coronavirus

Here’s how much federal relief money is flowing to Tennessee counties

The Senate meets in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A total of $13 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money is flowing to Tennessee, and a new interactive state website allows users to break down how much is headed specific counties.

In a meeting of the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group on Monday, Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) asked whether the amounts can be broken out on a per-capita basis to ensure smaller counties weren’t getting less than the likes of Metro Nashville and Shelby County. Gov. Bill Lee’s administration didn’t have those figures at their fingertips, so the Tennessee Journal has crunched the numbers. Here are the top 10 per-capita recipients of federal aid (Anderson County, where McNally lives, comes in at No. 12):

  1. Jackson, $7,126
  2. Cheatham, $4,363
  3. Davidson, $3,931
  4. Carroll, $3,380
  5. Smith, 3,738
  6. Fayette, $3,525
  7. Cannon, $3,056
  8. Carter, $2,643
  9. Giles, $2,643
  10. Bledsoe, $2,557

The full per-capita breakdown follows:

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Lee signs order allowing county mayors to mandate mask wearing

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)

Gov. Bill Lee has signed an executive order giving power to the mayors of 89 of 95 Tennessee counties to mandate wearing masks in public to help stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. In the remaining six counties, Shelby, Davidson, Knox, Hamilton, Sullivan, and Madison), the decision will be left up to the local health department.

“While our densely populated urban areas continue to have the highest COVID-19 case rates, our local governments expressed a need for greater flexibility in addressing a rise in cases and that includes setting stronger expectations around masks,” said Lee said in a statement. “This targeted approach ensures we protect both lives and livelihoods and safely keep our economy open in Tennessee. We encourage every Tennessean across the state to use a face covering or mask, make sure to socially distance and wash hands frequently.”

Here’s the full text of the order:

AN ORDER PROVIDING LOCAL GOVERNMENTS WITH AUTHORITY CONCERNING FACE COVERINGS

WHEREAS, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) remains a threat to our citizens, our healthcare systems, and our economy, and each Tennessean should continue to protect themselves and others by following applicable health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other leading medical experts to slow the spread of this virus, including practicing social distancing, effective personal hygiene practices, and “wear[ing] cloth face coverings in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain”; and

WHEREAS, importantly, wearing a cloth face covering is a simple step that each Tennessean can take to slow the spread of the virus, which prevents having to take more drastic and disruptive measures for our economy and job market, like requiring the closure of businesses; and

WHEREAS, whether to require or recommend wearing a face covering may depend on the spread of COVID-19 or lack thereof in a particular community, which varies widely across the State, and local governments are therefore better positioned to make this decision based on the conditions in their communities; and

WHEREAS, in addition to the other powers granted by law, Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 58-2-107, provides, among other things, that during a state of emergency, the Governor is authorized to suspend laws and rules regarding the conduct of state business if necessary to cope with an emergency, utilize all available state and local resources needed to combat an emergency, and take measures concerning the conduct of civilians and the calling of public meetings and gatherings, among other things, as well as delegate such powers as the governor may deem prudent; and

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Lee extends state of emergency until Aug. 29

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 is extending Tennessee’s state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic until Aug. 29.

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

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee today signed Executive Order No. 50 to extend the State of Emergency related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to August 29, 2020. The order allows the continued suspension of various laws and regulations and other measures in these orders to facilitate the treatment and containment of COVID-19 through regulatory flexibility, promoting social distancing and avoidance of large gatherings, and protecting vulnerable populations. 

Gov. Lee also signed Executive Order Nos. 51 and 52, which extend provisions that allow for electronic government meetings subject to transparency safeguards and remote notarization and witnessing of documents, respectively, to August 29, 2020.

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Sethi on the air with new ad hitting ‘Leftwing Lockdown’

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Manny Sethi has a new TV ad out in which he goes after what his campaign is calling liberals’ double standard on the coronavirus lockdown.

Here’s the text of the ad:

Across America, opening a business is a crime. Burning a business is not? Dinner with neighbors gets you arrested. Beating neighbors does not? Church with too many people is a crime. Thousands of people protesting is not? Got a problem with any of that? You’re a racist! And you want to kill Grandma. Had enough? Me too. That’s why I’m running. Send me to the Senate. I’m Dr. Manny Sethi, and I approve this message. 

Plaintiffs in absentee voting case file contempt motion against state

The plaintiffs in a lawsuit over Tennessee’s absentee voting law have filed a contempt motion against the state for alleged violations of the judge’s order to immediately begin supplying mail-in ballots to anyone who asks for one.

Following last week’s ruling, State Election Coordinator Mark Goins sent an email to local officials telling them to “hold off” on sending absentee voting applications until the state could revise its forms or seek a stay in the judge’s order. The state then created a new category on its ballot application form that states voters are requesting to vote by mail because they have “determined it is impossible or unreasonable to vote in person due to the COVID-19 situation and therefore qualify as hospitalized, ill, or disabled and unable to appear at my polling place.”

The plaintiffs argue that the creation of that category wasn’t permitted by the court order, that it includes no definition of the “impossible or unreasonable” standard, and that there is no provision for someone to certify they can’t vote in person because they are caring for someone else.

“This unilateral disregard of the Court’s Order is designed to place increased scrutiny on voters who wish to do nothing more than to rely on this Court’s Order, lead to voter confusion and intimidation, and enable the state to segregate these voters’ absentee ballot requests and refrain from processing them,” according to the motion.

“The State has made calculated decisions to act contrary to the plain text of the Order and has instructed county election officials to do the same,” the plaintiffs said.

Goins told The Associated Press the state is complying and the plaintiffs aren’t citing the most up-to-date guidance.

“We are disappointed that plaintiffs have chosen to pursue a false narrative by leaving out updated guidance we distributed to counties on Friday that is being implemented,” Goins told the AP.

A hearing before Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle has been scheduled for Thursday.

Polls find support for expanded absentee voting during pandemic

Two polls released Tuesday indicate strong support for expanding voting by mail amid the coronavirus pandemic.

One survey conducted on behalf of Secure Democracy by Republican pollster Anchor Research and the Baker Group found 67% of Tennesseans support allowing all voters to cast absentee ballots while also keeping polling locations open. Another 31% were opposed.

A survey conducted on behalf of Vanderbilt University found 57% support voting by mail, while 42% opposed. The SSRS poll found opinions were heavily influenced by voters’ political leanings. While 81% of self-identified Democrats said they supported absentee balloting, 71% of Republicans were opposed. Among independents, 68% said they were in favor, while 32% were against.

Among other findings, Secure Democracy found a 61% to 33% approval rating for Gov. Bill Lee and a 57% to 43% favorability rating for President Donald Trump.

Vanderbilt had Lee’s approval rating at 64% to 27%, and Trump’s at 51% to 47%.

Vanderbilt polled 1,000 registered voters by phone between May 5 and May 22. It has a margin of error of ±3.8 percentage points. Secure Democracy’s online poll of 740 likley voters was conducted on May 26.

Lee outlines budget cuts due to economic impact of coronavirus

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’s office says $500 million in cuts will be needed for the current budget year and $1 billion for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Finance Commissioner Butch Eley said the administration plans to balance the budget using reserves over three years.

The state plans to create a voluntary buyout program for state employees, reduce spending on building projects and maintenance, and dial back spending in all state agencies. But officials have abandoned previous considerations of suspending this year’s back-to-school sales tax holiday and delaying the end of the Hall tax on income from stocks.

“We will balance our budget each year while providing important services to our citizens,” Eley said in a release. “We’re adjusting to the immediate impact of the pandemic on state revenues of up to $1.5 billion through the end of the next fiscal year, planning for the worst and hoping for the best.

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

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Gov. Bill Lee’s administration today outlined new spending plans for state government that reflect significant revenue reductions due to the economic impact of COVID-19.

Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley presented state lawmakers with the revised budget plans for the current fiscal year, as well as FY 2020-21, which begins July 1, 2020, and a framework for the following fiscal year, 2021-22.

“We will balance our budget each year while providing important services to our citizens,” Eley said. “We’re adjusting to the immediate impact of the pandemic on state revenues of up to $1.5 billion through the end of the next fiscal year, planning for the worst and hoping for the best.

“Tennessee has a history of being one of the best managed states in the nation, and we intend to work with the Legislature to continue that tradition, maintaining low taxes and preserving reserves while achieving efficiencies in operations and continuing to serve our citizens.”

In March, the administration and the General Assembly agreed on $397 million in recurring reductions at the onset of COVID-19, and the administration is proposing an additional $284 million in reductions for FY 20-21, bringing the total to $681 million in reductions. Hiring and expenditure freezes have also been in place since March. The state will close the current fiscal year on June 30 with unbudgeted non-tax revenues, agency savings and reserves.

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Lee announces $200M relief program for businesses affected by shutdown order

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)

Gov. Bill Lee has announced the state will spend $200 million of federal coronavirus relief funds to small companies affected by the state order to close nonessential businesses in an effort to stem the spread of the pandemic.

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

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, and the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group announced a new relief program for Tennessee businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tennessee Business Relief Program will direct approximately $200 million in federal Coronavirus Relief Funds through the Department of Revenue directly to small businesses that qualify.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created immense economic pain across our state and especially among small businesses that faced temporary closure,” said Gov. Lee. “As we responsibly steward our federal stimulus money we have worked to quickly prioritize our small businesses and I thank the work of the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group for their partnership in this.”

The Tennessee Business Relief Program amounts awarded will be based on the annual gross sales of the business. More details will be posted on the Department of Revenue’s website in the coming days.

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Gallery: Back in session, though some distance more than others

The Senate convenes on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessee General Assembly has officially returned into session after a 75-day hiatus during the coronavirus outbreak.

The House GOP held a caucus meeting on Monday afternoon in which a small minority of members wore masks. Some vigorously shook hands and joked that the weekend protests around the state indicate that social distancing is no longer important.

The Senate spaced desks in the chamber to provide maximum distance between the members. The House installed plexiglass shields between lawmakers’ seats.

Here are some photos of Monday’s proceedings:

House members are divided by plexiglas shields on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

 

House Speaker Cameron Sexton addresses the House Republican Caucus on  June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Senate Speaker Randy McNally presides over a floor session on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The House holds a floor session on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Rep. Curtis Halford, center, attends a floor session June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Reps. Matthew Hill and William Lamberth, standing right, confer during a floors sesion on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Rep. Jerry Sexton attends a House floor session on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Rep. David Hawk, left, confers with Rep. Kent Calfee on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Speaker Cameron Sexton presides over a floor session on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

 

 

House issues guidance for return to session

The doors of the state Capitol were closed to the public on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

As of late last week, there was still disagreement between the House and Senate about whether to allow visitors onto the legislative floor of the state Capitol. Under a compromise struck on Friday, the House will be able to welcome members of the public into its gallery, but not into the lobby outside the two chambers. The Senate side will remain closed to anyone but its members, staff, and the media. The tunnel connecting the Cordell Hull Building with the Capitol will be closed to the public.

Here’s a memo sent out by Holt Whitt, the interim chief of staff to House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville):

As you are all aware, the House has several days of session planned on the floor next week. Due to protocols put in place to maximize space, legislative assistants in the House will not be permitted to attend session in person. Limited space will be designated for House Research and staff in House leadership offices. Staff walking to session are encouraged to use the steps outside if they are able to do so to allow members priority access to the elevators inside the Cordell Hull Tunnel.

The general public (guests, lobbyists, etc.) will be permitted to attend House session and access will be limited based on the number of seats designated in the house balcony. The general public will not be permitted to use the Cordell Hull Tunnel to access the Capitol. Any general public entering the Capitol must do so on the 1st floor of the building. Accommodations can be made for those that are unable to access the Capitol on the 1st floor.

Policies inside the Cordell Hull Building will remain the same as they were for committees this week.

All House staff is required to wear a mask in the common areas of both buildings.

If you have any questions please let me know. Thank you all for your hard work and have a great weekend.