Monthly Archives: July 2021

New edition alert: COVID-19 fallout, campaign finance, redistricting

Lawmakers attend a House floor session on Feb. 3, 2020, in Nashville. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

This week’s Tennessee Journal tackles the political implications of the pandemic’s resurgence:

_ Worsening COVID-19 picture presents political quandary for GOP.

_ Registry wrap-up: Ketron’s lump-sum penalty OK’d, missing Jerry Cooper account expunged, and the treasurer of the Tillis attack PAC can’t be reached.

_ The free-for-all-to-come? Fundraising kicks into high gear with uncertain future of 5th District. Meanwhile, DesJarlais raises … $508.

Also: Terry talks breakthrough COVID-19 infection, Byrd returns after missing whole session, and we apply the Ragan interpretation to HIPAA to self-medication.

Access the your TNJ copy here.

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House health chair credits vaccine with preventing worse symptoms when infected by COVID-19

Rep. Bryan Terry (R-Murfreesboro), standing right, confers with Reps. John Crawford (R-Kingsport), center, and Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro) on the House floor on May 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

House Health Chair Bryan Terry (R-Murfreesboro) is crediting his COVID-19 vaccination with potentially preventing him from hospitalization or even death when he came down with the coronavirus.

“I feel fortunate to have not contracted COVID before a vaccine was available,” Terry said in a release. “I have since contracted, and recovered from, COVID through what is called a ‘breakthrough infection’. With my health history, it could have been much worse. I’m convinced the vaccine protected my health and possibly saved me from an extensive hospitalization, or death. All Tennesseans, especially those with risk, need to talk to their doctor about getting vaccinated”.

Terry, who is a physician, said he had muscle and joint pains, fatigue, and other cold-like symptoms, “but I never developed the severe respiratory problems associated with COVID that I’m at risk for. I credit the vaccine for helping prevent major problems. I’m still not 100%, but I’m getting there.”

“I’ve never been under the illusion that I would never get infected even after vaccination. It’s just been my hope that, when I did get infected, I wouldn’t have a major reaction,” Terry said. “I’ve had medical and legislative colleagues that have had severe and deadly reactions. I’ve seen patients on ventilators and have bad outcomes. I don’t wish that on anyone. I know many folks don’t trust government, the media, or politicians, but most trust their doctor. It’s a conversation folks need to have.”

Read Terry’s full account here.

16 of 27 Senate Republicans agree: Get vaccinated

The Tennessee Senate meets on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Senate Speaker Randy McNally, Majority Leader Jack Johnson, and Caucus Chair Ken Yager are among a group of 16 Republicans in the state Senate signing onto letter urging Tennesseans to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“This should not be political,” the senators say in the letter.

Others signing the missive are Sens. Richard Briggs, Todd Gardenhire, Ferrell Haile, Ed Jackson, Jon Lundberg, Becky Massey, Bill Powers, Shane Reeves, Paul Rose, Art Swann, Page Walley, Dawn White, and Bo Watson.

Eleven Republicans declined to sign on. They are Sens. Paul Bailey. Mike Bell, Janice Bowling, Rusty Crowe, Joey Hensley, Brian Kelsey, Frank Niceley, Mark Pody, Kerry Roberts, Steve Southerland, and John Stevens.

The Senate’s six Democrats were not asked to participate.

Here’s the full letter:

Dear Tennesseans,

Although we have made progress, COVID-19 is not over. There has been a recent spike in the number of cases, which includes the virus’s more contagious delta variant. A strong majority of these cases are among those who are not vaccinated. And virtually all of those currently hospitalized with COVID-19 have not been vaccinated.

As people across our state are exposed to the spread of this deadly virus, we strongly urge Tennesseans who do not have a religious objection or a legitimate medical issue to get vaccinated.

The vaccines have been found to be safe and effective against COVID-19. If they had been available from the start and widely used, over 600,000 American families that are mourning the loss of a loved one, along with tens of thousands of people who are awaiting lung transplants, or trying to learn to walk again, would have avoided that heartache.

Vaccines have been saving lives for over a century. As a result, polio and smallpox have been eradicated and measles, mumps and rubella are rare. Building on these 20th century medical breakthroughs, the COVID-19 vaccines were developed utilizing high standards and the best medical technology available.

Even the new mRNA technology, which has caused some people to be vaccine hesitant, has been around for decades. The mRNA vaccines teach your body how to make a protein that will trigger an immune response, without using a live virus. This technology is found in essentially every pharmacy, medical office and laboratory. Recombinant DNA technology has almost completely replaced insulin obtained from animal sources for the treatment of insulin-dependent diabetes with great success for over 30 years.

We are well beyond the COVID-19 vaccine trial stage. Nearly 338 million doses of the vaccines have been administered in the U.S. with few adverse effects. Please compare the very rare instances of side effects with the more than 600,000 deaths in the U.S. which have occurred due to COVID-19. The facts are clear — the benefits of the vaccines far outweigh the risks.

Under no circumstances will the state of Tennessee require mandatory vaccines or vaccine passports for adults or children. We recognize this is a personal choice. However, we urge every Tennessean to consider the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine and talk to your doctor about their recommendations on the best way to protect yourself and your family against COVID-19.

Unfortunately, efforts to get more people vaccinated have been hampered by politicization of COVID-19. This should not be political. Tennesseans need factual information to make educated decisions regarding their health. Please consider looking at the facts which are presented by Vanderbilt University Medical Center or the New England Journal of Medicine, both which are among the most respected health resources worldwide.

Every life lost to this virus is tragic. The COVID-19 vaccines save lives. Again, we strongly urge all Tennesseans to study the facts, talk to your doctor and get vaccinated.

Signed,

Randy McNally, Jack Johnson, Ken Yager, Ferrell Haile, Richard Briggs, Todd Gardenhire, Ed Jackson, Jon Lundberg, Becky Massey, Bill Powers, Shane Reeves, Paul Rose, Art Swann, Page Walley, Dawn White, Bo Watson

Parker to retire as corrections commissioner

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)

Commissioner Tony Parker is retiring this fall after 38 years with the Tennessee Department of Correction. Parker was named commissioner by then-Gov. Bill Haslam in 2016 and Gov. Bill Lee retained him in the Cabinet when he was sworn into office in 2019.

Here’s the release from Lee’s office:

NASHVILLE – After 38 years of dedicated service to the Tennessee Department of Correction, Commissioner Tony Parker has announced his retirement, effective this fall.  Parker began his career as a correctional officer and rose through the ranks to Commissioner following his initial appointment by former Governor Bill Haslam in 2016 and re-appointment by Governor Bill Lee in 2019.

“I am forever grateful to Governor Bill Lee for placing his trust in me and allowing me to continue to serve as Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction.  After 38 years of service, I have decided to retire this fall to return to West Tennessee and catch up on spending quality time with my family and friends,” said Parker.

“Tony Parker is a true public servant, and I am deeply grateful for his commitment to making Tennessee a safer place to live, work and raise a family,” said Gov. Lee.  “Over the last four decades, Commissioner Parker played a pivotal role in efforts to enhance public safety and improve Tennessee’s criminal justice system, and his impact on the Department of Correction will be seen for many years to come.  Maria and I wish Commissioner Parker and his family the best in their next chapter.”

Parker, who also serves as president of the American Correctional Association, counts among the agency’s accomplishments during his tenure: passage and implementation of the Public Safety Act of 2016, a consistent decline in recidivism for individuals leaving TDOC custody, as well as a reduction of individuals returning to incarceration for technical violations, creation of Day Reporting Centers as an alternative to incarceration, and salary increases for correctional staff.

“While we have accomplished much, there is more to be done that the government cannot do alone.  Criminal justice reform will require the collaboration of non-profit and private sector partners, working with public agencies at every level to achieve true sustainable success.  Serving under Governor Lee has provided me an opportunity to see the positive effects true criminal justice reform can have on the lives of the formerly incarcerated.  The Governor’s passion for ensuring individuals are better prepared to lead successful lives as productive citizens after incarceration will have a lasting impact on our state by creating safer and healthier communities and fewer victims,” said Parker.

Before being named Commissioner, Parker served as Assistant Commissioner, Correctional Administrator and Warden, among other roles.  He has led the agency’s more than 6,000 employees, supervision of more than 20,000 incarcerated individuals and 70,000 people on community supervision since 2016.

“It has been the honor of my lifetime to serve Tennessee and its citizens. May God continue to bless our great state,” said Parker.

Physician Martin mulls Dem bid for governor

Physician Jason Martin of Nashville has formed an exploratory committee for a Democratic gubernatorial bid next year, the Nashville Scene’s Stephen Elliott reports.

Martin is a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Sumner Regional Medical Center and a former Meharry Medical College professor. While he has never previously sought public office, he has become an outspoken critic of Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s pandemic response.

Martin chronicled his experience in treating patients early in the pandemic in a Tennessean feature in April 2020.

Elliott reports Martin has hired Amplified Public Strategies, a new firm founded by former Tennessee Democratic Party communications director Emily Cupples and state Rep. Torrey Harris. Martin is appearing with Harris, fellow Memphis Democratic Rep. London Lamar, Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer and Michelle Fiscus, the state’s former vaccination chief who was fired earlier this month, at an event in Memphis this weekend.

Cupples had also started the Beat Bill Lee PAC in April.

With the primary just over a year away, Carnita Atwater of Memphis is only declared Democrat in the race.

Read the rest of Elliott’s report here.

Burchett takes to WSJ opinion section to decry proxy voting in Congress

U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville) has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today denouncing the ongoing practice of proxy voting and virtual meetings in Congress.

“I didn’t run for Congress to sit on Zoom in my district office or to have one of my colleagues cast votes on my behalf,” Burchett writes. “These often-abused protocols were implemented in response to a pandemic that is in retreat.”

The current rules are “ineffective and abused by members of both parties,” he writes. Some GOP members used proxy voting so they could attend a CPAC meeting in February, while Democrats have done so to campaign or accompany President Joe Biden on a trip to Wisconsin, according to Burchett. He is similarly critical of virtual meetings.

“Policy experts work in Washington offices, where these hearings should be taking place in person,” Burchett said.

While Burchett sees bipartisan lapses, he blames the current state of affairs on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“Exploitation of the House’s coronavirus protocols won’t stop unless the rules change so that members are expected to show up to work and do their jobs,” Burchett said. “Speaker Nancy Pelosi needs to take a step back, look at the rest of the country, and re-evaluate how she is running the House.”

Rep. Griffey has a message for school districts

Rep. Bruce Griffey (R-Paris) speaks to a supporter at House Republican Caucus meeting in Nashville on Jan. 14, 2020 (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Rep. Bruce Griffey has taken it upon himself to tell elected local school boards, special school districts, and education leaders around the state what their COVID-19 policies should be. The Paris Republican has sent a letter across the state (and copied it to all House and Senate members) declaring it “potentially” unlawful for districts to require face coverings or “create alternate learning environments for unvaccinated students, segregate such students, or treat them any differently.”

UPDATE: Griffey made some changes to the letter and got 11 GOP colleagues to sign on, including former Speaker Glen Casada of Franklin and Reps. Todd Warner of Chapel Hill, Jerry Sexton of Bean Station, and Terri Lynn Weaver of Lancaster).

Shelby County Schools is the only district in the state that has said it will require students to wear face coverings in the upcoming semester. Gov. Bill Lee said at a press conference last week that he oppose the move.

Read the whole (updated) Griffey letter here:

Dear Tennessee School Boards, Special School Districts and Directors:

As the 2021-2022 academic year is fast approaching, Tennessee families are anticipating whether or not masks will be required in our Tennessee public schools. For many, this is a contentious issue and one that crosses a wide spectrum of policy areas such as public health, parental rights, the role of government, and the constitutional rights of every citizen.

While we do acknowledge that there is a legitimate state interest in the safety of all Tennesseans, as legislators and elected officials, we must ensure that we continue to maintain the public trust in our government by above all else upholding the laws of our state. Citizens should rightfully expect that our state government will not exceed its authority by making rules that have no basis in state law or in our Tennessee Constitution.

On April 30, 2021, a Williamson County Chancery Court issued an order in Citizens v Golden (Case No. 20CV-49753) which carried an alternative ruling on the merits of the case indicating that requirements for face-coverings in schools have no basis in state law. The ruling stated, “The Court cannot find, as a matter of law, Defendants have acted within the authority given to them by the legislature when enacting face­ covering requirements,” and, ” … continued enforcement of face-covering requirements is not viable.”

Additionally, House Bill 13 was passed this year adding a new section to our Tennessee Code Annotated in Title 68, Chapter 5, Part 1 stating the following:

The governor shall not issue an executive order, a state agency or department shall not promulgate a rule, and a political subdivision of this state shall not promulgate, adopt, or enforce an ordinance or resolution, that requires a person to receive an immunization, vaccination, or injection for the SARS-CoV-2 virus or any variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

As this has now been signed into law by Governor Bill Lee and mady effective as of May 25, 2021, a vaccine, immunization, or injection for COVID-19 may not be required by any public school in the state of Tennessee for students or staff. Regardless of any recommendations or guidelines set forth by the CDC, WHO, or any health official, it must be understood that state law now prohibits a vaccine for COVID-19 to be mandated by the state, a county, a municipality, or any state agency in Tennessee.

To be clear, the legislature has not granted any authority to local school boards or superintendents to require face-coverings or promulgate any rules related to healthcare or the prevention of communicable diseases. As such, any attempts to create alternate learning environments for unvaccinated students, segregate such students, or treat them any differently would be potentially unlawful in the state of Tennessee.

We value our educators, and we value our students. Last year was hard on everyone. But our students suffered most of all. This year, let us focus on our students and ensure that they are our priority by providing them with the kind of education they so richly deserve. In this year’s special legislative session, we passed legislation that focused on those goals and provided increased resources to educators with the tools they need for a successful school year. Let’s lead the nation this year in putting our students and families first. We are the Volunteer State.

/signed/

Representative Bruce Griffey

Representative Bud Hulsey

Representative Tim Rudd

Representative Jerry Sexton

Representative Jay Reedy

Representative Rick Eldridge

Representative Terri Lynn Weaver

Representative Lowell Russell

Representative Mike Sparks

Representative Todd Warner

Representative Glen Casada

Representative Kirk Haston

Conservative radio talk show host Valentine hospitalized with COVID-19

Conservative radio talk show host Phil Valentine has been hospitalized with COVID-19, according to his brother.

“He is in the hospital in the critical care unit breathing with assistance but is NOT on a ventilator,” Mark Valentine said in a statement posted to Facebook on Thursday.

“Phil would like for his listeners to know that while he has never been an ‘anti-vaxer’ he regrets not being more vehemently ‘Pro-Vaccine’, and looks forward to being able to more vigorously advocate that position as soon as he is back on the air, which we all hope will be soon,” he wrote.

Here’s the full statement:

Phil contracted the Covid virus a little over a week ago & has since been hospitalized & is in very serious condition, suffering from Covid Pneumonia and the attendant side effects. He is in the hospital in the critical care unit breathing with assistance but is NOT on a ventilator. We’d ask that everyone please refrain from contacting him while he is in the hospital. Phil would like for his listeners to know that while he has never been an “anti-vaxer” he regrets not being more vehemently ‘Pro-Vaccine’, and looks forward to being able to more vigorously advocate that position as soon as he is back on the air, which we all hope will be soon. Phil & his family would like for all of you to know that he loves ya’ll and appreciates your concern, thoughts & prayers more than you will ever know. Please continue to pray for his recovery and PLEASE GO GET VACCINATED!”

Tennessee launches $20M program for state employee buyouts

The state Capitol on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The state of Tennessee this week offered voluntary buyout offers to 625 employees working in 282 positions. The current budget includes $20 million for the program offering incentives for workers to give up their executive branch jobs.

The Human Resources Department says eligible positions were identified by job classification and that others may be targeted moving forward.

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration initially propped a $50 million pool to fund buyouts for state employees. Finance Commissioner Eley said the program
is roughly on par, when adjusted for inflation, with the $35 million in buyouts then-Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration offered to government workers during the Great Recession, which he said resulted in about $65 million in recurring savings. But the Lee program was later dialed back to $20 million.

The Tennessean reports certain departments are being targeted reductions: 74 at Environment and Conservation, 64 in Human Services, 51 in Finance and Administration, and 32 in Education.

Could a final decision on Forrest bust removal be near?

A sketch of Nathan Bedford Forrest used for a mural in the lobby of the John Sevier State Office Building in Nashville on Jan. 25,1941. (Image Credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives)

The yearslong fight over removing a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest could soon be coming to an end. The State Building Commission is scheduled to take up the matter on Thursday. If past voting patterns by the panel’s members hold, the monument could soon be headed for the Tennessee State Museum.

The Tennessee Lookout‘s Sam Stockard has taken a look at how it could play out:

The State Capitol Commission is set to request Thursday that the State Building Commission concur with its decision to relocate three busts, including one of Confederate Lt. Gen. Forrest, to the State Museum, moving them out of the State Capitol after years of upheaval.

To some degree, the decision pits Gov. Bill Lee against Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who are likely to be outnumbered if they vote against the relocation. But it also could clear up a year-old legal question on the matter. 

One State Building Commission member who hasn’t participated in the process, Comptroller Jason Mumpower, indicated he is likely to vote for relocation. Three other members of the Building Commission have voted already to move the busts as members of other commissions.

“Based on a motion authored by my predecessor, Comptroller Emeritus Justin P. Wilson, the State Capitol Commission and Tennessee Historical Commission have previously agreed that the historical significance of these busts can be better reflected through display at the State Museum,” Mumpower said in a statement.

Lee, who last year sought removal of the Forrest bust from the State Capitol, has scheduled a press conference for Thursday morning, shortly before the State Building Commission is to meet. Its topic has not been revealed.

Read the rest here.