Monthly Archives: July 2021

Read the Health Department memo about why it fired Tennessee’s chief vaccination official

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

Tennessee made national headlines this week for firing the top vaccination official at the Department of Health . The state has has been mum about the reasons for Michelle Fiscus’ termination, but she has alleged being made a scapegoat for GOP lawmaker anger over a state policy urging teens to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Now the state is releasing a memo written by Tim Jones, the chief medical officer at the Health Department, to Commissioner Lisa Piercey claiming Fiscus didn’t work well with others and didn’t seek permission and guidance about the content of a letter “regarding her own interpretation” of state law regarding the authority of minors to get vaccines without their parents’ permission. Fiscus says the letter was drafted by an agency lawyer and “blessed” by Gov. Bill Lee’s office.

UPDATE: The Fiscus camp denies misdeeds, pointing to her glowing performance review as recently as last year.

Here’s the full text of the letter:

To: Lisa Piercey, MD, MBA, FAAP, Commissioner

From: Tim Jones, MD

July 9, 2021

Re: Expiration of service of Michelle (Shelley) Fiscus, MD

Based on program management deficiencies and failure to follow appropriate processes and procedures, please accept this recommendation to expire the executive service of Dr. Michelle Fiscus, Director, Vaccine Preventable Diseases and Immunization Program (VPDIP), Tennessee Department of Health.

This recommendation is based on Dr. Fiscus’s failure to maintain good working relationships with members of her team, her lack of effective leadership, her lack of appropriate management, and unwillingness to consult with superiors and other internal stakeholders on VPDIP projects.

On multiple occasions during the 2020-2021 COVID response, Dr. Fiscus has failed to maintain satisfactory and harmonious relationships among her team. In February 2021, CEDEP leadership and TDH Human Resources received multiple complaints from program staff regarding her management style, treatment of employees, and poor program morale. Dr. Dunn met with five senior team members who expressed consistent complaints related to management of the program by Dr. Fiscus during the COVID response. He had several coaching sessions with Dr. Fiscus, with minimal improvement in the situation noted. Two of her most senior leaders have subsequently resigned.

On March 7, 2021, Dr. Dunn and I met with Dr. Fiscus and another departmental physician to mediate complaints against Dr. Fiscus of disrespectful treatment and ineffective management. The meeting terminated with a refusal of both parties to communicate constructively, and with a refusal by the other physician to work further on the VPDIP team. Dr. Fiscus was coached on professionalism and teamwork.

Dating back to December 2020, the vaccine planning team required intervention by CEDEP leadership to address inefficient use of team resources, including poor inter-program communication regarding vaccine distribution. Repeated failures by Dr. Fiscus to appropriately delegate to others resulted in repetitive, long, and inefficient meetings. These meetings took already busy colleagues away from other tasks.

Over the past three months Dr. Fiscus requested to give a new non-profit organization TDH funding to support VPDIP activities. This organization was founded and led by Dr. Fiscus, had no Executive Director or other employees, and had no other substantive source of funding. Providing funds to such an entity would be poor judgement and a substantial conflict of interest.

In June, 2021, Dr. Fiscus communicated directly with a state university regarding the department producing COVID-vaccine reports for the institution. She did not notify or consult with supervisors, and the situation only became evident when departmental legal counsel received formal documents directly from the university memorializing the arrangement. The requested reports were not produced by the department.

In May, 2021, Dr. Fiscus broadly shared a letter regarding her own interpretation of state and federal law with external partners with respect to vaccinations and other medical treatment of minors. The letter should have been reviewed by both leadership and departmental legal counsel. However, Dr. Fiscus did not share the letter nor otherwise include any of these parties in the drafting process prior to sending it out. This action resulted in confusion of both law and policy for private providers, parents, and legislators.

These examples clearly demonstrate that Dr. Fiscus’s performance in this role has led to strained relationships with internal and external stakeholders at multiple levels, and to an ineffective and non- cohesive workplace. Her leadership and management of her team does not foster the culture or environment expected at the Tennessee Department of Health.

White House: 1.2 million Tennessee children will benefit from federal tax credits

The new federal child tax credit goes into effect on Wednesday. President Joe Biden’s administration says 750,000 Tennessee families will start receiving checks this month.

Here’s a White House press release:

On July 15, 2021, for the first time ever, tens of millions of families covering nearly 60 million children across America will begin receiving monthly Child Tax Credit payments.

For every child 6-17 years old, eligible families will get up to $250 each month, and for every child under 6 years old, eligible families will get up to $300 each month.

More than 750,000 families in Tennessee will get a check in July. Over $321 million for Tennessee families to help 1.2 million children thrive.

The American Rescue Plan provides the largest ever Child Tax Credit:
$3,000-$3,600 per child for nearly all families.

All working families will get the full credit if they make up to $150,000 for a couple or $112,500 for a family with a single parent (also called Head of Household).

The expanded Child Tax Credit is a major step forward in tackling child
poverty Prior to the American Rescue Plan, low income families often got a smaller child tax credit than families with higher earnings. Now, the families of over 26 million children will get the full, expanded credit.

President Biden’s American Families Plan calls for extending this tax cut.

The expanded Child Tax Credit is currently only for 2021. That’s why President Biden strongly believes that we should extend the new Child Tax Credit for years to come.

Last place you’ll ever visit? Tennessee’s vaccine policy becomes late-night TV fodder

Late-night TV comedian Stephen Colbert is taking aim at Tennessee’s decision to fire its vaccine chief and stop marketing any immunizations to children.

“Tennessee, the Volunteer State, has one of the worst vaccination rates in the country,” Colbert said in his monologue Wednesday. “And they aim to keep it that way.”

Colbert suggested the state is proud of it’s anti-vax ways, and his program created a new tourism ad to suit:

“Discover Tennessee: Scenic lakes, beautiful state parks, and soon: polio!” the ad’s narrators says. “There are just so many things to do — and catch — in Tennessee.”

The parody ends with a new tourism slogan for the state: “Tennessee: The last place you’ll ever visit.”

As tourism officials like to say, you can’t buy this kind of publicity.

Fired chief vaccine officer’s husband ran against erstwhile Lee ally Casada

House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) checks his phone in the House chamber in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The state on Monday fired Tennessee’s top vaccination officer, The Tennessean’s Brett Kelman reports. Michelle Fiscus, the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Health Department, said her termination letter gave no reason for her dismissal.

Fiscus told the paper she had become a scapegoat for conservative lawmakers’ anger over the department’s efforts to vaccinate teeenagers against COVID-19.

“It was my job to provide evidence-based education and vaccine access so that Tennesseans could protect themselves against COVID-19,” Fiscus told the paper in a statement. “I have now been terminated for doing exactly that.”

There’s a political subcurrent to the firing. Fiscus’ husband, Brad, ran as an independent candidate against state Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) in last year’s election, finishing third. Many of the lawmakers most upset about the state’s vaccinate efforts were strong supporters of Casada’s truncated House speakership, which collapsed in 2019 amid a racist and sexist text messaging scandal and complaints about a heavy-handed leadership style.

Casada, who played a key role in pushing through Gov. Bill Lee’s signature school voucher law in 2019, was one of three sitting lawmakers to have their homes and offices searched by federal agents in January. No charges have been filed in the probe.

Michelle Fiscus’ full statement follows:

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Gov. Lee responds to critics of free airfare program

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters in Gainsboro on July 8. 2021. (Image credit: State of Tennessee)

Gov. Bill Lee spoke to reporters for the first time late last week about his program to give away $250 flight vouchers to tourists who book two-night stays in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga.

Here is what he said:

Q: Why is this program necessary?

Lee: The tourism industry in this state is the second-largest generator of tax revenue for Tennessee. It’s an enormous industry in our state. And it’s suffered tremendously through the pandemic, arguably as much as any other industry in the state. An effective marketing campaign is the strategy there. We accomplished that. I’m committed to the tourism industry and will continue to be. That was a relatively small financial commitment, that particular campaign. But we have plans for commitment and investment in recruiting folks to Tennessee, especially to rural counties and to places that are not traditionally where they come. But need to invest in tourism. I’m glad we did it.

Q: Lt. Gov. Randy McNally has been critical, saying he thought more areas should be involved. And some people are critical over the ad. How do you respond?

Lee: Always a lot of critics. But that comes with politics. But what we’re committed on is creating opportunity and jobs in this state and a return on investment. And that was a marketing campaign that will have a great return on investment. It will help support a very important industry in this state. And it is one of a comprehensive approach we will take in tourism investment over the year.

Q: Some of the Republicans in the Senate particularly felt blindsided. Have you spoken to the Lt. Gov. or finance chairs to allay some of those concerns?

Lee: I’ve spoken to the lieutenant governor a couple times, but not on that issue. The lieutenant governor and I have a very good relationship and very strong working relationship. We don’t agree on everything, but we work together for a lot. I actually haven’t talked to him about that issue. As I said, it’s one of many investments in tourism development that we will make. It’s a return on investment.

Q: So you intend to continue with the Tennessee On Me campaign?

Lee: Yeah. It’s already rolled out. It’s out there. We’re fortunate that we had a global music guy in Brad Paisley willing to push that out through his channel. It was a message sent out to millions of people across America that Tennessee is a place to think about coming to.

Southern Legislative Conference kicks off in Nashville on Saturday

Rep. Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) speaks to the House Republican Caucus after winning their nomination for speaker on July 24, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Southern Legislative Conference is holding its annual meeting in Nashville this weekend. The group is chaired this year by Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville).

Here’s a release detailing proceedings:

Nashville, Tennessee – Approximately 1,500 Southern state legislators, legislative staff, and government officials convene today in Nashville for the 75th Anniversary Annual Meeting of the Southern Legislative Conference (SLC).

Guided by SLC chair Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (Crossville), the SLC Annual Meeting provides state lawmakers the opportunity to engage with experts on pressing policy issues and collaborate on state government solutions.

“I am excited to welcome state lawmakers from across the region to Tennessee,” said Speaker Sexton. “The exchange and discussion of ideas with other lawmakers on the many accomplishments and successful policies we all championed the last couple of years is something that we all look forward to. This meeting is about learning from one another to improve our home states and the lives of our constituents. As the Southern states have led us through these difficult times to positive recovery, I can’t think of a more critical time than now for all of us to come together, to learn from each other, and celebrate our successes.”

Tennessee’s leadership role within the SLC is a long-established one. Tennessee has had the distinction of hosting the inaugural meeting of the Southern Legislative Conference in 1947; adopting the SLC’s organizational rules at its ninth Annual Meeting in Gatlinburg in 1955; serving as host to the 50th Anniversary Annual Meeting in 1996 and, most recently, the 65th Annual Meeting in 2011 in Memphis.

The conference agenda features several notable guest speakers, including:

— Former Governor Bill Haslam

— Maneet Chauhan, Chef, Restauranter, Author, and Television Personality

— Rick Barnes, Head Coach, Tennessee Volunteers, University of Tennessee, and

— Colonel Littleton, Designer, and Proprietor, The Great American Leather Company.

Site visits highlighting Arrington Vineyards, Lipman Brothers Distillery, and Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology Smyrna Campus and Nissan Training Center will offer participants the chance to experience local innovations first-hand.

Attendees also will give back to the community during their stay, packaging 50,000 meals for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee at the annual Campaign Against Hunger event.

Lee to visit Tennessee National Guard troops on Texas-Mexico border

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters in Memphis on Nov. 7, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is headed to Texas on Saturday to visit with Tennessee National Guard members deployed along the border with Mexico.

Here’s the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced he will travel to the U.S. Southern border this weekend to meet with Tennessee National Guard troops and evaluate needs in securing the border.

“The men and women of the Tennessee National Guard are playing a significant role in quelling the most severe border crisis we’ve seen in 20 years,” said Gov. Lee. “I want to personally commend the more than 300 Tennesseans who are serving our country and on the front lines of this crisis.”

Currently, there are 300 Tennessee National Guard members stationed at multiple sites throughout the border region of Texas to provide support to Customs and Border Protection. These personnel are members of three units:

— 269th Military Police Company – Routinely augments law enforcement by conducting training and providing a presence along the border 

— 913th Engineer Company – Capabilities lend to myriad road building efforts and border wall projects

— 2-151 Aviation Battalion – Provides an aerial platform to assist Customs and Border Protection with a number of their logistical and operational priorities

Gov. Lee will be accompanied by Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes, Adjutant General of the Tennessee National Guard. Upon their return, Gov. Lee and Holmes will provide more details about the visit

Dems call for prompt removal of Forrest bust from state Capitol

Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) presides over the chamber on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Senate Democrats are calling for the immediate removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the state Capitol after a 120-day waiting period expired on a Tennessee Historical Commission vote to send it to the State Museum.

Here’s the full release:

NASHVILLE — Exactly one year after a state commission that oversees the Tennessee Capitol voted to remove the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the building’s second floor, Democrats in the Senate are urging state officials to finish the job.

“Our state Capitol should be a place that celebrates the values and causes that unite us as Tennesseans,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis). “It was never a place for Nathan Bedford Forrest and now the day has come for us to finally remove his bust from these hallowed halls — and it should be done without delay.”

The Capitol Commission approved a petition to remove the Forrest bust on July 9, 2020, but a state law, passed by Republicans several years ago to protect Confederate memorials, requires the state Historical Commission to also sign off on any moving any war memorials.

The Historical Commission approved the petition in March clearing the way for the Forrest bust to be taken to the state museum after a 120-day waiting period also required by state law.

The waiting period ended today.

Although the yearlong process to remove the Forrest memorial concluded today, calls to relocate the bronze bust of the enslaver and early KKK leader began to sound the day the piece was installed in the late 1970s.

Sen. Brenda Gilmore (D-Nashville), who has been a leading voice for removing the bust over her decades of service in the legislature, says state law has been followed and it’s time for the bust to go.

“I have dedicated years of my life to racial justice and one fact I have learned time and time again: To overcome inequality, we must confront our history,” Sen. Gilmore said. “No figure in the modern history of Tennessee better encapsulates this lesson than the bust of KKK grand wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest.

“If we cannot remove a memorial to an enslaver from our state Capitol, how can we begin to make progress on equitable school funding, fair policing and adequate healthcare for all people?” she said. “Removing this bust today does not usher in racial equality, but it shows progress can be made. And the work of justice will continue.”

Lee announces environmental stewardship awards

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters after a bill signing ceremony in Nashville on May 24, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner David Salyers have announced the winners of the 2021 Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Awards. See the full release below.

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) Commissioner David Salyers today announced the winners of the 2021 Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Awards.

The winners will be formally recognized for their achievements and positive impact on the state’s natural resources and communities in an awards ceremony Oct. 4 in Franklin.

“Whether it’s a private business, a government body, or a college or university, we want to recognize those who are showing a commitment to protecting the environment in Tennessee,” Lee said. “Our honorees this year have proved worthy of such recognition.”

“We have an outstanding group of award recipients,” Salyers said. “We want these awards not only to honor the winners but to encourage others to follow their lead.”

The Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Awards program recognizes exceptional voluntary actions that improve or protect the environment and natural resources with projects or initiatives not required by law or regulation.

In its 35th year, the awards program covers the following categories: agriculture and forestry; building green; clean air; energy and renewable resources; environmental education and outreach; materials management; natural resource conservation; sustainable performance; and water quality conservation. TDEC did not name a winner this year in the clean air category.

The 2021 Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award recipients are:

EntityCountyCategory
The City of KingsportSullivanNatural Resources
Clayton SavannahHardinMaterials Management
Coffee County Soil Conservation DistrictCoffeeAgriculture and Forestry
Cumberland River CompactDavidsonWater Quality
Nokian Tyres DaytonRheaSustainable Performance
Tennessee Tech UniversityPutnamBuilding Green
Trevecca Nazarene UniversityDavidsonEnvironmental Education and Outreach
Vanderbilt University*Bedford, Davidson, FranklinEnergy Renewable Resources
Not Awarded Clean Air

*The Vanderbilt University award is listed with three counties because the project took place in those counties.

The Knoxville Utilities Board, Metro Nashville Department of General Services, and Tennsco in Dickson are recognized with Pursuit of Excellence Awards, which recognize past award winners who continue to demonstrate a high regard for environmental stewardship.

The Robert Sparks Walker Lifetime Achievement Award will be announced at the awards ceremony.

A panel of 11 professionals representing agriculture, conservation, forestry, environment, and academic professions judged more than 75 nominations and selected this year’s award recipients based on criteria including on-the-ground environmental achievement, innovation, transferability, partnerships, and public education. Details about each award winner can be found in the accompanying attachment.

U.S. Capitol incursion, bust removal among top stories of first half of 2021

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters after a bill signing ceremony in Nashville on May 24, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Here are the 10 most-viewed posts on the TNJ: On the Hill blog through the first half of 2021.

10. New PAC takes aim at Gov. Bill Lee’s re-election bid. April 29, 2021.

9. Knoxville ballpark, Tebow charity among entities getting grants in Lee budget. April 14, 2021.

8. Hagerty names Jim Henry as state director. Jan. 13, 2021.

7. Feds rescind effort to lock in Medicaid changes made by Trump administration. Feb. 23, 2021.

6. FBI visit to Tennessee Capitol sparks jitters. March 10, 2021.

Federal agents meet with legislative staffers outside the office of Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) in Nashville on Jan. 8, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

5. Here are the projected amounts headed to TN cities and counties under the COVID relief program. March 30, 2021.

4. Speaker Sexton strips Griffey of committee assignments. March 25, 2021.

Rep. Bruce Griffey (R-Paris) attends a meeting at the legislative office building in Nashville on Dec. 20, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

3. GOP lawmaker levels impeachment threat over bust removal. March 15, 2021.

2. Tennessee congressional delegation recoils at Capitol incursion. Jan. 6, 2021.

1. Former commissioner reports Rep. Weaver to DC police. Jan. 14, 2021.

Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster) attends a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)