Bill Lee

Lee releases special session legislation

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is releasing the Republican’s package of bills to be taken up by lawmakers in a special session scheduled to begin on Tuesday.

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

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced special session legislation addressing K-12 student learning loss and the adverse effects on Tennessee students’ proficiency in reading and math after extended time away from the classroom due to COVID-19.

“COVID-19 has disrupted every aspect of education and we are on the cusp of severe consequences for our students if we don’t act now,” said Gov. Lee. “Data suggests that Tennessee third graders are facing an estimated 50% drop in reading proficiency and a projected 65% drop in math proficiency and that is not an acceptable path for our kids[1]. I thank Lt. Gov. McNally, Speaker Sexton and members of the General Assembly for acting quickly on behalf of our students and taking up intervention measures during the special session.”

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports that only 34% of Tennessee students are proficient or advanced readers by fourth grade. Research shows that students who do not achieve reading proficiency by third grade are more likely to drop out of high school, be incarcerated or experience poverty as adults.

In addition to learning loss interventions and accountability hold harmless measures, Gov. Lee will propose adding funding for teacher salaries.

“Educators across the state are working tirelessly to turn the tide for their students and help them regain critical math and reading skills,” said Gov. Lee. “We believe they should be compensated for their efforts and look forward to working with the General Assembly to provide funding for our teachers.”

Intervening to Stop Learning Loss – SB 7002

  • Requires interventions for struggling students including after-school learning mini-camps, learning loss bridge camps and summer learning camps, beginning summer 2021
  • Program prioritizes students who score below proficient in both reading (ELA) and math subjects
  • Creates the Tennessee Accelerated Literacy and Learning Corps to provide ongoing tutoring for students throughout the entire school year
  • Strengthens laws around a third grade reading gate so we no longer advance students who are not prepared

Building Better Readers with Phonics – SB 7003

  • Ensures local education agencies (LEAs) use a phonics-based approach for kindergarten through third grade reading instruction
  • Establishes a reading screener for parents and teachers to identify when students need help, well before third grade
  • Provides training and support for educators to teach phonics-based reading instruction

Accountability to Inform – SB 7001

  • Extends hold harmless provisions from the 2019-20 school year to the 2020-21 school year so that students, teachers, schools and districts do not face any negative consequences associated with student assessments
  • Provides parents and educators with assessment data including TCAP testing to provide an accurate picture of where Tennessee students are and what supports are needed to offset any learning losses

Feds approve Medicaid block grant, but for how long?

Tennessee’s Medicaid block grant has been approved in the waning days of President Donald Trump’s administration. The questions will be whether the program will proceed once Democrat Joe Biden takes over on Jan. 20.

Here’s the release from Gov. Bill Lee’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – After more than a year of discussions and negotiations with the federal government, Tennessee’s Medicaid “Block Grant” waiver amendment received approval today by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  Tennessee is the first state in the nation to be granted approval for this type of block grant arrangement, which will result in an innovative, alternative financing arrangement for its Medicaid program and provide additional flexibilities relative to its administration.

TennCare submitted Amendment 42 to CMS in November 2019 in accordance with legislation adopted by the Tennessee General Assembly during the 2019 legislative session.  The legislation directed the governor to submit the waiver for federal approval. 

The negotiated agreement includes the major components and principles outlined in TennCare’ s original proposal to CMS, building upon Tennessee’s history of effective management of its Medicaid program and providing opportunities for additional federal funding for the purpose of improving the health of TennCare members and communities throughout the state.

“Today’s agreement represents a continuation of Tennessee’s commitment to innovate, lead and improve,” said Governor Bill Lee. “We have sought to fundamentally change an outdated and ineffective Medicaid financing system that incentivizes states to spend more taxpayer dollars rather than rewarding states for value, quality and efficiency. Our approved plan will create an unprecedented opportunity for Tennessee to be rewarded for its successful administration of TennCare and further improve the health of TennCare members and Tennessee communities with that reward.”

“We approached our negotiations with CMS and the ultimate agreement with one overriding question and directive from Governor Lee – Will this plan benefit Tennessee, our TennCare program and the people we serve,” said Stephen Smith, TennCare Director. “We are convinced the answer is yes.  This gives Tennessee the real opportunity to enhance the services we provide to Tennesseans.”

Pursuant to Public Chapter 481, from 2019, implementation of the waiver agreement must be authorized by the Tennessee General Assembly. 

The approved waiver amendment is available on the Division of TennCare’s website at https://www.tn.gov/tenncare/policy-guidelines/tenncare-1115-demonstration.html

Lee administration details $100M literacy initiative

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is detailing its $100 million literacy initiative called Reading 360.

Here’s the release from the state Education Department:

Nashville, TN—Today, the Tennessee Department of Education released details on a new $100 million statewide initiative, “Reading 360,” to ensure Tennessee districts, teachers, and families are equipped with tools and resources to help students read on grade level by third grade.

To help support literacy development in Tennessee, the state will leverage approximately $60 million of one-time federal COVID-19 relief funding and $40 million in federal grant funding to immediately launch Reading 360 and invest in optional reading resources and supports at no cost to the state or districts.

Reading 360 will provide optional grants and resources to help more Tennessee students develop strong phonics-based reading skills by supporting districts, teachers, and families.

“When our students succeed our entire state prospers, and we know that reading on grade level is foundational to the success of every student, both in and out of the classroom,” said Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. “Reading 360 will give critical supports to districts and educators so we can address this challenge urgently and put Tennessee’s students on the right track to grow and thrive.”

“In the last decade, Tennessee has done remarkable work to increase expectations for student learning and to improve outcomes for our kids. Now, we are uniquely positioned to tackle literacy with urgency and can do so from all sides,” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “Our state has a golden opportunity to lead the nation in literacy, and most importantly, accelerate progress for our students.”

Reading is the foundation to all learning and reading proficiently by third grade is a critical milestone for every student. Before the pandemic, only one third of third graders in Tennessee had met expectations in English Language Arts (ELA), the best standardized proxy for reading achievement. Our state has not yet comprehensively and effectively addressed this challenge, and after a year disrupted by COVID-19, school building closures and virtual learning, the stakes are higher than ever for our students.

Through optional grants to districts, students and families will have access to tutoring and online supports to help develop foundational skills in literacy. Tennessee educators will have access to free training and professional development, phonics kits and materials to use in their classrooms, and stipends for training. Districts will have access to a suite of tools and resources to support their teachers and schools in implementing strong reading instruction for all students.

Tennessee has led the nation in academic gains for students over the past decade, and most recently in the K-12 crisis response to COVID-19. Tennessee is now poised not just to protect students, teachers, and schools in the face of an unprecedented global pandemic, but to accelerate student learning further and faster than ever before.

Lee calls special session for Jan. 19

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

Gov. Bill Lee is calling a special session the week of Jan. 19 to address a range of education issues, including a literacy proposal that has run into trouble with lawmakers in the past.

Lawmakers will be in town anyway, as they as scheduled to gavel in the 112th General Assembly on Jan. 12.

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

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee today announced a call for the Tennessee General Assembly to convene for a special legislative session on January 19, 2021 to address urgent issues facing Tennessee students and schools in the 2021-22 school year.

Preliminary data projects an estimated 50% decrease in proficiency rates in 3rd grade reading and a projected 65% decrease in proficiency in math. This loss only exacerbates issues that existed prior to the pandemic, where only one third of Tennessee third graders were reading on grade level.

“We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused immense disruption for Tennessee’s students, educators, and districts, and the challenges they face must be addressed urgently,” said Gov. Lee. “Even before the virus hit, and despite years of improvement, too many of our state’s students were still unable to read on grade level. I’m calling on the legislature to join us in addressing these serious issues so we can equip our hardworking educators and districts with the resources and supports they need to set our students on the path to success.”

“As we have heard from districts since March, students need their teachers and schools like never before,” said Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “No child’s future should suffer academically because of COVID-19. Not only as commissioner, but as a mother of two school-aged children, I am grateful for the bold solutions that our governor and legislature will provide for our students and schools across the state and the department stands ready to work together to accomplish this mission-critical work.”

“In addition to presenting a public health crisis and disrupting our economy, the coronavirus also created enormous obstacles for our parents, teachers and students. Tennessee has made tremendous improvements in education over the last decade. The virus has begun to put all of that at risk,” said Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge). “It is of paramount importance that we take steps to reverse the learning loss that has taken place and prevent any further erosion of our progress. I appreciate Governor Lee calling this special session to draw our focus on the pressing needs of education in this state. The Senate will work with the House and the Administration to address these issues in an expeditious and efficient manner to the benefit of our students and our teachers.”

“I support Gov. Lee’s call for a special session on education,” said House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville). “The pandemic has caused considerable disruption for our students, teachers and schools.  Our goal is to make sure students are learning in the classroom, teachers have the resources they need, and our students have additional assistance in their educational journeys to improve their chances of success.”

“Over the past few years Tennessee has seen exciting growth in student achievement and we must take all necessary steps to make sure our students continue to learn through this ongoing pandemic,” said Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin). “I salute the governor for calling us into special session to address this important problem and thank him for his continued commitment to education.”

“As a parent of two children in the public school system and a Representative of so many thousands of other families, I know it is critical for us to have the best education system in the nation,” said House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland). “I appreciate the Governor calling us into Special Session to ensure our children and teachers have the support they need in these difficult times.”

During the special session, the legislature will be tasked to take up five key education issues: Learning Loss, Funding, Accountability, Literacy, and Teacher Pay. Details on each proposal will be released by the Department of Education in the near future, in addition to the department’s plans to implement a new literacy program, “Reading 360.” The program will leverage one-time federal relief funding to support a phonics-based approach to literacy and will ensure Tennessee districts, teachers, and families are equipped with tools and resources to help students read on grade level by third grade.

Year in Review: The most viewed TNJ blog posts of 2020

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

Here are the Top 10 most viewed stories on the TNJ: On the Hill blog this year.

1. June 11: Sethi seeks to make political gain out of coronavirus pandemic.

2. May 11: Things get interesting in the open 1st District race.

3. Aug. 5: Hagerty does some creative accounting to obscure Romney donation.

4. March 30: Lee’s stay-at home order in detail.

5. April 20: Protest leader demands free refills.

6. April 20: The lockdown ends.

7. July 16: Hagerty launches the negative ad barrage.

8. Dec. 15: We’re No. 1.

9. Jan. 19: In like Flinn.

10. Nov. 13: Most signed, some didn’t.

Lee emerges from 2nd quarantine, tours damage in Nashville

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 announced on Twitter he has tested negative for COVID-19 and completed his second quarantine after being exposed to the virus. The governor also toured damage from an explosion in downtown Nashville on Christmas morning.

Lee lauded first responders for their courage in moving people away from the RV early Friday when a recorded message warned that it contained a bomb.

“The damage is shocking and it is a miracle that no residents were killed,” Lee said in a tweet.

Lee has requested an emergency declaration from President Donald Trump.

Lee went into quarantine after his wife, Maria, tested positive for COVID-19. He previously went into isolation after being exposed to a member of his protective detail who was infected.

Andy Holt 3.0? Former lawmaker lands job in Lee administration

Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden) attends a meeting at the state Captiol in Nashville on Jan. 8, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Former state Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden) has been named director of business development within the state Department of Agriculture.

Holt served in the House from 2010 through his retirement this November. He was mostly known for his firebrand politics until being named chairman of the powerful budget subcommittee by then-speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin).

Following Casada’s fall from power, new speaker Cameron Sexton chose a new head of the panel, returning Holt to the backbench.

Holt, a prominent supporter of Bill Lee during the 2018 governor’s race, is the latest ex-lawmaker to join the administration. The position will pay Holt $92,700 per year.

Here’s the release announcing Holt’s hire.

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Hatcher, D.V.M. has announced the addition of Andy Holt to the Business Development Division of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA). Holt will serve as Director of Business Development in support of economic development initiatives, as well as agriculture and forestry industry expansion.

“Rural economic development and recovery from the pandemic are priorities of the Department and Governor Bill Lee,” Commissioner Charlie Hatcher, D.V.M. said. “TDA has been given the opportunity to lead projects focused on these priorities and the addition of Andy Holt will be a significant enhancement to our work. Andy’s personal and professional experience in farming, along with his education in agriculture and economics, will support our efforts towards recruitment, recovery, and expansion.”

Holt served in the Tennessee House of Representatives, District 76 covering Weakley County and parts of Carroll and Obion Counties from 2010 to 2020. During his tenure, Holt served on several committees and was chairman of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee. He and his wife, Ellie, own and operate Holt Family Farms, an agri-tourism and diversified livestock farming operation in Dresden. Holt is a former Financial Services Officer at Farm Credit Services and former Greenfield Fertilizer Manager at Weakley County Farmers Cooperative.

“As a first-generation farmer, I have chosen agriculture not only as my profession, but more importantly, my wife, Ellie, and I have chosen agriculture as a lifestyle for our family,” Holt said. “I appreciate and look forward to the opportunity to continue my service to the State of Tennessee in this new capacity, leveraging my relationships, knowledge, and skills to strengthen the agriculture industry and community. There are only two words on the Tennessee State Seal, and this new position will combine them both – Agriculture and Commerce. I will work to see both thrive during my service with the team at the Department of Agriculture.”

Holt’s educational background includes a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural Economics and Business with a minor in Animal Science from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He earned his Master of Business Administration from the University of Tennessee at Martin with a focus on Economics and Finance. He will begin his new duties with TDA in January.

Read Gov. Lee’s address on COVID-19

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference on Tennessee’s coronavirus response in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Here is Gov. Bill Lee’s address on COVID-19, as prepared for delivery on Sunday evening. The governor lauded local mayors for imposing mask mandates, but stopped short of issuing one for the whole state.

Good evening Tennesseans. It’s Christmas week, ordinarily a time when families across the state are gathering to celebrate. Unfortunately, these are not ordinary times. We are in a global pandemic that’s been crippling our country for months and now Tennessee is ground zero for a surge in sickness. I am speaking with you tonight because I want to be clear with where we are and what we need to do together to get through this.

We now have around 10,000 Tennesseans getting sick every day. To put that in perspective, that’s three times where we were around Halloween. Thousands of our neighbors are in the hospital tonight. More than 100 people are dying each day. We are in a war. With the arrivals of the first vaccine, we have launched an offensive that will end this war. But it is the next few weeks that is going to be the most critical for our state.

We have seen firsthand that Thanksgiving gatherings and extended time indoors have been the principal driver in spreading COVID-19 like wildfire. It only took a matter of days to see gatherings around Thanksgiving translate into a record level of sickness. Tennessee cannot sustain a similar surge after Christmas or New Year’s. Tonight, I am asking you to make some hard decisions.

I am asking you to not engage in indoor gatherings for the holidays that include anyone outside your household. Family time and celebrations are important. I understand deeply how much Tennessee families need each other. But we must do all that we can to blunt this surge and keep more Tennesseans from getting sick.

But beyond family gatherings and what I am asking you to do in your own home, we need to address public gatherings through these important weeks, as well.

I am signing an order that will limit indoor public gatherings to 10 people.

I believe high school sports are important for our kids and they should continue. In coordination with the TSSAA, we are limiting attendance at indoor sporting events.

We know that it is gatherings that have caused this surge. That is why we are making these decisions around gatherings that will help us blunt the rise in cases.

Additionally, I am asking business owners to let employees work from home for the next 30 days. If work from home is not available, masks should be worn at work. Plain and simple.

I want to talk about the importance of wearing masks around people who do not live in your home. Right now, 70% of Tennesseans are under a mask requirement. I commend the local officials who have implemented mask requirements. Because of that, 80% of Tennesseans report they wear their masks most or all of the time and I thank them for doing this. We need them to continue and the remaining 20% to wear a mask and protect their health.

Many think a statewide mandate would improve mask wearing, many think it would have the opposite effect. This has been a heavily politicized issue. Please do not get caught up in that and don’t misunderstand my belief in local government on this issue. Masks work and I want every Tennessean to wear one.

Tennesseans have two weapons that they must use in the next 30 days: only gather with your household and wear a mask.

The State of Tennessee will continue to mobilize every effective resource in this war. COVID testing is available to everyone free of charge. Vaccines are being delivered to every corner of the state. We are getting hundreds of thousands of vaccines out to our nursing home residents and health care workers so they can be vaccinated.

As our hospitals face this surge of sick Tennesseans, we have authorized the National Guard medics to work in hospitals and provide lifesaving care. We have established COVID specific nursing homes so that we protect the most vulnerable and help hospitals free up critical bedspace. We will continue to utilize every effective resource but government cannot do this alone.

We are in a cold, cruel phase of this pandemic. It will get worse before it gets better. I know you are tired. But we have got to double down. I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s words during the darkest days of World War II: “It would be foolish to disguise the gravity of the hour. It would be still more foolish to lose heart and courage.”

I believe in the courage of Tennesseans to face this darkest hour. I believe that victory will be ours and we have the power to determine how long this extends. If we each do our part, we will win and move to a new season of health and prosperity for our state.

I extend my heartfelt thanks to each Tennessean for their attention and care tonight. God bless the State of Tennessee.

Tennessee launches COVID-19 vaccination dashboard

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters during budget hearings in Nashville on Nov. 9, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration launched a new COVID-19 vaccination dashboard on Friday.

Here’s a release from the state Health Department:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Department of Health will provide data on COVID-19 vaccines administered in the state via a new dashboard to be provided online at www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov/covid-19-vaccine-information.html. This dashboard will launch Dec. 18 and will be updated each Tuesday and Friday.

Tennessee’s COVID-19 Vaccination Reporting dashboard will include data on total vaccinations reported, vaccinations reported in the last day and within the last week. The dashboard will also display the percentage of each county’s population that has been vaccinated. The first reports shared via this dashboard will reflect Tennesseans who have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Future versions will also provide data on Tennesseans who have been fully vaccinated with both their first and second doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

“We are eager to offer this tool to track our progress in implementing Tennessee’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan and making this important preventive measure available to Tennesseans in every county of our state,” said Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, MD, MBA, FAAP.

TDH continues to provide daily COVID-19 data reports and will publish these reports by 5 p.m. Central time daily effective on Friday, Dec. 18.
Tennessee’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan was last updated Dec. 2 and will be modified as more is learned about the vaccines Tennessee will receive. The plan is available online at www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/health/documents/cedep/novel-coronavirus/COVID-19_Vaccination_Plan.pdf.

Tennessee’s local health departments continue to offer COVID-19 testing five days a week at no charge to those wishing to be tested. TDH testing sites across the state will employ self-testing kits for adults three days a week beginning December 21, to allow staff members to transition to vaccination of frontline health care providers and first responders. Find testing hours and contact information for TDH health department testing sites online at https://covid19.tn.gov/testing-sites/.

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.

Lee named policy chairman of Republican Governors Association

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a groundbreaking event in Nashville on Dec. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has been named policy chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Lee’s predecessor, Bill Haslam, served two stints as chair of the group.

Here’s the release from the RGA:

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Republican Governors Association announced today that Arizona Governor Doug Ducey was elected to serve as RGA Chair and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds was elected to serve as RGA Vice Chair for 2021. Both assume the positions immediately and will serve for a one-year duration.

“Governor Doug Ducey’s exemplary leadership in the great State of Arizona has prepared him well to assume the role of Chairman of the RGA, and I look forward to his accomplishments on behalf of our nation’s Republican Governors,” said outgoing RGA Chairman Governor Greg Abbott. “Following the RGA’s widespread success in the 2020 election, Republican Governors can count on Governor Ducey to maintain the organization’s effectiveness and help expand their majority even further.”

“I am honored to serve as the next Chairman of the RGA for this upcoming year. I look forward to building on the RGA’s momentum as we work to expand the Republican majority. In Arizona, we’ve put forward bold policy solutions and meaningful reforms that’s made our state one of the fastest-growing in the nation and we look forward to leading Republican Governors in bringing these reforms to the rest of our country,” said incoming RGA Chairman Governor Doug Ducey. “I want to congratulate my friend Governor Greg Abbott on his successful tenure, and I am excited to work with him and the Executive Committee to build a strong foundation for success in the 2021 and 2022 elections. I also am excited to serve with my good friend Governor Kim Reynolds, who has been a mentor for myself and my colleagues.”

“If the challenges of 2020 taught us anything, it’s that leadership matters. Republican Governors across our country stepped up during an unprecedented time and I am honored to be a part of this incredible team,” said incoming RGA Vice Chairwoman Governor Kim Reynolds. “Across the nation, Republican Governors are leading America’s economic comeback, working to grow jobs, expand opportunity, and keep our communities safe. I look forward to partnering with RGA Chairman Governor Ducey to grow our ranks and elect more Republican governors across the country.”

Joining Governor Ducey and Governor Reynolds on the RGA’s Executive Committee for 2021 are Governors Eric Holcomb of Indiana, Larry Hogan of Maryland, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, Doug Burgum of North Dakota, Henry McMaster of South Carolina, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, and Greg Abbott of Texas, who served as RGA Chair in 2020. Additionally, Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee was elected Policy Chairman, and Governor Tate Reeves of Mississippi was elected Policy Vice Chairman.