  • Late night comedy shows: 8%

I feel well-informed about the current state of the COVID-19 outbreak:

  • Strongly disagree: 2%
  • Somewhat disagree: 6%
  • Neither agree nor disagree: 14%
  • Somewhat agree: 48%
  • Strongly agree: 30%

Continue reading