Bill Lee

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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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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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.

Supreme Court won’t intervene in voucher appeal

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

The Tennessee Supreme Court won’t reach down to hear appeal of Nashville judge’s ruling that Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher law is unconstitutional. The state’s highest court also said it won’t lift injunction on implementing the program while the legal challenge is underway.

That means the case stays with the intermediate Court of Appeals, which isn’t scheduled to hear oral arguments until school is scheduled to resume in August.

Here’s the order:

On May 20, 2020, Intervening Defendants Ciera Calhoun, Greater Praise Christian Academy, Alexandria Medlin, Sensational Enlightenment Academy Independent School, and David Wilson, Sr. filed in this Court a motion to assume jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 48 of the Rules of the Tennessee Supreme Court and Tennessee Code Annotated section 16-3-201(d). On that same date, Intervening Defendants Natu Bah, Star Brumfield, Bria Davis, and Builiguissa Diallo filed a motion to assume jurisdiction. On May 21, 2020, Defendants the Tennessee Department of Education, Commissioner Penny Schwinn, in her official capacity as Education Commissioner, and Governor Bill Lee, in his official capacity, filed a motion to assume jurisdiction. On May 21, 2020, Defendants the Tennessee Department of Education, Commissioner Penny Schwinn, in her official capacity as Education Commissioner, and Governor Bill Lee, in his official capacity also filed a motion for review of orders denying a stay of injunction pursuant to Rule 7(a) of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure and Rule 62.08 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure. On May 29, 2020, Roxanne McEwen, David P. Bichell, Terry Jo Bichell, Lisa Mingrone, Claudia Russell, Inez Williams, Sheron Davenport, Heather Kenney, Elise McIntosh, Tracy O’Connor, and Apryle Young (collectively the “McEwen Plaintiffs”) filed a motion for leave to file an amicus brief and tendered their brief pursuant to Rule 31 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure.

The McEwen Plaintiffs’ motion for leave to file an amicus brief is GRANTED, and the brief lodged by them shall be accepted as filed as of the date of this order.

The Court has carefully considered each of the motions to assume jurisdiction, the motion for review of orders denying a stay of injunction, Plaintiffs’ responses in opposition to those motions, and the brief of the amicus. Based upon the current totality of the circumstances, including the relevant timeline and the procedural posture of this case, the Court concludes that this case does not warrant the extraordinary action of the exercise of the Court’s authority to assume jurisdiction. As a result, the motions to assume jurisdiction must be DENIED. For similar reasons, the Court further concludes that the motion for review of orders denying a stay of injunction is DENIED.

Lee announces $200M relief program for businesses affected by shutdown order

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 announced the state will spend $200 million of federal coronavirus relief funds to small companies affected by the state order to close nonessential businesses in an effort to stem the spread of the pandemic.

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

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, and the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group announced a new relief program for Tennessee businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tennessee Business Relief Program will direct approximately $200 million in federal Coronavirus Relief Funds through the Department of Revenue directly to small businesses that qualify.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created immense economic pain across our state and especially among small businesses that faced temporary closure,” said Gov. Lee. “As we responsibly steward our federal stimulus money we have worked to quickly prioritize our small businesses and I thank the work of the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group for their partnership in this.”

The Tennessee Business Relief Program amounts awarded will be based on the annual gross sales of the business. More details will be posted on the Department of Revenue’s website in the coming days.

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Tennessee politicos react to upheaval

Nashville Mayor John Cooper walks by the Metro Courthouse damaged during weekend protests on May 31, 2020 (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

 

Here’s how some elected officials reacted to statewide protests that included clashes with police, vandalism, and fires.

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Non-contact sports, summer camps can resume under new TN guidance

A sign welcomes willing customers to a barber shop in Winchester, Tenn., on May 17, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee’s Economic Recovery Group has released its latest guidance for reopening the state amid the coronavirus pandemic. Under the new guidelines, non-contact sports can resume, as can summer camps.

Here’s the full release:

Nashville, Tenn. – Governor Bill Lee’s Economic Recovery Group issued new guidelines today for noncontact sports, camps, and higher education under the Tennessee Pledge. Since the state began its measured reopening in late April, nearly every industry is now able to resume business in some capacity with specific recommendations to preserve and protect the health and safety of all Tennesseans.

“We’re able to continue reopening our state thanks to the sustained efforts by Tennesseans to social distance and mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” said Gov. Lee.  “It’s important we continue to take personal responsibility for our health and the health of our neighbors, while recognizing and honoring the need for Tennesseans to get back to work and support their families.”

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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.