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Erik Schelzig

Editor, The Tennessee Journal

Early voting turnout well ahead of 2016 so far

Here is a look at turnout in early voting in Tennessee by our favorite political mapmaker Don Johnson.

Shelby County has seen one of the biggest increases compared with four years ago, while the suburban counties around Nashville have been among those with the largest percentage of their registered voters casting their ballots early.

Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office says 249,302 more voters have cast early ballots so far than in 2016, a 52% increase.

How Knoxville public radio got the White House coronavirus report Gov. Lee didn’t want to release

Gov. Bill Lee arrives for a press conference on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee ranked fourth worst in the country for COVID-19 related deaths per 100,000, according to a White House report that Gov. Bill Lee didn’t want to release to the public. The report was obtained under public records laws by a Knoxville public radio station.

The report took a circuitous path toward becoming public. The Center for Public Integrity in Washington reported about it’s existence last week, and the TNJ: On the Hill blog posted about the finding that Tennessee had slid into the “red zone” of 24 states most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. That led another reporter to ask the governor about the report (and the related refusal to make it public) during his weekly press conference.

Lee responded that not all the of the details in the White House report are up to date and that he wanted to limited the sources of information about the outbreak.

“Multiple streams of data from multiple places is not helpful to people,” Lee said.

While the Lee administration didn’t want to share the White House report with the media, it did send copies to health officials around the state. That’s where WUOT-FM, the public radio station in Knoxville, comes in.

The station requested a copy from the Knox County Health Department. Director Martha Buchanan said since she shared the report with the county Board of Health, a a decision-making body, it became subject to Tennessee open records laws.

The report includes a recommendation to impose a statewide mask mandate, which is something Lee has decided to leave to county mayors and health departments.

The report says Tennessee saw a 41% spike in new coronavirus cases between Oct. 4 and Oct. 11, and a 32% increase in COVID-19 related deaths over the period. At the same time, the number of tests being conducted around the state has dropped. The sharpest increases in coronavirus cases has occurred in Putnam, Wilson, and Sullivan counties, according to the White House.

Read the full WUOT and the White House report on Tennessee report here.

Lee calls for suspending negative consequences from school testing

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee announced Friday he will ask lawmakers to suspend any consequences for schools, teachers, and students if they do poorly on testing during the current school year.

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

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn today called for removing negative consequences for schools and educators associated with student assessments for the 2020-2021 school year. Student assessments will be conducted as planned.

“Given the unprecedented disruption that the COVID-19 pandemic and extended time away from the classroom has had on Tennessee’s students, my Administration will work with the General Assembly to bring forward a solution for this school year that alleviates any burdens associated with educator evaluations and school accountability metrics,” said Gov. Lee. “Accountability remains incredibly important for the education of Tennessee’s students, and we will keep this year’s assessments in place to ensure an accurate picture of where our students are and what supports are needed to regain learning loss and get them back on the path to success.”

“Due to COVID-19, Tennessee districts and schools experienced extended periods away from the classroom and missed critical instruction time during the spring. The department supports Governor Lee’s call for holding teachers and schools harmless from negative consequences associated with accountability measures this school year,” said Commissioner Schwinn. “Administering assessments to gauge student learning and ensuring strong accountability best enables us to meet the needs of all students, however we know the significant challenges our teachers and school and district leaders are facing and it remains critical to reward their good work. We look forward to working together with our elected officials on a solution for this school year that preserves our strong foundations while ensuring that every teacher feels supported in focusing on educating their students.”

Bradshaw raises $893K since surprise win in Democratic Senate primary

Memphis environmental activist Marquita Bradshaw, the surprise winner of the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate despite spending just $22,300 on her primary campaign, raised $893,000 in the third quarter.

Bradshaw is the first African-American woman to win a statewide primary in Tennessee. Her campaign said she has received more than 23,000 contributions, averaging $24.12.

“Our campaign isn’t funded by millionaires and billionaires, but by hardworking Tennesseans,” campaign manager Ken Taylor said in a release. “So, our total raised may still be just a fraction of what our opponent has already spent, but a single mom knows how to make a dollar stretch in a way a rich man simply doesn’t.”

Bradshaw faces Republican Bill Hagerty in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Maryville).

UPDATE: The Hagerty camp says he raised $1.26 million in the quarter.

(This post has been updated to reflect Bradshaw’s fundraising totals for the third quarter, and Hagerty’s since the Aug. 6 election).

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Gov. Lee in quarantine after COVID-19 exposure

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 and his wife, Maria, are in quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19 by a member of his security detail. The governor has tested negative so far for the virus.

Here’s a statement from Lee’s office:

Today, a member of the Governor’s Executive Security Detail has tested positive for COVID-19. Gov. Lee is feeling well and has tested negative for COVID-19 but out of an abundance of caution, he is quarantining at home with the First Lady until further notice. Governor’s Office protocol requires masks and social distancing and no staff are believed to be positive at this time. 

Report: Tennessee ranks 45th in voter engagement

As early voters prepare to head to the polls this week, a new study by personal finance site WalletHub finds Tennessee ranks sixth from the bottom in terms of voter engagement.

The rankings place Tennessee above only West Virginia, Alabama, New Mexico, Mississippi, and Hawaii. The most engaged voters were found in Maine, Washington, Colorado, Maryland, and Wyoming.

Tennessee’s rating was determined by looking at six categories as the compare with the rest of the country:

  • Percentage of registered voters in 2016 presidential election: 37th.
  • Percentage of electorate who voted in 2018 midterm elections: 39th.
  • Percentage of electorate who voted in 2016 presidential election: 48th.
  • Change in percentage of electorate who voted in 2016 elections vs. 2012 elections: 33rd.
  • Total political contributions per adult population: 30th.
  • Voter accessibility policies: 35th.

Tennessee among 24 states on White House ‘red zone’ list

Tennessee is among 24 states on the White House’s coronavirus “red zone” list, according to the Center for Public Integrity. The state is among 13 where officials have refused to share details about the findings.

Here’s the article originally published by Liz Essley Whyte of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Washington, D.C.:

Twenty-four states are in the “red zone” for new coronavirus cases, according to documents the White House Coronavirus Task Force distributes to governors every week but does not publish. States in the middle of the country — North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Montana and Utah — topped the list.

The Center for Public Integrity obtained the weekly reports, the existence of which it first revealed in July. The Trump administration has been withholding them from the public. In July, 18 states were in the red zone, with more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents. 

The task force in its most recent reports emphasized the need for masks and testing. “Masks must be worn indoors in all public settings and group gathering sizes should be limited,” the task force told red-zone Kansas, where most counties have opted out of a statewide mask mandate. 

The Oct. 4 report to Idaho appears to be the first time the task force has explicitly recommended closing schools: “Recommend change to online K-12 classes in counties and metro areas with elevated test positivity and incidence among schoolage children and increasing hospital utilization,” the White House advised, noting that outbreaks in 10 Idaho counties may be related to school openings. The Trump administration championed opening schools this summer, and the task force reports previously generally avoided the topic of K-12 education. The Oct. 4 reports from the White House Coronavirus Task Force included a ranking of states based on their rates of new cases. States with more than 100 new cases last week per 100,000 residents were in the red zone. (Screenshot of report)

But the task force didn’t recommend the steps it advised for red zone states earlier in the pandemic, such as closing bars and limiting gatherings to 10 people or fewer. The Democrat-led House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis last month criticized the task force for watering down its recommendations over time.

Only one state, Vermont, was in the green zone for cases in the most recent report, with just six new cases per 100,000 residents in the last week.

The White House earlier told Public Integrity that it was not releasing the reports because the pandemic response should be state-led and federally supported. “The United States will not be shut down again,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in August.

Since then, Public Integrity has contacted officials in all 50 states weekly to obtain the reports. Governors and health officials in 13 states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia — have refused to share any so far or have not responded to repeated inquiries to multiple officials. The White House has said that states are free to share the reports if they want to do so.

The 24 states in the red zone are:
1. North Dakota
2. South Dakota
3. Wisconsin
4. Montana
5. Utah
6. Iowa
7. Nebraska
8. Idaho
9. Arkansas
10. Oklahoma
11. Missouri
12. Kansas
13. Wyoming
14. Tennessee
15. Minnesota
16. Kentucky
17. Alabama
18. Mississippi
19. Alaska
20. Nevada
21. Illinois
22. Indiana
23. Texas
24. South Carolina

Tennessee Equality Project endorses two Republicans (and 19 Democrats)

The Tennessee Equality Project has endorsed Republican state Sen. Steve Dickerson over Democratic challenger Heidi Campbell. And in the open House District 18 race, the LGBTQ advocacy group has given the nod to Republican businessman Eddie Mannis over Democrat Virginia Couch.

Nineteen other TEP endorsements went to Democrats nominees, plus one independent, and one write-in candidate.

“I’m honored to have the endorsement of the Tennessee Equality Project – they are at the forefront of protecting the rights for the LGBTQ community in Tennessee,” Dickerson said in a release. “I have always fought for equal rights for all Tennesseans, and I will continue to fight for the rights of the LGBTQ community.”

Here’s the release from the TEP:

Tennessee Equality Project lobbies the Tennessee General Assembly and local governments around the state on behalf of the LGBTQ community.  We are pleased to endorse a strong group of candidates for state and local government this year, including a number of LGBTQ candidates who can significantly change the conversation about our issues in Tennessee.  The Slate of Hate, which is a set of vicious anti-LGBTQ bills, looms as a threat when the Legislature reconvenes in January. On the other hand, we have important opportunities to advance equality in many of our cities.  The candidates we have endorsed can play a vital role in fighting discrimination and making life better for LGBTQ Tennesseans.  

TENNESSEE GENERAL ASSEMBLY ENDORSEMENTS

TN Senate District 6-Knox County

Jane George

TN Senate District 10-Bradley and Hamilton Counties

Glenn Scruggs

TN Senate District 14-Bedford, Lincoln, Marshall, Moore, and Rutherford Counties

Chase Clemmons

TN Senate District 20-Davidson County

Sen. Steven Dickerson

Our endorsement goes to Sen. Steven Dickerson, who has spoken passionately on the floor of the Senate against discriminatory bills and voted against them every time. In addition, as Chair of the Senate’s State & Local Government Committee, he has been a strategic partner in helping us navigate the legislative process to the significant benefit of our community. 

We also wish to offer our thanks to candidate Heidi Campbell for her strong statement of support for the LGBTQ community during our survey process and for her outreach to our community.

TN Senate District 22-Houston, Montgomery, and Stewart Counties

Ronnie Glynn

TN House District 4-Unicoi and Carter Counties

Bobby Harrell

TN House District 6-Washington County

Brad Batt

TN House District 13-Knox County

Rep. Gloria Johnson

TN House District 18-Knox County

Eddie Mannis-LGBTQ candidate

TN House District 25-Cumberland, Putnam, and Van Buren Counties

Robyn Deck

TN House District 37-Rutherford County

Mariah Phillips

TN House District 38-Clay, Fentress, Macon, Pickett, and Scott Counties

Carol Abney

TN House District 40-DeKalb, Smith, Sumner, and Trousdale Counties

Paddy Sizemore

TN House District 48-Rutherford County

Matt Ferry

TN House District 49-Rutherford County

Brandon Thomas-LGBTQ candidate

TN House District 56-Davidson County

Bob Freeman

TN House District 63-Williamson County

Elizabeth Madeira

Our endorsement goes to Elizabeth Madeira for her strong outreach to the LGBTQ community. We also wish to commend candidate Brad Fiscus for his clear expressions of support for our community.

TN House District 82-Crockett, Haywood, and Lauderdale Counties

Andrea Bond Johnson

TN House District 83-Shelby County

Jerri Green

TN House District 89-Knox County

Keri Keeling (Write-in candidate)

TN House District 90-Shelby County

Torrey Harris-LGBTQ candidate

TN House District 96-Shelby County

Dwayne Thompson

TN House District 97-Shelby County

Gabby Salinas

Print your own: New Department of Commerce & Insurance licensing system going more paperless

The Tennessee Commerce and Insurance Department is going more paperless. Here are the details from the agency:

NASHVILLE — As part of ongoing efforts to modernize insurance licensing, save money and remove barriers that hinder the Volunteer State’s economy, the Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance (TDCI) announces a system upgrade that will create a more paperless insurance licensing process.

Starting Tuesday, Oct. 13 by 9 a.m. CDT, TDCI will go live on the newest version of State Based Systems (SBS), a web-based application through the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) that supports states’ insurance regulation. When launched, the new system will mean:

_ No more paper licenses will be printed and mailed by TDCI. Instead, licensees can print a license any time by using the SBS License Manager tool.

_ No more renewal notifications will be mailed to Tennessee insurance producers. To be contacted by TDCI, licensees must keep a current business email updated in TDCI’s system. A current and updated email address is imperative to receive notifications. Licensees can update their email online at www.nipr.com by clicking on the ‘Change Contact Information’ link.

_ Licenses will now be eligible for renewal up to 90 days prior to their expiration date.

_ Email notifications will automatically be sent once a license is approved.

_ Licensees will continue to be able to print their license and view their CE transcripts online.

“With over 200,000 licensed insurance agents in Tennessee and $44.4 billion in premium volume written in 2019, it is incumbent on TDCI to continually improve our processes in order to create efficiencies and help Tennessee’s insurance professionals succeed while providing responsible regulation to help protect consumers,” said TDCI Commissioner Hodgen Mainda.

During the transition period that began Oct. 7, NIPR and SBS services, including licensing operations and online consumer complaint filing, will be suspended. Consumers should contact TDCI Consumer Insurance Services at 615-741-2218 or 1-800-342-4029 with questions or to file a complaint.

“The SBS improvement will save thousands of dollars in taxpayer monies as well as countless man hours since paper licenses will no longer need to be printed or mailed by our staff,” said TDCI Assistant Commissioner of Insurance Rachel Jrade-Rice. “I encourage consumers or insurance producers who may have questions about the upgrade to contact our team at the appropriate contact numbers in order to receive additional information.”

Entities with questions pertaining to licensing should contact TDCI Agent Licensing at 1-888-416-0868 or 615-741-2693. Questions about the SBS transition should be directed to the SBS Service Desk sbshelp@naic.org or 816-783-8990.

Lee announces $50M in coronavirus relief funds for TN businesses

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)

From Gov. Bill Lee’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group (FSAG) today announced an initial $50 million in federal Coronavirus Relief Funds for the new Supplemental Employer Recovery Grant (SERG) program to provide additional relief to small businesses suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic. This new wave of funding includes specific support for minority-owned, women-owned and veteran-owned businesses, as well as businesses owned by disabled persons. 

“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy and supporting them through these difficult times has been one of the core missions of the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group,” said Gov. Lee. “The SERG program will provide further relief to small businesses, especially those who may not have been able to access previous federal and state relief funds.”

“The coronavirus has placed an inordinate burden on our small business owners. These businesses are critical economic drivers and the most vulnerable during times of crisis,” said Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge). “I was grateful for the opportunity to work with my colleagues on the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group to provide this relief to businesses in need.”

“We have stood with our businesses by initiating the Small Business Relief Program, and stabilizing the Unemployment Trust Fund, and today’s announcement is yet another targeted solution to strengthen the Tennessee business community’s ongoing recovery efforts,” said House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville). “All of these programs support our minority, women, disabled and service-disabled veteran business owners who are suffering during these extraordinary times. We need them to remain open and to thrive, and I applaud our Stimulus Accountability Group for helping all Tennessee businesses get back up on their feet so they remain successful.”

Small business owners and non-profit organizations can apply to receive reimbursement for eligible direct expenses or costs incurred as a result of business interruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The program’s application window will open October 7, 2020 and remain open until December 29, 2020, or until all funds are depleted. Please note:

– Funds will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis;

– Awards are capped at $30,000. Businesses located in low to moderate income (“LMI”) census tracts, Opportunity zones, or Promise zones will receive an additional $500 added to the maximum allowable expenses;

– 10% of all funds distributed under this program will be reserved for eligible diversity business enterprises, classified as minority business enterprises, women business enterprises, or service-disabled veteran business enterprises, and enterprises owned by disabled persons.

The period for reimbursable expenses is May 1, 2020 through August 31, 2020. Eligible expenses and business interruption costs include but are not limited to:

– Costs to create social distancing measures

– Purchasing personal protective equipment for employees or customers

– Contactless equipment

– Payroll expenses 

– Mortgage interest

The SERG program follows the previously allocated $300 million for more than 40,000 qualifying businesses under the Tennessee Business Relief Program.

To apply and learn more about what is eligible for reimbursement, please visithttps://tncaresact.tn.gov/SERG. For application assistance, please call 1-833-740-1438 or email support@TNCARESACT.com.