Monthly Archives: June 2020

Polls find support for expanded absentee voting during pandemic

Two polls released Tuesday indicate strong support for expanding voting by mail amid the coronavirus pandemic.

One survey conducted on behalf of Secure Democracy by Republican pollster Anchor Research and the Baker Group found 67% of Tennesseans support allowing all voters to cast absentee ballots while also keeping polling locations open. Another 31% were opposed.

A survey conducted on behalf of Vanderbilt University found 57% support voting by mail, while 42% opposed. The SSRS poll found opinions were heavily influenced by voters’ political leanings. While 81% of self-identified Democrats said they supported absentee balloting, 71% of Republicans were opposed. Among independents, 68% said they were in favor, while 32% were against.

Among other findings, Secure Democracy found a 61% to 33% approval rating for Gov. Bill Lee and a 57% to 43% favorability rating for President Donald Trump.

Vanderbilt had Lee’s approval rating at 64% to 27%, and Trump’s at 51% to 47%.

Vanderbilt polled 1,000 registered voters by phone between May 5 and May 22. It has a margin of error of ±3.8 percentage points. Secure Democracy’s online poll of 740 likley voters was conducted on May 26.

State sales tax collections drop $106M in first full month of coronavirus

Tennessee’s sales tax collections decreased by $106 million in the first full month of the coronavirus pandemic compared with the same month last year, a $13% drop.

General fund revenues missed projections by $144 million in May and have fallen short of expectations by $308 million through the first 10 months of the budget year.

Here’s the full release from the Department of Finance and Administration:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley today announced that revenues for May were $981.9 million, which is $197.3 million less than the budgeted monthly revenue estimate. State tax revenues were $184.7 million less than May 2019 and the overall revenue for the month represented a negative growth rate of 15.83 percent.

“May sales tax collections represent consumer spending that occurred during April, when Tennesseans were staying at home and many businesses were closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Eley said. “While sales of autos, apparel, furniture and restaurants dropped extensively, building materials and food stores sales experienced considerable growth. The state also realized large drops in gasoline tax receipts, motor vehicle title and registration taxes and mixed drink revenues.

“We responded quickly to develop plans that would mitigate revenue shortfalls at the outset of the pandemic and now the work begins to bring spending in line with what economists predict we will experience. We are encouraged about the improving employment numbers in Tennessee and while we hope for solid recovery trends, we are preparing for a longer and slower growth period, managing our budget conservatively as we work to help all of Tennessee recover from this unprecedented economy.”

As previously noted last month, the Tennessee Department of Revenue extended the due date for certain taxes on April 6, 2020 and the extensions can be found on their website at https://www.tn.gov/revenue/news/2020/3/31/tennessee-extends-certain-tax-deadlines-due-to-covid-19.html.

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Senate candidates take contrasting stands on use of military to put down protests

In one of the starkest contrasts of the U.S. Senate race so far, Manny Sethi disagreed with rival Republican Bill Hagerty about whether the active-duty military should have a role in responding to civil unrest around the country.

Hagerty early last week called on President Donald Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to crack down on violence and “domestic terrorism.” The Sethi campaign, however, told The Tennessee Journal, that the National Guard was better suited for the role.

Here’s the statement from Sethi campaign manager Chris Devaney:

Manny appreciates President Trump’s leadership, which is why he doesn’t think we need the 101st Airborne in this. Our U.S. military exists to kill bad guys, not to do police work. Our National Guard is more than capable of dealing with these rioters and looters, upholding the rule of law, and busting some heads if need be, to protect our country.

Trump last week week criticized governors for being “weak” and failing to “dominate the streets.” He floated the idea of using the Insurrection Act to send the military into states where governors hadn’t called in the National Guard, but ultimately didn’t take that step.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee authorized the Guard to intervene when Nashville protesters clashed with police and set fire to the Metro Courthouse. The Guard was also called in to augment security at the state Capitol, though the governor heaped praise on soldiers for laying down their shields during a peaceful protest.

The president over the weekend ordered Guard units to start returning to their home states “now that everything is under perfect control.”

Rand Paul endorses Sethi in Tennessee U.S. Senate race

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is endorsing Manny Sethi’s bis for the Republican nomination to succeed  Sen. Lamar Alexander.

“Tennessee deserves a true conservative who supports President Trump, is pro-liberty, and will fight out-of-control federal spending,” Paul said in a release. “I believe Dr. Manny is the right choice, like me, he’s a physician, not another politician. We need more outsiders in Washington, and I’m proud to endorse him today.”

Sethi’s rivals for the nomination include former Ambassador Bill Hagerty and Memphis broadcaster George Flinn.

Election officials instructed not to immediately comply with judge’s order on absentee ballots

A Nashville judge has ordered the state to start issuing absentee ballots to any registered voter who requests one, but State Election Coordinator Mark Goins is telling local officials not to immediately comply.

According to Goins:

Regarding the court’s decision, until we provide further instructions, do not send out any absentee applications. We may be sending a revised form. Do not update your own forms or language on your website yet. It is very important that we have uniform language. We are working on language for our website.  In the meantime, we expect a request for stay to put the ruling on hold as soon as possible […]

If a voter calls and asks for an application because of COVID-19, go ahead and take their information so you can send them a form later with the revised language if we update the form or a stay is not granted.

That appears to conflict with Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle’s order, which enjoined election officials from enforcing previous rules and mandated that they “prominently post on their websites and disseminate to County Election Officials that voters who do not wish to vote in-person due to the COVID-19 virus situation are eligible to request an absentee ballot by mail or that such voters still have the option to vote in-person during Early voting or on Election Day.”

The decision to hold off on putting the order into effect is reminiscent of Gov. Bill Lee’s announcement that he would continue to urge parents to apply for school voucher while the state appealed a ruling that found the law unconstitutional. The judge later denied a motion to lift her stay and berated the Education Department for failing to inform potential applicants about the legal challenge on its website.

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Slatery blasts judge for ruling allowing any voter to cast absentee ballot

State Attorney General Herbert Slatery, right, speaks with Rep. Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station) on the House floor in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State Attorney General Herbert Slatery issued an unusual statement criticizing a sitting judge for ruling against the state in a lawsuit over access to absentee ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle on Thursday evening rejected what she called the the state’s “oddly skewed” calculations about what it would take to drop restrictions on who can vote by mail. Election officials had estimated that under the change, 100% of registered voters could cast absentee ballots and overwhelm the system. Tennessee has never had a turnout anywhere near so high, Lyle said in the ruling.

“It is yet another court decision replacing legislation passed by the people’s elected officials with its own judgment,” Slatery said in a statement, which didn’t indicate whether he might seek an appeal.

Here’s the full statement:

Nashville- This evening Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ordered state government to abandon long standing requirements for in person voting.

Tennessee, like all states, must engage in a delicate balancing act: it must safeguard voters from COVID-19 exposure while ensuring that voters are not disenfranchised.   

Tennessee’s election officials consulted with experts from the Tennessee Department of Health and county health departments to create a comprehensive COVID-19 election plan that conforms to the CDC’s guidance and makes Tennessee’s polling places safer than the general community.

The Court’s ruling, while rightly taking into account the safety of Tennessee’s voters and poll workers, failed to appropriately consider the extensive safety measures of the COVID-19 election plan, and, more importantly, gave little weight to the unanimous expertise of state and county election officials that hastily expanding absentee voting is impracticable and risks disenfranchising Tennessee voters. 

The Court’s order has taken this important decision away from Tennessee’s state and county election experts and unnecessarily risks voter confusion, potential voter fraud, and election disruption.

“It is yet another court decision replacing legislation passed by the people’s elected officials with its own judgment, largely ignoring the practicalities of implementing such a decision, and doing so in the midst of a pandemic and budget crisis,” said Herbert H. Slatery III.

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 outlines budget cuts due to economic impact of coronavirus

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’s office says $500 million in cuts will be needed for the current budget year and $1 billion for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Finance Commissioner Butch Eley said the administration plans to balance the budget using reserves over three years.

The state plans to create a voluntary buyout program for state employees, reduce spending on building projects and maintenance, and dial back spending in all state agencies. But officials have abandoned previous considerations of suspending this year’s back-to-school sales tax holiday and delaying the end of the Hall tax on income from stocks.

“We will balance our budget each year while providing important services to our citizens,” Eley said in a release. “We’re adjusting to the immediate impact of the pandemic on state revenues of up to $1.5 billion through the end of the next fiscal year, planning for the worst and hoping for the best.

Here’s a release from the governor’s office.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Gov. Bill Lee’s administration today outlined new spending plans for state government that reflect significant revenue reductions due to the economic impact of COVID-19.

Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley presented state lawmakers with the revised budget plans for the current fiscal year, as well as FY 2020-21, which begins July 1, 2020, and a framework for the following fiscal year, 2021-22.

“We will balance our budget each year while providing important services to our citizens,” Eley said. “We’re adjusting to the immediate impact of the pandemic on state revenues of up to $1.5 billion through the end of the next fiscal year, planning for the worst and hoping for the best.

“Tennessee has a history of being one of the best managed states in the nation, and we intend to work with the Legislature to continue that tradition, maintaining low taxes and preserving reserves while achieving efficiencies in operations and continuing to serve our citizens.”

In March, the administration and the General Assembly agreed on $397 million in recurring reductions at the onset of COVID-19, and the administration is proposing an additional $284 million in reductions for FY 20-21, bringing the total to $681 million in reductions. Hiring and expenditure freezes have also been in place since March. The state will close the current fiscal year on June 30 with unbudgeted non-tax revenues, agency savings and reserves.

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Sethi denounces Nashville mayor as ‘cowardly’

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 denouncing Nashville Mayor John Cooper as “cowardly” for his approach to street violence following protests over the weekend.

“We saw this past weekend was political correctness run amok: cowardly Democrat Mayors, like John Cooper, are more concerned about political correctness and about what the liberal media thinks, than about protecting the people in our cities,” Sethi said in a statement.

Here’s the full release:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Republican Senate candidate and conservative outsider Dr. Manny Sethi released the following statement on the violent riots in Nashville and across our country:

I am deeply saddened and angered by the death of George Floyd. America has justifiably already started a conversation about real criminal justice reform. President Trump had already signed a landmark bill. That was a good start, and we must continue this work so these types of incidents finally end. 

But what we saw in that video was not representative of most police officers. I have cared for police officers who have put their bodies in front of bullets to protect us. I have seen their courage and devotion up close.

Protests are inherently American. The right to petition for redress of grievances is a basic constitutional right. However, we cannot allow what these protests have morphed into to continue. We have moved far beyond peaceful protest into lawlessness. These ANTIFA-trained revolutionaries have no interest in a more perfect union. It’s not about solving problems in policing to them, or helping heal neighborhoods. They want to bring down this country. 

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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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