coronavirus

Voucher applications go live amid coronavirus crisis

Applications are going live for the state’s new school voucher program amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis that has caused public schools to close their doors for several weeks.

Applications for the education savings accounts, or ESAs, will be accepted through April 29 — five days after Gov. Bill Lee’s current recommendation for schools to remain closed.

Lee caught many lawmakers off guard when he announced he would seek to launch the voucher program this coming August rather than wait to do so in 2021, a non-election year. But he nonetheless pressed ahead this year, even while making deep cuts to other proposed new programs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s a video explaining the applications process:

Pressure mounts on Lee to issue statewide stay-at-home order

Gov. Bill Lee arrives for a press conference on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

With 71 of 95 Tennessee counties reporting confirmed coronavirus cases, the pressure is building on Gov. Bill Lee to declare a statewide stay-at-home order.

Lee has recommended that schools remain shut through April 24, banned statewide gatherings of more than 10 people, and required bars and restaurants to limit their business to takeout and delivery service. But while cities like Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, and Chattanooga have told non-essential businesses to shutter amid the pandemic, Lee has declined to follow suit for the rest of the state.

That has set up a situation where businesses are closed inside the city and county lines where state-at-home orders are in place, but their counterparts can operate as normal if they are located just beyond those jurisdictions.

“Tennesseans have shut down,” Lee said at a press conference in Memphis on Friday. “This state is largely closed down except for the number of folks that are moving around for the appropriate reasons.”

But Lee acknowledged “that’s not true of every Tennessean.”

The state got some negative publicity when Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, urged residents living near the state line not to venture into Tennessee.

“If you are a Kentuckian living on that border, I need you to not go to Tennessee for anything other than work or helping a loved one or maybe the grocery, if it is there closer. If you ultimately go down over that border and go to a restaurant or something that’s not open in Kentucky, what you do is you bring back the coronavirus here in Kentucky,” Beshear said. “And again the sacrifice that the people inside your county are making, ultimately you don’t honor by doing that.”

Critics noted that Tennessee not only has a larger population, but that the state has conducted far more coronavirus tests than Kentucky. And infection rates are similar.

Is the ‘party over’ for Gov. Bill Lee?

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

Just weeks ago, Gov. Bill Lee and fellow Republicans who run the General Assembly were arguing about where to stash overflowing tax revenues. Everything has changed since the economic impact of the coronavirus has started coming into focus.

The governor has come under increasing pressure over his decision not to order a statewide shelter-in-place order — he’s instead left it to mayors in the state’s largest cities to issue their own guidance.

The Daily Memphian‘s Sam Stockard is positing that the “party’s over” for the new Lee administration as it grapples with the new realities:

While Lee and his new COVID-19 Unified Command have been working overtime amid a state of emergency and executive orders to provide financial support and stem the spread of a hardcore bug that isn’t even alive, some lawmakers say the state’s response has been scattered, at best, sending mixed messages to the public.

Physicians, meanwhile, call Lee “weak” on leadership for refusing to join about 20 other governors in declaring a statewide “safer at home” order to quell the severity of the pandemic.

Lee and other Republican leaders acknowledge the situation is “liquid” and that strategies can change daily, if not hourly, based on the latest information.

Read the rest of the article here.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe looks into the blue/red divide when it comes to responding to the pandemic. The paper looked at the city of Bristol, which is famously divided between Virginia and Tennessee.

It was Saturday night on a main street in the South, but locals described something odd: One side of the street was almost normal, if quiet, with restaurants serving dinner and groups of young people milling around. The other side of the street looked practically vacant.

“There was no foot traffic on the left side,” recalled business owner Janet Atwell, 51.

Both sides of State Street are in cities called Bristol, but the left side is Virginia, the right side is Tennessee and the yellow line down the middle of the road is both a state border and a new frontier in this country’s uneven response to the coronavirus outbreak that often is breaking down along partisan lines.

The different scenes on either side of the pavement reflected the differing pace of the two state’s governors as they seek to contain the pandemic. On that Saturday night on March 21, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia, a Democrat, had established stricter limits on public gatherings than Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee, a Republican. Since then, both governors have banned dining inside restaurants and public gatherings of more than 10 people, but Northam has ordered a larger swath of nonessential businesses to close.

Read the full article here.

Sethi: ‘Human lives will always be more important than dollars’

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Manny Sethi speaks at a campaign event in Clarksville on Feb. 4, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Manny Sethi is outlining his plan to for economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Sethi, a surgeon at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said while it’s important to get Americans back to worth, “human lives will always be more important than dollars.”

“Our economy will not bounce back if portions of the workforce are seriously ill or do not survive,” he said.

Here’s the full release from the Sethi campaign:

NASHVILLE, Tenn – Conservative outsider and Republican candidate for Senate, Dr. Manny Sethi released his plan to get America back to work today. Dr. Manny, founder of a public health advocacy nonprofit in Tennessee, believes our country can get people back to work and protect the health of Americans at the same time, but it must be done in a thoughtful and deliberate way.

We saw unemployment numbers reach record numbers this morning. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, much of the American economy has been shut down, hurting American workers, businesses, and families in a way we haven’t seen before.

This morning 3.28 million new claims were announced, which is already higher than any past economic crisis, including the 2008 market collapse and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Previously, the highest number of jobless claims was 695,000 in 1982.

While economic revitalization is imperative, human lives will always be more important than dollars. On Thursday, Dr. Manny released the following statement and plan:

“Tennessee is still dealing with this issue, but at some point America cannot sustain a long, drawn-out shutdown. We must start working immediately on ways to get our citizens back to work and our economy moving. Our economy will not bounce back if portions of the workforce are seriously ill or do not survive. In the operating room, when things are moving fast, I’ve learned we have to slow down and think through the best way forward, instead of overreacting.

“I would recommend tackling this region by region, state by state, community  by community. This is not a one-size-fits-all solution for the whole country. Some communities and states will recover from this virus breakout sooner than others. As the threat lessens, these areas need to start lifting restrictive mandates and get their economy back to work.”

Dr. Manny’s proposal to get America back-to-work entails:

  • Federal authorities should work with states to identify when it is safe for individual communities to start lifting mandates once the health threat decreases in their respective areas.
    U.S. health officials should also work with state governments to assess quarantine and containment strategies based on evolving evidence.
  • Companies should be encouraged to continue to utilize telecommuting as much as possible. This will slow the rate of return back to the public workplace. Tax credits and other incentives should be provided to incentivize companies to put the health and safety of employees first, without losing their business.
  • Utilize the Defense Production Act, if needed, to produce medical equipment such masks, gowns, and ventilators. Pass legislation that gives American companies incentives to produce such equipment in the United States.
  • Immediately begin to shift production of Chinese and foreign-made pharmaceuticals to the United States. This is a national security issue, and there is an immediate need for many important drugs to be produced here, and a need to immediately phase-in production of many others.
  • Continue to implement international travel bans and strongly caution Americans to avoid non-essential domestic travel until national health officials approve.

Lee extends school closure recommendation, corporate tax filing deadline

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 his recommended school closure period to April 24 amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Republican governor also announced Tuesday that the state’s deadline for filing corporate franchise and excise taxes will be extended from April to July 15.

State workers who have been working from home have been instructed to keep doing so until April 24. They had previously been scheduled to return to work at the end of the month. About 23,000 state employees have been working from home.

The governor mobilized the National Guard to assist with the state’s pandemic response. Lee said 250 guard members have been called up, including 150 who are medically trained. They will be assigned to assist with 35 remote assessment sights around the state as the virus spreads to more rural counties.

Lee names McWhorter to head ‘unified command’ on Tennessee coronavirus response

Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter presents budget cuts to the Senate Finance Committee on March 18, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has named Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter to head a new “unified command” on the state’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

McWhorter,who will step aside from his role as head of the Department of Finance and Administration to take on the new role, named retired Army Brig. Gen. Scott Bower as his chief of staff. Bower is a former acting commander of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell.

Here’s the full release from Gov. Bill Lee’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee established the COVID-19 Unified Command, a joint effort to be led by Commissioner Stuart McWhorter, to streamline coordination across the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA), Tennessee Department of Health and Tennessee Department of Military.

“The COVID-19 pandemic challenges every aspect of traditional government response in a crisis,” said Gov. Lee. “I have appointed the Unified Command to effectively change the way we attack COVID-19 in Tennessee as we work to simultaneously address health, economic and supply crises.”

Commissioner Stuart McWhorter currently heads the Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration and will leave this post to head the COVID-19 Unified Command. McWhorter appointed retired Brig. Gen. Scott Brower to serve as chief of staff for the operation.

“Gen. Brower’s special forces background and previous service as the Acting Senior Commander for the 101st Airborne Division has enabled him to pull leaders together and troubleshoot quickly in a crisis,” said McWhorter. “Gov. Lee has urged our team to challenge every barrier and assembling this team is the first step.”

Brower resides in Clarksville and most recently served as the military advisor in residence to the president of Austin Peay State University. The COVID-19 Unified Command also includes:

  • Patrick Sheehan, TEMA Director
  • Dr. Lisa Piercey, Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Health
  • Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes, Adjutant General, Tennessee Department of Military

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

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 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.

Restaurants that serve alcohol will be allowed to sell alcohol for off-premise consumption under the oder.  Gyms and fitness centers will also be ordered closed.

The executive order runs from Monday through April 6.

Meanwhile, Nashville Mayor John Cooper has issued a “Safer at Home” policy for the city that requires all non-essential businesses to close their doors. As of Sunday morning, Nashville had 179 residents who had contracted COVID-19, with those between ages 18 and 49 making up nearly 70% of the cases.

Under guidance issued by the Metro Nashville Department of Public Health:

YOU CAN … 

  • Go to the grocery, convenience or warehouse store
  • Go to the pharmacy to pick up medications and other healthcare necessities
  • Go to medical appointments (check with your doctor or provider first)
  • Go to a restaurant for take-out, delivery or drive-thru
  • Care for or support a friend or family member
  • Take a walk, ride your bike, hike, jog and be in nature for exercise — just keep at least six feet between you and others.
  • Walk your pets and take them to the veterinarian if necessary
  • Help someone to get necessary supplies
  • Receive deliveries from any business which delivers

YOU SHOULD NOT … 

  • Go to work unless you are providing essential services as defined by this Order
  • Visit friends and family if there is no urgent need
  • Maintain less than 6 feet of distance from others when you go out
  • Visit loved ones in the hospital, nursing home, skilled nursing facility or other residential care facility, except for limited exceptions as provided on the facility websites.

Is this Order mandatory? What happens if I don’t comply?

Yes. This is a legally enforceable order.

The governor’s full release is after the jump.

Continue reading

House, Senate pass barebones budget

The state Capitol has been closed to visitors since March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly have passed a barebones budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The spending plan projects no economic growth and required the deep reductions from Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s original proposal.

Democratic efforts to eliminate about $40 million to start up the governor’s school voucher program failed.

Lee was on hand to watch the the budget debate in the House and Senate.

Here is Gov. Lee’s revised budget plan amid coronavirus pandemic

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

The governor’s revised budget proposal assumes Tennessee’s economic growth will drop from a projected 3.1 to zero in the coming fiscal year.

A detailed breakdown can be viewed here: FY21 Amendment Overview Schedule.

Here are the assumptions of his plan for addressing the fallout from the corona virus in the current budget year and next, as released by the governor’s office:

Recognizing the sudden change to our economic circumstances by:

  • Lowering our Growth Rate for the current year from 3.75% to 2.5%.
  • Revising our FY21 growth rate from 3.1% to basically zero.
  • Adding to our reserves: Rainy day: $1.2 billion balance at 6/30/20 & $1.45 billion balance at 6/30/21.
  • Making an additional $57M in base reductions.

New spending items that include:

  • Fully Funding the BEP Formula.
  • Fully Funding Higher Education outcomes-based funding formula.
  • Fully funding our Pension contribution.
  • Fully funding our OPEB Liability contribution.
  • Fully funding the inflationary growth in TennCare.
  • Fully funding the growth in DCS children in state services.

Adding resources to critical services:

  • DL Services.
  • State Road Troopers (10 Troopers).
  • TBI Field Agents (25 agents).

Continuing to address, not defer, the long list of deferred Capital Maintenance items in both state government and higher education.

Expanding services for our most vulnerable population.

Providing salary funding for state employees, higher education and K12.

Responding to the Tornado Disaster and COVID-19 by:

  • Adding $30 million to our Disaster Relief Fund for TEMA.
  • Adding significantly to our fund for emergencies to repair state buildings.
  • Establishing a new $150M fund to help us be responsive to Health & Safety Issues resulting from COVID-19.
  • Doubling our Local Government Grants from $100M to $200M (no county will receive less than $500,000 & no municipality will receive less than $30,000).
  • Strengthening our Safety Net for Mental Health and Health.

UPDATE: For the  budget amendment in text form, click here.

 

What’s mission critical? Business groups take issue with bill to change property tax appeals

A bill to change the way the state handles appeals of property assessments is raising red flags among members of the state’s business community.

The state Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business argue the proposal sponsored by Sen. Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield) and Rep. Esther Helton (R-East Ridge) will result in higher property taxes. It’s the sort of bill that would usually draw a lot of debate between various interests, but the closure of the Capitol complex to the public means there has been no expert testimony or ability for advocates to speak with members about the measure.

The business groups question whether the proposal falls under the heading of mission critical legislation that needs to be passed before the General Assembly goes on at least a two-month break due to the spread of the coronavirus. Similar concerns are being raised about bills seeking to govern election registration drives and to grant local governments more leeway on public meetings requirements.

Here’s the letter sent by the business associations to House members this morning:

Good morning, Members of the House Local Government Committee.

NFIB asks for your vote of NO on HB 2348 by Rep. Helton. We share the following concerns with regards to transparency and open debate and the potential impact on Tennessee taxpayers.

  • The bill is NOT listed on the posted public calendar for today’s 8 a.m. hearing but is listed as being scheduled for today under the actual bill page, at the time of this email transmission.
  • Because of understandable restrictions placed on access to public buildings, you will not be hearing arguments either from proponents or opponents on this very substantive bill today that impacts property-owning taxpayers and local governments.
  • We disagree with some who say the legislation is “mission essential” to pass now. This debate has been ongoing since last fall and can wait until you hear from experts when session reconvenes later this year.
  • The Senate amendment was only adopted yesterday, with no testimony from interested parties and experts on both sides. The House amendment adopted in subcommittee is still not on the state website as of this morning.
  • The vote will undo Tennessee law that has been in existence since 1984 (Laurel Hill Apartments), under which the full State Board ruled “as a matter of law, property in Tennessee is required to be valued and equalized according to ‘Market Value Theory.’ … Property is to be appraised annually at full market value and equalized by application of the appropriate appraisal ratio.”
  • Many taxpayers will see significantly higher property tax rates, if this bill passes, which arguably will be viewed by some as a backdoor tax increase.