Bill Lee

Rate the Plate: Lee adminstration puts four proposed tag designs to a vote

Gov. Bill Lee’s adminstration is putting four proposed plate designs to a vote. The winning design will be introduced in January.

A Tennessee tag from 1940.

We think each of the four has merits, but we lean toward the ones with the throwback state outline on the top. But if we had our druthers, the clutter of the state’s web address and slogan would eliminated.

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

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee invited Tennesseans to “Rate the Plates” and help choose the state’s next standard license plate by selecting their favorite design at tn.gov/ratetheplates. Under state law, the license plate is redesigned every eight years if funds are approved in the General Assembly’s annual budget.

“As Tennessee celebrates 225 years of statehood, it’s a perfect time to redesign our license plate and feature the Tri-Star that represents each of our state’s unique grand divisions,” said Gov. Lee. “We welcome all Tennesseans to cast their vote and play a role in choosing this piece of our state’s history.” 

Voting begins today and will conclude at 11:59 p.m. CT on Monday, September 27. The winning design will be announced later this fall and available to the public January 2022. 

Tennessee statute requires the display of “Tennessee,” “Volunteer State” and “TNvacation.com” on the plate, as well as county name and expiration year decal locations. Statute provides that Tennesseans may select an “In God We Trust” plate option.

The new license plate design will replace the current plate that launched in 2006 with modifications in 2011, 2016 and 2017.

High-resolution license plate designs are available here.

Differing court rulings affect mask mandates in East and West Tennessee

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference in Nashville on Jan. 23, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A federal judge in Memphis late last week granted a temporary restraining order against the state enforcing Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allow parents to opt their children out of mask requirements in school.

But the Knoxville Compass reports another federal judge in East Tennessee declined to take the same step in a case filed by parents there. U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer found the families of three students with disabilities hadn’t presented sufficient evidence of “immediate or irreparable injury or loss” by Knox County School’s refusal to enact a mask mandate.

In the Memphis case, mothers of two children with serious illnesses persuaded U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman to issue a restraining order against the opt-out provision after the Shelby County Health Department issued a universal mask requirement.

A look at coverage of Lee’s wide-ranging press conference

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 held a wide-ranging press conference Thursday, with several observers coming away wondering what it was meant to accomplish. While the governor touched on issues ranging from workforce development to the worsening pandemic situation in the state, several observers came away from the gathering wondering what it was meant to accomplish. Here’s a look at how reporters covered the confab:

Stella Yu, The Tennessean:

On Thursday, Lee acknowledged the effectiveness of masks in schools and vaccination for children ages 12 and up.

“We believe that masks work, and that if you want to protect your kid against (COVID-19), one tool that you would have is to send your kid to school with a mask,” he said.

But he stopped short of committing to any additional measures, insisting he needs to balance school districts’ rights to make policy with parents’ right to make decisions for their children.

“What we are trying to do is provide for as much protection as possible and provide for the rights of parents to have the last say in their children’s health,” he said. “You don’t have to exclude. You don’t have to have ‘either or.’ If you really believe it, you can find a way forward.”

Marissa Sulek, WSMV-TV:

Thursday is the second day in a row that Tennessee has set a record for the highest amount of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state.

The Department of Health reports 3,500 people are now in hospitals across the state with the virus, 79 are pediatric patients. The state has now exceeded the winter peak seen in January.

On Thursday, Gov. Bill Lee and other state officials spoke for the first time about the surge in hospitalizations. Lee said he’s not going to make any changes going forward with the state’s plan to combat COVID-19.

Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said there are 7,700 new positive cases of COVID-19 a day in Tennessee with one-third of those in children.

Phil Williams, WTVF-TV:

Tennessee doctors have tried holding news conferences, signing petitions, even producing personal video pleas — to get the governor’s attention on the issue of kids and COVID.

Thursday, frustrated that they have not been heard, a group of area physicians decided to confront Gov. Bill Lee directly as he left his own news conference.

“Governor Lee, we want to get a meeting with you,” one called out as Lee continued walking through the halls of the state Capitol.

She continued, “We want to know, as a Christian man, how you feel about children getting sick and dying from COVID when this could be prevented with universal masking.”

Marta Aldrich, Chalkbeat:

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has granted eight of 14 waiver requests from Tennessee school leaders wanting to switch temporarily to remote learning under a COVID response plan that began this week.

A spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Education said Wednesday that Schwinn also partially granted one other application and denied two, while three more requests weren’t eligible. […]

The rollout of seven-day waivers, announced late last week, is Schwinn’s attempt to give district and school leaders some flexibility on new state rules that essentially require in-person instruction this academic year, except when individual students must temporarily isolate or quarantine due to the virus.

But Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is under increasing pressure to provide even greater flexibility for virtual learning as additional districts shut down under the strain of COVID’s highly contagious delta variant. According to data from the state health department, more than 38% of all Tennessee COVID cases reported last week were among children up to age 18.

Ian Round, The Daily Memphian:

Gov. Bill Lee and cabinet members said Thursday, Sept. 2, they’re not making any major changes in their approach to the pandemic, even though Tennessee leads the nation in COVID-19 cases per capita.

“We’re in a very difficult position in our state,” Lee said during a briefing at the State Capitol in Nashville.

Lee reiterated his stance that children should continue to learn in-person and that parents should retain the right to opt their children out of mask mandates, even though 38.5% of COVID cases are among children.

“We don’t have any plan to change that going forward,” he said. “We are working really hard to protect the lives and livelihoods of those kids.

“I still believe that a parent is the best decider of what is appropriate for their child,” he said. “No one is more qualified to make decisions about the health and wellbeing of a child than the child’s parent.”

The Associated Press:

Republican Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday said he has no plans to introduce anti-abortion legislation similar to what Texas adopted earlier this year.

“We do not have any current plans to move forward beyond than what we’re currently awaiting which is a ruling from the court on the existing piece of legislation that we already have,” Lee told reporters.

Last year, Lee signed off on one of the strictest abortion bans in the country, but it was promptly blocked by federal court from being implemented. He has since vowed to do “whatever it takes in court” to defend the measure.

Sam Stockard commentary at The Tennessee Lookout:

Under a federal civil rights investigation, facing two lawsuits out of Shelby County over his mask opt-out order and now seeing school districts closing, Gov. Bill Lee refuses to let the buck stop with him.

“My responsibility is to work together to make the best decisions in our state that we believe will benefit Tennesseans as we navigate through what is a very difficult situation. To work with school districts, to work with parents, to work with people across the state, that’s what we’re doing,” Lee said Thursday in a press conference called apparently to calm people’s nerves but which did little to soothe anyone’s concerns about what the governor is calling a “crisis” again.

But what about districts that are closing because they can’t deal with COVID cases. Does he bear any responsibility for those, because of his policy?

“I think a pandemic has created a large number of infections across our state. A pandemic has swept through, and I think we see that in school districts, we see that in cases of pediatrics across our state. We see that in schools having to make difficult decisions about how to keep classrooms opened and closed. This pandemic has wreaked havoc on the world, and it’s doing the same thing in our state, and we’re doing everything we can to handle that,” he said.

Maybe he doesn’t think anyone is paying attention to his refusal to take the heat or to say things that have little meaning.

Martin announces Democratic bid for governor

Physician Jason Martin is seeking the Democratic nomination for Tennessee governor. The Nashville pulmonary critical care specialist has been an outspoken critic of Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s COVID-19 policies.

UPDATE: Martin says he has raised $100,000 since forming his exploratory committee. Greeneville minister Casey Nicholson has also also made his Democratic bid official, per Stephen Elliott a the Nashville Scene. A third Democrat expressing plans to run is Carnita Atwater of Memphis.

See Martin’s fundraising email sent out Monday morning:

I’m Dr. Jason Martin, a father, husband, doctor, business owner, and advocate for Tennesseans.

Some of you have met me personally in the halls or waiting rooms of hospitals as I have cared for you or your loved ones in my ICUs. Some of you have probably seen me on your nightly news urging our elected officials to take the necessary steps to save lives in Tennessee. Some of you are my family, friends, and neighbors. And some of you may not know me at all!

I’m reaching out to you today to announce not my but our campaign for Governor, because now is the time for a leader in Tennessee to stop the division and start working to meet all of our needs. And yes, I said our campaign, because unlike most politicians, this campaign is not about my personal fame or popularity — our campaign is a collective movement for the people of Tennessee to reclaim what is ours.

I’m running for Governor of Tennessee because I want to help create a state that puts people first regardless of where they’re from, what they look like, or how they were raised. Will you join me on this journey by adding your name in support of our campaign today?

I have been in middle Tennessee for twenty years now, but I was raised in Southern Alabama in a place much like many of our communities in Tennessee. We had the same sweltering summers, spent on front porches, laughing with family, and swatting mosquitoes.

And just like many families in Tennessee, my family raised me through values rooted in hard work, faith, and community. My parents and step-parents worked long hours to give me every opportunity they were never afforded. And while they labored, my many aunts, uncles, and grandparents stepped in to raise me. Because of their sacrifices, we were able to change the story of our family in a single generation. Their hard work afforded me the opportunity to attend the best public schools and earn scholarships to propel me all the way to and through medical school at Vanderbilt University.

From there, I went on to serve those who served our country at Nashville Veteran Affairs Medical Center, train new healthcare professionals at Meharry Medical College, and treat ICU patients at Nashville General Hospital and now Sumner Regional Medical Center.

My experience as a doctor in cities and rural communities has made it abundantly clear to me that Tennessee’s health care system is incompetent, our economy isn’t supporting people to afford their families’ needs, and Governor Bill Lee is failing our students.

And then came the COVID-19 pandemic, throughout which Governor Lee has continued to abandon Tennesseans, fail to rise to the occasion, and refuse to meet the moment. Rather than leading with policies to keep children in schools, businesses open, and families safe, Lee went on a fringe extreme rampage, firing top COVID officials, eliminating the power for local school boards to protect their vulnerable students by requiring masks, and lying about the protections needed against the virus.

Before the pandemic and unfortunately during the pandemic, our leaders have sown division through culture wars and social issues to distract from the fact they have abandoned us.

As a critical care physician, I took an oath to “do no harm.” Right now, there are too many politicians out there like Governor Lee doing more harm than good for the people of Tennessee, and I’m running to change that.

Tennessee once had a reputation for our hospitality, volunteerism, and how we cared for our neighbors. However, for more than a decade now, our corrupt leaders have worked to divide us so that we abandon our values. That ends today with our campaign.

We can thrive with improved education for ALL Tennesseans.
We can thrive with better healthcare.
We can thrive by growing businesses that strengthen families.
And we can thrive by fortifying rural Tennessee and modernizing our infrastructure.
Together, Tennessee thrives.

Thanks so much,

Dr. Jason Martin

New edition alert: Lee order snubbed, GOP introduces fees to run, 3-judge panels named

Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks to a Chamber of Commerce event in Memphis on Dec. 6, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

In this week’s print edition of The Tennessee Journal:

— Big school districts ignore Lee’s executive order for opting out of masks

— That’ll cost you: State GOP approves fee schedule for candidates, bona fide updates.

— Money matters: Tennessee ends budget year with $2.96B surplus in its general fund.

— A three-judge tour: Supreme Court names first three-judge panels, two headed by Lyle.

— Also: Lee gets the Trump endorsement, Harshbarger late on stock disclosures, Haslam and Sundquist as new radicals, and was Fiscus barking up the wrong tree with her muzzle complaints?

Access the your TNJ copy here or subscribe here.

U.S. education secretary questions legality of Lee’s mask opt-out order

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

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allowing parents to opt out of universal masking rules at Tennessee public schools may infringe on federal laws requiring districts to adopt policies “to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans,” according to a letter from U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

The letter comes as public schools in Nashville and Shelby County have refused to adopt Lee’s opt-out order as they look into whether he has the legal authority to require the change.

Read the full letter dated Aug. 18 below:

Dear Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn:

As the new school year begins in school districts across Tennessee, it is our shared priority that students return to in-person instruction safely. The safe return to in-person instruction requires that school districts be able to protect the health and safety of students and educators, and that families have confidence that their schools are doing everything possible to keep students healthy. Tennessee’s actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts these goals at risk and may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by Federal law.

We are aware that Tennessee has adopted an Executive Order prohibiting local educational agencies (LEAs) from adopting requirements for the universal wearing of masks. This State level action against science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 appears to restrict the development of local health and safety policies and is at odds with the school district planning process embodied in the U.S. Department of Education’s (Department’s) interim final requirements. As you know, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP Act) requires each LEA that receives Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) funds to adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services. (See section 2001(i).) The Department’s interim final requirements clarify that such plan “must describe…how [the LEA] will maintain the health and safety of students, educators, and other staff and the extent to which it has adopted policies, and a description of any such policies, on each of the following safety recommendations established by the CDC…” The safety recommendations include “universal and correct wearing of masks.”

The Department is concerned that Tennessee’s actions could limit each LEA’s ability under the ARP Act to adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services that the LEA determines adequately protects students and educators by following CDC guidance. The Department stands with the dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction.

The Department also emphasizes that it is within an LEA’s discretion to use ARP ESSER funds for implementing indoor masking policies or other policies aligned with CDC guidance. Section 2001(e)(2)(Q) of the ARP Act explicitly gives LEAs the authority to use ARP ESSER funds (as well as ESSER funds granted through prior relief funding) for “developing strategies and implementing public health protocols including, to the greatest extent practicable, policies in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the reopening and operation of school facilities to effectively maintain the health and safety of students, educators, and other staff.”

We are eager to partner with Tennessee on any efforts to further our shared goals of protecting the health and safety of students and educators. In addition, the Department will continue to closely review and monitor whether Tennessee is meeting all of its Federal fiscal requirements. It’s critical that we do everything in our power to provide a safe environment for our students and staff to thrive.

Sincerely,

Miguel A. Cardona, Ed.D.

McNally to holdout school districts: So you *want* a special session?

Senate Speaker Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton await Gov. Bill Lee arrival for his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Nashville) was one of the leading opponents of House Republican calls to hold a special session to ban schools from imposing mask mandates. Under a compromise, Gov. Bill Lee on Monday issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of mask requirements. But Shelby County and Nashville school districts have slow-walked the order so far, saying they want to look into the legal specifics. Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk also announced he wouldn’t bring charges against teachers or district officials who violate the order.

McNally doesn’t appear pleased that the order isn’t being immediately complied with. Here’s his statement released on Tuesday afternoon:

“I am extremely appalled and alarmed at the response to Governor Lee’s executive order from Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools. This order was a compromise that still allows school boards to ensure the health and safety of their students while recognizing the rights of parents to decide what is best for their children. The Governor and the General Assembly cannot and will not allow lawful orders to be defied. If these systems persist in resisting the order, we will have no choice but to exercise other remedial options.”

In other words, if the opt-out provision isn’t implemented, McNally likely won’t stand in the way of renewed calls for a special session in which all bets could be off.

Read the Almanac of American Politics’ profile of Gov. Bill Lee

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters following his address to a joint convention of the General Assembly on Jan. 19, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The latest edition of the Almanac of American Politics includes an updated profile of Gov. Bill Lee’s first term in office.

The folks over at the Almanac have graciously given the TNJ: On the Hill blog permission to post this sneak peak at the profile below (one major addendum since the text was finalized was former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Lee’s re-election bid last week):  

Businessman Bill Lee easily won the governorship of Tennessee in 2018, becoming the first Tennessee Republican to succeed a Republican governor since 1869. Lee’s victory shattered another longstanding pattern in Tennessee: Since the 1960s, partisan control of the governor’s office had changed with every new governor. This electoral habit finally came to an end as Tennessee became one of the most Republican states in the union.

Lee, a seventh-generation Tennessean from Williamson County south of Nashville, earned a mechanical engineering degree at Auburn University, then returned home to join the Lee Co., a business founded by his grandfather in 1944 that specializes in HVAC, electrical work, and plumbing. Starting in 1992, Lee served as president and CEO; by the time of his gubernatorial run, the company was employing 1,200 people and earning annual revenue of more than $220 million. The company collected $13.8 million from state contracts between 2012 and 2018, but it stopped signing new state contracts during his campaign, and Lee put his holdings into a blind trust. Separately, Lee helped operate the Triple L Ranch, a 1,000-acre farm founded by his grandparents with 300 head of Hereford cattle. Carol Ann, Lee’s wife and the mother of their four children, died in a horse-riding accident in 2000. Lee eventually became close to a third-grade teacher of one of his children, and in 2008, they married. Bill and Maria Lee attend a conservative, charismatic church, and Lee serves as a board
member of the Men of Valor prison ministry.

Lee was one of several Republicans to enter the race to succeed two-term Gov. Bill Haslam. A major business figure in the state, Haslam had come to the governorship after serving as mayor of Knoxville. He fit with the East Tennessee tradition of pragmatic Republicanism, producing achievements in education and transportation policy. Haslam often sparred with the more conservative members of his own party in the GOP-controlled state legislature, and declared he would not vote for Donald Trump in 2016, even though Trump was poised to win the state by 26 points.

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Lee declines to call special session, issues order for parents to opt kids out of mask mandates

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)

Gov. Bill Lee has declined House GOP calls for a special session to block mask mandates and debate the “discrimination” against customers of private businesses who can’t prove they have been inoculated or tested for COVID-19.

Lee instead issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of mask mandates for children attending K-12 schools.

Here are the governor’s remarks as prepared for delivery on Monday.

Thanks for joining today. Before we cover an important COVID-19 announcement, I want to express a heavy heart regarding the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan. Over the years, many Tennesseans were deployed and some lost their lives to fight the War on Terror and create stability in the region. 

The sacrifices of American troops are not in vain. My hope is that wisdom will prevail in the United States’ response. I hope you will join me in praying for the people of Afghanistan. 

Let me start off this portion of the briefing by saying that we’re facing a significant challenge in our hospitals as a result of the increase in COVID cases. 

The most important tool we have to fight the pandemic is a vaccine. I encourage Tennesseans who have not been vaccinated to talk to their doctor to consider getting vaccinated and to make an informed decision. I worked with my doctor and received the vaccine and it has been a dependable tool to keep me healthy. 

The government will not mandate or require anyone to get a vaccine but I encourage you to consider it for yourself. It’s widely available, it’s effective and it’s free. 

More and more Tennesseans are choosing to be vaccinated, almost 100,000 per week and this is good news for the health of our state. 

If you do become sick with COVID, early intervention is important – please call your doctor to ask about treatments. Monoclonal antibodies are widely available at 72 centers across our state and are highly effective if used early. Your doctor can advise you on the best route for you. 

I want to acknowledge the frustration and fear that many are feeling – fear of COVID and its effects on your family, fear of government intervention and its effect, and frustration over everything from masks to information that changes by the day. 

Right now, some of the greatest frustration is occurring in our K-12 schools, especially around the issue of mask mandates. While local decision-making is important, individual decision-making by a parent on issues regarding the health and well-being of their child is the most important. 

No one cares about the health and well-being of a child more than a parent. I am signing an executive order today that allows parents to opt their children out of a school mask mandate if either a school board or health board enacts one over a district. 

Districts will make the decision they believe are best for their schools, but parents will have the ultimate decision-making for their individual child’s health and well-being. I will not be calling a special session at this time. 

Our hospitals are struggling under the weight of COVID but those hospital beds are filled with adults. Requiring parents to make their children wear masks to solve an adult problem is in my view the wrong approach. 

Our hospitals and our health care workers are doing everything they can to take care of Tennesseans. That’s why I signed an executive order last week giving them maximum flexibility to do their jobs. My administration continues to provide funding and staffing support to ensure there are no barriers to hospitals facing strain. I commend them once again for their incredible work and service to Tennesseans. 

While we deal with this issue, it remains important that we keep our schools open and in person as we’ve seen the devastating loss of progress our kids have had academically when schools were remote or closed. Parents, if your children aren’t feeling well – keep them at home, stay in touch with your pediatrician. Good common sense will go a long way. 

I commend school boards across this state as most of you kept your schools open last year and are committed to doing so again this year. 

It’s frustrating that we’re headed into another school year with these challenges – it’s disheartening that the COVID challenge continues – but I’m proud of Tennesseans who, in spite of suffering, have persevered, and because of their character, there’s great hope. Thank you for joining today.

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.