Monthly Archives: May 2020

Newspaper to local lawmaker: ‘Answer the question’ on no-bid contract

Rep. Micah Van Huss (R-Jonesborough), standing,, confers with colleagues as they await Gov. Bill Lee arrival for his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Johnson City Press is taking state Rep. Micah Van Huss to task for refusing to answer its reporter’s questions about a no-bid facemask contract.

The state spent $8 million for North Carolina sock maker Renfro Corp. to produce the masks. The see-through material used for the masks has raised questions about their effectiveness in preventing the transmission of COVID-19.

The Jonesborough Republican instead cast Republican Bill Lee as the victim of negative news coverage. Van Huss said the Johnson City Press should spend its time “reporting on news that gives Tennesseans hope in our humanity instead of dividing them with a political hit on Governor Lee.”

Van Huss then boasted about his response on social media. According to the paper’s editorial:

If Van Huss actually read this newspaper, he would know that we have published numerous articles about “hope in our humanity” during this crisis. Our reporters repeatedly have written about relief projects, volunteers, creative coping efforts and inspiring people amid this pandemic.

State Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) said he supports granting the governor some latitude during times of emergency.

“During a pandemic, we have expectations that things will need to happen that won’t have that usual check and balance of bids, submissions, requests for comment, requests for quotes in that process,” Lundberg told the paper.

 

Tennessee Supreme Court to livestream oral arguments

The Tennessee Supreme Court plans to livestream oral arguments for the first time on Tuesday. While audio and video of proceedings have been posted online in the past, it was with a delay of up to two days.

Because of limitations on in-person attendance in the courtroom due to COVID-19, the state’s highest court is now broadcasting the hearings on its YouTube page in real time.

Here’s the release from the courts:

The Tennessee Supreme Court remains committed to keeping Tennessee courts open while protecting the health and safety of all parties.  Due to the continued concerns regarding COVID-19, the cases set for the May 19, 2020 docket will be heard by livestream video conferencing.  This is one of the many efforts the Court has taken during the COVID-19 pandemic to prioritize the health and well-being of all litigants, attorneys, judges, and employees of the court system. 

(Details of the cases after the jump)

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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. 

Ag Department warns against illegally imported swine

Don’t illegally bring your swine to Tennessee. That’s the message being sent by the state Agriculture Department on Thursday.

A backlog in meat processing due to the Covid-19 pandemic has led to waiting lists as long as several months, leading to a spike in illegal shipments of pigs in Tennessee, according to the agency. Illegal importation of livestock meat result in civil penalties of $1,000 per animal.

Here’s the full release from the Ag Department:

NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) is reminding citizens that illegally importing livestock to Tennessee can have wide-reaching negative effects for us all.

Livestock producers, dealers, and citizens must adhere to state and federal import requirements for any livestock shipped into Tennessee. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to backlogs at meat processing facilities in other states, leading to an increase in illegal shipments and sales of pigs in Tennessee.

“This presents a health risk for livestock and people in Tennessee,” State Veterinarian Dr. Samantha Beaty said. “Even swine that are raised commercially can carry diseases that aren’t detectable without the proper testing and verification. It’s critical for everyone to follow livestock import rules and requirements to make sure we don’t bring illness here.”

TDA oversees interstate and intrastate movement of animals in Tennessee. TDA’s Agricultural Crime Unit will work with law enforcement agencies and Animal Health Technicians to confirm import compliance for livestock in transit and at livestock markets statewide. Illegal importation of livestock can result in civil penalties up to $1,000 per animal and/or criminal charges.

Individuals planning to purchase livestock for meat should first check local processors for scheduling availability. Many facilities are booked several months out, requiring extended time and expense to maintain and care for the livestock before processing. Pick Tennessee Products offers a directory of meat processors online at www.picktnproducts.org.

The State Veterinarian’s Office seeks to prevent the spread of disease through import and movement requirements, livestock traceability, disaster mitigation, and the services of the C. E. Kord Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratory.

Choosing sides in the Walley-Templeton state Senate race

Former state Rep. Page Walley and former Agriculture Commissioner Jai Templeton are assembling their campaign teams for this year’s only open state Senate race to succeed retiring Sen. Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville).

Walley is getting his campaign consulting from Bob Davis, a former state Republican Party chairman, and the Stoneridge Group. Templeton has enlisted another former state GOP chairman, Tommy Hopper, and consultant Layne Provine.

Former state Rep. Barrett Rich is backing Templeton, while retired Rep. Steve McDaniel is supporting Walley.

Senate District 26 comprises Chester, Decatur, Fayette, Hardeman, Hardin, Haywood, McNairy, and Henderson counties.

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Sethi returning to campaign trail for Senate bid

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 ready to get back on the campaign trail. The Vanderbilt physician says he plans to hit all 95 counties.

Here’s the release from the Sethi campaign:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Republican Senate candidate and conservative outsider Dr. Manny Sethi announced today that he will begin a 95 county tour in the coming days. As announced in March, the campaign will be doing townhalls in person, and have been doing virtual townhalls, taking questions directly from Tennesseans.

“Over the last ten years with our health care nonprofit, Maya and I have visited every corner of the state, and again since kicking off our campaign in June. From now until Election Day on August 6th, I will be visiting every county in Tennessee,” said Dr. Manny. “I believe the way you campaign is the way you will represent. I will represent every person from Mountain City to Memphis, Turtletown to Tiptonville, and I will be visiting every county to share my vision for this state and country.”

“Tennesseans are looking for a trustworthy, conservative candidate, and Dr. Manny is the candidate who is talking directly to voters and answering their questions. He’s open, honest, and wants to hear directly from Tennesseans,” said Forrest Barnwell-Hagemeyer, Campaign Manager. “We look forward to being in every county from now until Election Day.”

Dr. Manny will be visiting every county safely and all events will be in compliance with President Trump and Governor Lee’s guidelines.

Haslam backing Tennessee Tutoring Corps to tackle enhanced ‘summer slide’

Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at a press conference at the state Capitol in Nashville on March 1, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Former Gov. Bill Haslam is backing an effort to recruit college students to tutor children in kindergarten through sixth grade whose education has been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Here’s the full release:

Knoxville, Tenn. – The Bill and Crissy Haslam Foundation, in partnership with Boys & Girls Clubs in Tennessee and other youth-serving organizations across the state, today launched a new statewide Tennessee Tutoring Corps (TTC) to provide summer learning opportunities for rising K-6th grade students whose education has been interrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 
 
“The ‘summer slide’ is a very real problem each year, and, with students being out of school for so long because of the coronavirus, this year could be more of a summer avalanche,” Bill Haslam said.  “We know that younger students and low-income students are especially vulnerable to summer learning loss, and we want to help address the problem.”
 
The Tennessee Tutoring Corps, which will run from June to August, aims to recruit at least 1,000 qualified college students to serve as tutors to students entering K-6 grade this fall. Eighteen Boys & Girls Clubs organizations representing nearly 90 clubs across the state will join with locally-run, youth-serving nonprofits in several counties to help facilitate the program.  

Recent research predicts the pandemic will significantly worsen the summer slide, with learning loss affecting students nationwide. Estimates suggest students could return in the fall retaining only 70 percent of typical learning gains in reading and less than 50 percent of usual learning gains in math. In some grades, students could be nearly a full year behind. 
 
Additionally, news reports suggest that as many as 30 percent of college students have lost summer internship opportunities due to COVID-related economic distress. Recognizing that many college students are experiencing financial strain or loss of employment opportunities due to the pandemic, tutors will be compensated with a stipend of up to $1,000 for their work through the duration of the summer program. 
 
“In creating this program, we hope to attract college students who care about their communities, about making a difference during this difficult time, and about helping younger students learn and grow,” Crissy Haslam said. “Many of these college students thought they would be doing something else this summer and have suddenly found themselves available.  Both the college students and younger students will be in extraordinary circumstances this year.”  
 
Qualified tutors must be current college students and must pass a background check. Preference will be given to those who have a 3.0 GPA or higher, have at least completed their freshman year, and are Tennessee residents. Interested candidates can learn more and submit an application on the Tennessee Tutoring Corps website at www.tntutoringcorps.org. The deadline for applications is 11:59am EST on Friday, May 29.
 
TTC is a pilot project that will be evaluated for effectiveness and feasibility in considering future opportunities. More information is available at www.tntutoringcorps.org.

Lee appoints Gibson as chief operating officer

Gov. Bill Lee, bottom left, looks on as his Cabinet takes the oath of office in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2019. (Erik Schelzig Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has named Brandon Gibson as the state’s new chief operating officer. Gibson, a former state appeals judge, previously served as a senior adviser to the governor. She succeeds Butch Eley, who is now the commissioner of the state Finance Department.

“Brandon has been a respected voice both within our administration and across our state,” Lee said in a release. “Her ability to think creatively and bring innovative ideas to fruition will be critical as state government continues to provide services to our customers in new ways during these challenging times. We’re lucky to have a public servant like Brandon in Tennessee and I’m excited for her to get started in this new role.”

 

General fund revenues fell $651M short of projections in April

Tennessee general fund revenue collections in April fell $651 million short of the projections established before the the coronavirus pandemic wrought havoc on the state’s economy.

Corporate franchise and excise taxes fell $487 million short of estimates, though a large portion of that may be explained by the governor’s decision to delay the filing deadlinefrom April to July. Sales tax revenues were $61 million less than projected in the month.

April revenue collections reflect economic activity in March, meaning the full budget impact of the pandemic won’t likely reveal itself until next month’s figures are released.

Here is the release form the state Department of Finance & Administration:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley today announced that revenues for April were less than the monthly revenues from the previous year. Overall state revenues for April were $1.3 billion, which is a negative growth rate of 39.75 percent compared to last year and $693.8 million less than the state budgeted.

“The signs of economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic have begun to appear in Tennessee’s April tax receipts,” Eley said. “April sales tax revenues, reflecting March taxable sales activity, were weakened as the state began to withdraw from its usual patterns of consumer spending by mid-month.  Franchise and excise tax receipts, along with Hall income and business taxes are also notably reduced due to filing extensions that will allow individuals and businesses to report their taxable activity later in the year.

“It has been 10 years since an economic downturn has impacted state revenues. The state’s large monthly revenue surpluses built up throughout the beginning of the year will now be tested as the pandemic’s impact begins to erase those gains.  Yet, we remain committed to keeping the state’s budget in balance despite the current challenges.”

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