Monthly Archives: May 2020

Alexander lauds coronavirus testing in Tennessee

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Maryville) speaks at a Tennessee Titans event in Nashville on Dec. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is presiding over health committee hearings while in self-quarantine in Tennessee, is lauding his home state’s COVID-19 testing regimen. But the Maryville Republican is warning that more needs to be done before college campuses can reopen this fall.

“Tennessee has tested 4 percent of its population. The governor hopes to increase that to 7 percent by the end of May,” Alexander said. “That impressive level of testing is sufficient to begin Phase I of going back to work in Tennessee, but as I said last week, it is not nearly enough to provide confidence to 31,000 students and faculty that it is safe to return to the University of Tennessee Knoxville campus in August.”

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

MARYVILLE, Tennessee, May 12, 2020 — Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today said that COVID-19 testing in the United States is “impressive” and “enough to begin going back to work.”

“But millions more rapid tests created by new technologies are needed to give the rest of America enough confidence to go back to work and back to school,” Alexander added.

Alexander made his remarks today during the Senate health committee hearing — “COVID-19: Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School” — which featured testimony from Administration officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), about what federal, state and local governments are doing to help Americans go back to work and back to school as rapidly and safely as possible. 

“According to Johns Hopkins University, the United States has tested over 9 million Americans for COVID-19. That is twice as many as any other country — we don’t know what China has done — and more per capita than most countries including South Korea, which several committee members have cited as an example of a country doing testing well.”

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

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.

“President Trump is right,” she says in the ad. “Let’s put America first by holding China accountable, controlling our borders, and bringing medical manufacturing back to America.”

Left unsaid is that Harshbarger’s husband pleaded guilty to federal charges of distributing misbranded drugs from China in 2013.

As the Kingsport Times-News reported at the time, Bob Harshbarger acknowledged misbranding iron sucrose purchased from China as the kidney dialysis drug Venofer. Prosecutors said he bought the non-FDA approved substances from China because they were cheaper than the brand-name drug.

Bob and Diana Harshbarger owned companies sharing the same Kingsport address, and she took over as the registered agent for his American Inhalation Medication Specialists Inc. after he was sentenced to four years in prison. The company was dissolved in 2018.

Alexander to self-quarantine after staffer tests positive for COVID-19

Former Govs. Lamar Alexander, left, and Phil Bredesen await the start of the inauguration of Gov. Bill Lee in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

U.S. Lamar Alexander (R-Maryville) will remain in self-quarantine in Tennessee for the next two weeks after a staffer tested positive for COVID-19. The senator tested negative last week and didn’t have any symptoms.

““The senator will be working remotely and will chair the Senate health committee hearing on Tuesday morning by videoconference where the witnesses will be Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Robert Redfield, Dr. Brett Giroir, and Dr. Stephen Hahn,” Alexander’s chief of staff, David Cleary, said in a release.

WASHINGTON, D.C., May 10, 2020 — David Cleary, chief of staff for United States Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), today released the following statement:

“Today, Sunday, May 10, a member of Senator Lamar Alexander’s staff tested positive for COVID-19. The staff member is recovering at home and is doing well. 

“Senator Alexander has no symptoms and tested negative for COVID-19 on Thursday afternoon, May 7. After discussing this with the Senate’s attending physician, Senator Alexander, out of an abundance of caution, has decided not to return to Washington, D.C., and will self-quarantine in Tennessee for 14 days. Almost all of the senator’s Washington, D.C., staff are working from home, and there is no need for any other staff member to self-quarantine.

“The senator will be working remotely and will chair the Senate health committee hearing on Tuesday morning by videoconference where the witnesses will be Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Robert Redfield, Dr. Brett Giroir, and Dr. Stephen Hahn.”

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.

State Democrats vote to keep DNC member Bill Owen despite heavy GOP donations

The state Democratic Party has turned back efforts to remove former state Sen. Bill Owen (D-Knoxville) as a member of the Democratic National Committee because of heavy donations to Republicans in recent years.

According to one of the first reports by the newly launched Tennessee Lookout, Owen survived the challenge after a three-hour meeting of the state executive committee, with the panel voting 40-15 against throwing him out.

According to OpenSecrets.org data, Owen has given nearly $32,000 in federal contributions to Republican candidates and committees since 2018, including to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz when he was running against Democrat Beto O’Rourke in Texas and to Martha McSally in her losing Senate bid in Arizona against Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. Owen has given $13,900 in federal contributions to Democratic candidates and committees over that same period.

Owen argued the GOP donations are the cost of doing business as a lobbyist and said he had given about $500,000 to Democrats over the years. The OpenSecrets records show Owen has given about $99,000 to Democrats on the federal level since 1994 and $39,000 to Republicans. State-level donations are not included in that tally.

The decision to keep Owen in the Democratic fold follows a recent vote to oust longtime state Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) from the primary ballot because of his habit of siding with Republicans on issues like abortion and school vouchers.

UPDATE: Here is a comment from Owen:

My contributions were for the purchase of tickets to the Senators Classic, a Republican fundraiser. I did so solely in the course of representing my client, KLOX Technologies. They manufacture a light therapy product that helps heal chronic wounds for people with diabetes. KLOX had applied for device designation in 2013, but by 2018 they had not received approval. I was contracted in May of 2018 to help move the decision through the FDA’s Office of Combination Products (OCP). Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) sponsored the Obama requested 21st Century Cures Act with the goal of bringing needed products to market more quickly. After I worked on the problem for 14 months, the OCP recommended approval and the product is now in clinical trials. Sen. Burr is also Co-Chair of The Senators Classic. Although I am pleased that the KLOX Light Therapy product should soon be available in America, I realize that my successful lobbying effort has created an appearance of a conflict. Therefore, I have terminated my Washington lobbying practice. It was not my intention to contribute to individual Republican Senators. The staff of the Senators Classic distributed the funds to the individual Senators.

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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.

Will the General Assembly return full bore?

A tentative House schedule for the week of May 25, 2020.

Lawmakers are preparing to return to Nashville to start getting ready for the resumption of the legislative session put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic. The session is scheduled to resume on June 1, but meetings are scheduled to begin the previous week.

The Senate favors limiting deliberations to downward adjustments to the state’s spending plan and other bills directly related to the COVID-19 response. Lee appears to agree. The House, on the other hand, wants to pick up where it left off on a raft of bills.

“COVID-19 is not the only thing Tennesseans care about,” House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) told The Tennessean. “It is the most important thing right now to combat this virus, but there are a lot of other important things to debate.

“We’re not going to allow COVID-19 to dictate to us that every single aspect of our society must be shelved because of this virus.”