Monthly Archives: August 2021

New edition alert: Sexton brings pressure for special session. Now can he deliver?

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

This week’s print edition of The Tennessee Journal is out. Here’s what’s in it:

— Sexton pressures Lee to call session to halt COVID-19 mandates. But getting signatures for a letter is one thing, finding consensus is another.

— Lee already ranks third for special sessions and new one would make him No. 2 among all Tennessee governors.

— Opt-out provision to mask mandates posited as a way to take down the temperature.

— Census numbers start trickling in as lawmakers nervously ponder the future shape of their districts.

Also: Easley dismisses conspiracy theories about quarantine camps, WPLN -FM hires a new political reporter, the Titans launch a new PAC, and GOP lawmakers confirm they consider it their duty to tell locals what to do.

Access the your TNJ copy here or subscribe here.

Quarantine camps? Governor’s top lobbyist dispels myths about executive order

Gov. Bill Lee speaks in the Old Supreme Court Chamber of the state Capitol in Nashville on March 22, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee’s top legialtive lobbyist, Brent Easley, has written a letter to lawmakers seeking to dispel what he called conspiracy theories about an executive order authorizing the Tennessee National Guard to continue to help giving COVID-19 vaccines and tests.

Read the whole thing in all its glory below:

Importance: High

Members,

Over the past few days, a number of you have reached out seeking information for your constituents as they have contacted you regarding several conspiracy theories that are unfortunately being shared as fact. These rumors distort Executive Order 83 that was signed on Friday, and we wanted to provide you with some additional information as you craft responses.

Five of the most frequently shared items that have been relayed to our offices are…

— The EO creates “quarantine camps” – FALSE.

— Tennesseans serving in the National Guard will be used to round up citizens that are unvaccinated and take them to locations to be quarantined or vaccinated – FALSE.

— Tennesseans serving in the National Guard will be coming to forcibly vaccinate citizens in their homes – FALSE – This is specifically prohibited by state law as well.

— This executive order is laying the groundwork for permanent lockdowns – FALSE.

— That Covid-19 vaccines are being given to livestock so it will enter the -food supply to vaccinate citizens through their meat consumption – FALSE.

All of these examples, and related rumors, are demonstrably false. Additionally, Tennesseans who serve in our National Guard have faithfully served their communities in many capacities this year and we are grateful that they remain committed to serving their neighbors.

Below are some of the key components of that Executive Order that are most frequently being misinterpreted. All of these items were included in previous EOs as well.

Section 8 allows members of the Tennessee National Guard to continue supporting our state’s response to Covid-19 in ways like administering tests, helping with voluntary vaccine distribution or driving ambulances if there is a shortage of qualified drivers. It is critical that we allow the flexibility for our National Guard members to lean in whenever a need is identified.

Section 14 allows for telehealth assessments with regard to existing mental health commitment procedures. There is no expansion or substantive change to existing mental health law processes and protections.

Section 18 is related to healthcare facility policies, and provides flexibility for hospitals to set up alternate care sites on their grounds such as tents in parking lots or use of a conference room to treat patients. This flexibility was included so that medical facilities can have this tool in their toolbox if extra space is needed.

We are responding to constituents who reach out with concerns and hope you will join us in sharing the facts. If you have additional questions on these items, please do not hesitate to reach out to me or anyone on my team.

Best,
Brent Easley

House Republicans urge Lee to call special session to restrict COVID-19 response

The House meets at the state Capitol in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

All 73 members of the House Republican Caucus have signed on to a letter urging Gov. Bill Lee to call a special session to curtail local authorities’ powers to impose mask mandates or for businesses to restrict access to only those who have been vaccinated or tested negative.

There are two ways for a special session to occur. The governor can call one (and limit the scope of what’s taken up) or lawmakers can collect the signatures of two-thirds of both chambers to call themselves back in. The House letter sent to Lee on Wednesday is not the same as issuing their own call. Senate leadership has not been quite as gung-ho about storming into another special session while the delta variant of the virus is on the rise.

Here’s the full text of the letter:

Dear Governor Lee:

The General Assembly of the State of Tennessee has a constitutional duty to enact general law to shape the options, decisions, and priorities of our local governments, including local boards and other local entities.

We write today to request that you call an extraordinary session of the General Assembly in order for the legislature to convene and address misdirected and mandated responses to COVID-19 by local entities and officials. It is of the utmost urgency to move quickly due to the potential of significant harm to Tennesseans.

We believe there is a need to curtail the overreach by independent health boards and officials, confirm a parent’s right to make decisions that impact the mental and physical health of their children, provide support and direction to schools to ensure educators are properly compensated for COVID-19 leave, and protect all Tennesseans from misdirected mandates designed to limit their ability to make their own decisions.

The six independent health boards, along with unelected officials, have made and will continue to make decisions that stifle access to educational opportunities for our children and infringe on their freedoms and liberty. Some of these mandates have been accompanied by threats of reckless endangerment, school closure, and segregating students based on vaccination status.

We believe there is much debate and action needed around the appropriate balance of parents’ right to make healthcare decisions for their children and the government’s ability to mandate healthcare decisions upon them.

Finally, in addition to the debate needed around continued COVID-19 mandates, the General Assembly needs to evaluate the ongoing discrimination of Tennesseans by prohibiting their access to buildings due only to their vaccination status.

Therefore, we request that you, by virtue of the power and authority vested in your office pursuant to Article III, Section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution, call the One Hundred and Twelfth General Assembly of the State of Tennessee to convene in extraordinary session for the purposes stated above as well as addressing other issues related to COVID-19. We look forward to working with you to pass meaningful legislation so that-Tennessee children, families, and businesses can continue to thrive.

Dems call for transparency, community input for redistricting process

Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) attends a floor session to adjust the course of the legislative session in response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

With raw census data scheduled to be released on Thursday, Tennessee Democrats are calling for transparency in the once-per-decade redistricting process.

Here’s the full release:

NASHVILLE — Tennessee communities should have a voice in mapping the state’s political future for the next decade, lawmakers said Tuesday in a letter to legislative leaders, and citizens should not have to wait until 2022 to see new proposed district lines.

The process of drawing new electoral boundaries for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislative districts only happens once every 10 years after the U.S. Census releases local data.

While many states have laws that require political boundaries to be drawn with community input, Tennessee’s process is controlled entirely by the majority party in the legislature.

In a letter dated Aug. 10, Democratic leaders in the Tennessee General Assembly urged the Republican speakers of both chambers to commit to an open and transparent process that provides citizens with opportunities to offer feedback on proposed maps.

“Perhaps more than any other single decision, the drawing of district boundaries will shape the policies adopted by the state over the next decade,” the lawmakers wrote. “We believe Tennesseans understand their communities and deserve a voice in how their communities will be represented.”

The letter was signed by ​​Democratic leaders Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) and Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis) as well as both caucus chairs, Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) and Rep. Vincent Dixie (D-Nashville).

In the letter, lawmakers called on the speakers to follow three community-driven principles for drawing Tennessee’s new legislative districts:

1. Maintain an open and transparent process. “Citizens deserve a districting process they can understand and trust, as well as information about how they will be able to engage with key decisionmakers. In many states, this process includes a special committee that travels the state hosting public meetings, as well as a website that provides the public with the same updated information available to the legislative decisionmakers.”

2. Offer public and community engagement opportunities. “Citizens deserve opportunities, prior to our regular legislative session, to engage on this issue. We would request that a series of public hearings be held across the state, and that these hearings also be broadcast online, and that the General Assembly employ digital tools to permit the public to offer input and even submit district map proposals.”

3. Seek public input on the first drafts of maps this fall. “Throughout the nation, it’s become common for citizens and communities to review proposed maps well in advance of final adoption. We would propose making first drafts available to the public this fall in an easily usable format, with updates released prior to any formal consideration. Community leaders and members of the public need time to review maps, offer input, and even suggest or request changes prior to any community districting legislation being voted upon.”

“The community districting process should be among the most public endeavors that our state government undertakes. The General Assembly has access to the technology to make this process transparent and even interactive,” the Democratic leaders wrote. “Far from slowing down the legislative work of drawing new district lines, we believe such efforts would not only build trust but also lead to a stronger final product.”

On Aug. 12, the ​​Census Bureau<https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2021/news-conference-2020-census-redistricting-data.html> will publish the first local level results from the 2020 Census, including data on race, ethnicity and the voting-age population.

Changes in population and demographics that have taken place over a decade will be used to draw new federal and state district maps — roughly equal in population.

Earlier this year, the nonpartisan group Think Tennessee<https://www.thinktennessee.org/research/elections-civic-life/> wrote about the benefits of a more public and transparent community districting process.

“Opening a window into Tennessee’s redistricting process to allow citizens to meaningfully participate would enhance their trust in the system,” Think wrote. “In a state that consistently ranks near the bottom of the country on voter registration and turnout, redistricting is a key opportunity to deepen civic engagement.”

Think also says Tennesseans historically have had fewer opportunities for public participation, and less access to draft district maps, than people in most other states.

“While most states proactively seek public input in the redistricting process, Tennesseans’ opportunities for engagement previously have been limited to submitting draft maps and sharing their opinions with their legislators,” the nonprofit wrote.

Blackburn, Hagerty not among 19 GOP senators to approve infrastructure bill

Republican Bill Hagerty speaks to a reporter before casting his early vote in Nashville on Oct. 21, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Nineteen Republicans in the U.S. Senate voted to approve a $1 trillion infrastructure bill on Tuesday. Tennessee Republicans Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood and Bill Hagerty of Nashville were not among them.

If approved by the House, Tennessee would be in line to receive receive $5.8 billion in additional highway funds, plus $302 million for bridge replacement and repairs. The state also would qualify for an estimated $633 million over five years to improve public transportation options.

Hagerty had tried to peel off Republican support by blocking efforts to expedite a final vote, citing a Congressional Budget Office estimate that measure would add $256 billion to the federal deficit over the next decade.

“There’s absolutely no reason for rushing this process and attempting to eliminate scrutiny of the bill, other than the Democrats’ completely artificial, self-imposed and politically-driven timeline,” Hagerty said over the weekend.

Here are the GOP members who joined all 50 Democrats in passing the bill 69-30, according to The New York Times:

  • Roy Blunt of Missouri
  • Richard Burr of North Carolina
  • Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia
  • Bill Cassidy of Louisiana
  • Susan Collins of Maine
  • Kevin Cramer of North Dakota
  • Michael D. Crapo of Idaho
  • Deb Fischer of Nebraska
  • Lindsey Graham of South Carolina
  • Charles E. Grassley of Iowa
  • John Hoeven of North Dakota
  • Mitch McConnell of Kentucky
  • Lisa Murkowski of Alaska
  • Rob Portman of Ohio
  • James Risch of Idaho
  • Mitt Romney of Utah
  • Dan Sullivan of Alaska
  • Thom Tillis of North Carolina
  • Roger Wicker of Mississippi

Leaking like a sieve? Cordell Hull building closed due to water line ruptures

A Senate committee meets on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The legislative office building is closed Tuesday due to flooding from a water line rupture. The complex has been having intermittent plumbing issues for a week. At one point, ceiling panels were removed in the ground-floor press corps suite to access pipes. Reporters are accustomed to be on the receiving end of leaks, but don’t usually expect them to be so literal.

The shutdown at the Cordell Hull comes as the rumor mill is kicking into overdrive about grand jury activity related to federal agents’ January raid on the homes and offices of three state House members and those of current and former staffers. Nothing official has yet to come forth.

Health Department: COVID-19 immunizations up 47% since mid-July

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

The state Health Department says COVID-19 immunizations are up 47% between July 12 and Aug. 2.

Here’s the full release from Gov. Bill Lee’s administration:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Department of Health is recognizing National Immunization Awareness Month this August. This comes at a time when Tennessee is seeing an increase in the COVID-19 vaccination as more Tennesseans are choosing to become vaccinated against COVID-19. Total vaccinations increased 47 percent from July 12 to August 2. Over the last week, 94 of the 95 counties across the state have experienced an accelerated rate of vaccine administration. TDH also continues to see an increase in vaccines among all demographics.

• 3 percent increase in total population with at least one dose in the last month
• 30.8 percent of the Black population have received at least one does of the vaccine
• 40.2 percent of the Hispanic population have received at least one dose
• 12-15 age group has seen the highest increase in vaccination rate with a 7.1 percent change in the last six weeks

As children across the state begin a new school year, many families are scheduling routine checkups. TDH encourages parents to make sure routine vaccinations are part of that visit.

“Vaccinations prevent the spread of diseases and outbreaks,” said Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, MD, MBA, FAAP. “Tennessee has always done well at ensuring routine vaccinations for both children and adults are up to date. However, we know many Tennesseans got off-track with routine medical care during the pandemic and could be at risk for infection or disease. That is why it is so important to talk with a medical provider or visit your local health department to see how your family can get back on track with routine vaccinations.”

It is equally important for adults to take the proper steps to ensure they are up to date on recommended vaccines. According to the CDC, some vaccines are recommended for adults based on age, health condition, or other factors.

Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Interactive Vaccine Guide, which provides an Adult Vaccine Assessment Tool. CDC also offers the recommended immunization schedule for infants and children. Parents can find that schedule online at https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/easy-to-read/child-easyread.html.

“While we are focused on routine vaccination, we must also continue to encourage the COVID-19 vaccine,” Piercey said. Tennesseans age 12 and above are eligible to receive the vaccine in the state. Families can make appointments with their local health department or personal medical provider to receive all their necessary vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Across the state, more and more Tennesseans are choosing to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Over the last week, 94 of the 95 counties across the state have experienced an accelerated rate of vaccine administration. TDH also continues to see an increase in vaccines among all demographics.
To find information on services offered by local health departments, visit https://www.tn.gov/health/health-program-areas/localdepartments/lrhd/local-services.html.

During National Immunization Awareness Month, the Tennessee Department of Health will be sharing information and resources on social media to highlight the importance of vaccines.

Follow the conversation on Facebook and Twitter @TNDeptofHealth, and use #ivax2protect to share why you choose to vaccinate.

The mission of the Tennessee Department of Health is to protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of people in Tennessee. Learn more about TDH services and programs at www.tn.gov/health.

New edition: Sexton’s special session push, Lee looks to make splash with water projects

Gov. Bill Lee, left, is awarded a plaque at a Tennessee Cattlemens Association meeting in Gatlinburg on July 30, 2021. (Image credit: Gov. Bill Lee’s office)

This week’s print edition of The Tennessee Journal is out. Here’s what’s in it:

— Gimme session? Sexton warns schools against mask mandates, Lee leans on doctors as intermediaries in vaccine push.

— Money matters: Lee looks to spend $1.86B of relief funds on water, broadband projects, Hagerty slows down infrastructure bill

— Constitutional amendments: Haslam joins leadership team to help pass ‘right-to-work’ measure.

— Republican prom: GOP’s Statesmen’s Dinner back on after taking hiatus during pandemic.

Also: Robinson calls federal charges a “racist attack,” Gardenhire calls out Hagerty for sitting out refugee attack, ‘urine therapy’ in the Knox City Council election, and the difference between human and bovine Tennesseans.

Access the your TNJ copy here or subscribe here.

Tennessee to pay $6.8M to settle federal probe into food stamp violations

Tennessee has agreed to pay $6.8 million to settle a federal investigation into allegations of wrongdoing in the administration of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps) by the state Department of Human Services from 2012 through 2014.

“It is shocking that Tennessee’s Department of Human Services, and so many other states’ agencies entrusted with feeding and caring for vulnerable and needy residents, would manipulate SNAP quality control data for their financial benefit,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Joseph H. Harrington for the Eastern District of Washington.

Here’s the full release from the Justice Department:

WASHINGTON – The Tennessee Department of Human Services (TDHS) has agreed to pay the United States $6,854,416 to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act in its administration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Until 2008, SNAP was known as the Food Stamp Program.

“The money allocated by Congress for the SNAP program funds critical USDA efforts to help families in need,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The Justice Department will continue to protect public funds to ensure that they are used for their intended purposes.”

“It is shocking that Tennessee’s Department of Human Services, and so many other states’ agencies entrusted with feeding and caring for vulnerable and needy residents, would manipulate SNAP quality control data for their financial benefit,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Joseph H. Harrington for the Eastern District of Washington. “I am gratified, however, that Tennessee has stepped up, corrected its conduct, cooperated with our investigation and resolved its liability. I want to especially commend the outstanding work by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General’s special agents and auditors who enabled the United States to recover over $67 million in wrongfully obtained funds. This nationwide investigation and series of settlements demonstrate our office’s commitment to working with our law enforcement partners to ensure that that those who abuse SNAP and other critical government programs will be held fully accountable.”

“We appreciate the commitment and investigative assistance provided by our partners at the Department of Justice’s Civil Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office throughout this long-term, multi-state investigation,” said Special Agent-in-Charge Bethanne M. Dinkins of the USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG). “We also wish to note the technical assistance provided by our colleagues in the Office of Audit at OIG. During the investigation, conducted by OIG’s Northeast Regional Office, we worked together to address the concerns of employees of multiple states and others who alleged that the integrity of the SNAP quality control process was weakened by third-party consultants. These concerned individuals reported that cases were not being treated in a consistent manner, and that certain advice from consultants resulted in identified errors being diminished rather than used to improve eligibility determinations. The settlements reached to date send a strong message regarding the government’s commitment to work across agency lines to protect the integrity of SNAP.”

Under SNAP, USDA provides eligible low-income individuals and families with financial assistance to buy nutritious food. Since 2010, SNAP has served on average more than 45 million Americans per month and provided more than $71 billion annually.

Although the federal government funds SNAP benefits, it relies on the states to determine whether applicants are eligible for benefits, to administer those benefits and to perform quality control to ensure that eligibility decisions are accurate. The USDA requires that the states’ quality control processes ensure that benefits are correctly awarded, are free from bias and accurately report states’ error rates in making eligibility decisions.

The USDA reimburses states for a portion of their administrative expenses in administering SNAP, including expenses for providing quality control. It also pays performance bonuses to states that report the lowest and the most improved error rates each year, and can impose monetary sanctions on states with high error rates that do not show improvement.

The settlement resolves allegations that beginning in 2012, TDHS contracted with a consultant known as Julie Osnes Consulting LLC (Osnes Consulting) to provide advice and recommendations designed to lower its SNAP quality control error rate. The United States alleged that Osnes Consulting’s recommendations, as implemented by TDHS, injected bias into TDHS’s quality control process and resulted in TDHS submitting false quality control data and information to USDA, for which it received performance bonuses for fiscal years 2013 and 2014 to which it was not entitled.

This is the ninth settlement in this matter, and the eighth settlement with a state agency for manipulating its SNAP quality control findings. The United States has reached previous settlements with state agencies in Virginia, Wisconsin, Texas, Louisiana, Alaska, Florida and Mississippi, as well as with Osnes Consulting and its owner, Julie Osnes. Including this settlement, the United States has now recovered over $67 million in connection with this investigation.

The settlement was a result of a joint investigation conducted by the USDA, Office of Inspector General, Investigations; the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch; and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington, with the assistance of USDA-OIG-Audit based on the results of its nationwide audit of SNAP quality control processes.

The matter was handled by Senior Trial Counsel Don Williamson of the Civil Division and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Dan Fruchter and Tyler Tornabene of the Eastern District of Washington.

The claims resolved by the settlement are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability.

6th Circuit restores Tennessee’s waiting period for abortions

Tennessee’s 48-hour waiting period for abortions has been reinstated in an en banc decision by the 6th Circuit.

See a release from state Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s office below:

Nashville- Today the full Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Tennessee’s 48-hour waiting period for abortions is constitutional. The Court’s ruling reverses the district court’s decision in Bristol Regional Women’s Center v. Slatery.

In its opinion, the Court recognized that, “before making life’s big decisions, it is often wise to take time to reflect. The people of Tennessee believed that having an abortion was one of those decisions. So they passed a law requiring a waiting period of 48 hours.”

“The Sixth Circuit’s decision is gratifying for several reasons,” said Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III. “First, the result: a law passed by our representative lawmakers and signed by the Governor five years ago—yes, five years ago—is constitutional. It has been on the books a long time. The Court concluded that, during this time, the 48-hour waiting period has not been a substantial obstacle to getting an abortion in Tennessee. Second, the opinion was a reasoned analysis of the law and the lack of proof offered by the plaintiffs, rather than a decision based on policy. Also, this ruling comes after the full Court reconsidered an earlier decision by a three-judge panel of the same Court.”

To read the ruling, click here:https://www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/attorneygeneral/documents/pr/2021/pr21-26-opinion.pdf

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