covid-19

State Rep. Mike Carter passes away

Rep Mike Carter is sworn in to the 111th General Assembly in Nashville on Jan. 8, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State Rep. Mike Carter, whose refusal to sign what he called a “predetermined” ethics report helped hasten Rep. Glen Casada’s departure as House speaker, has died of pancreatic cancer.

Carter, an Ooltewah Republican, made his own bid for speaker after Casada announced he would step down in 2019, but the contest was won by Rep. Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville).

Carter’s cancer was discovered after he was hit by a heavy bout of COVID-19 last year. He missed most of the recently-completed legislative session while undergoing treatment.

Ogles returns to House after extended absence

Rep. Brandon Ogles (R-Franklin), second from right, attends a floor session April 26, 2021. (Image credit: Screengrab from legislative feed)

State Rep. Brandon Ogles (R-Franklin) returned to the House this week after missing several weeks with what he called an “extended battle” with COVID-19 and pneumonia.

“I am thankful for those who have called, sent texts, and helped out during my absence,” Ogles said in a message posted on his Facebook page. “I am looking forward to being back in the office, serving District 61 and finishing out this legislative session strong.”

Legislative attendance records show Ogles was excused from House floor sessions on Feb. 24 and Feb. 25, and then missed another session March 15. He was then away for every floor session between March 25 and his reappearance on Monday.

Several other lawmakers have missed time this year due to COVID-19.

Lee’s addition of lawmakers to stimulus group seen as effort to forestall support for special session

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

Gov. Bill Lee on Wednesday added two lawmakers, House Finance Chair Patsy Hazlewood (R-Signal Mountain) and Senate Pro Tem Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), to his Financial Stimulus Accountability Group. The move is being perceived in some circles as an effort to let the air out of a movement to have the General Assembly come back into special session later in the year to take a direct hand in appropriating billions of dollars flowing to the state in the former of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Here is the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced the addition of Senator Ferrell Haile and Representative Patsy Hazlewood to the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group (FSAG). The bipartisan group will continue its work to support Tennessee’s economy and ensure proper fiscal management of federal relief funds, meeting publicly and reporting regularly to bring transparency to the process.

“As Tennessee’s strong economic recovery continues, we must ensure federal dollars coming to our state are used wisely and effectively,” said Gov. Bill Lee. “I thank Sen. Haile, Rep. Hazlewood and all members of this group for their valuable input as we steward these resources and serve Tennesseans.”

“I appreciate the opportunity to serve on this panel which is charged with ensuring this money is used properly to best benefit our citizens,” said Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile. “We have a huge responsibility to see that these funds are managed in the most effective manner and Governor Lee is taking every step possible to ensure the most efficient use. I look forward to working with him and the other members of the group to make good decisions about how these funds are spent.”

“One of the biggest challenges facing our state currently is using federal stimulus dollars in a fiscally responsible manner to ensure all Tennessean’s benefit,” said Rep. Patsy Hazlewood. “I appreciate Governor Lee appointing me to Financial Stimulus Accountability Group, and together our work will make sure we can continue to effectively address the immediate and emerging needs of our state.”

Since its founding in April 2020, the FSAG has overseen nearly 90% of all federal dollars distributed to Tennessee through the Coronavirus Relief Fund, authorized in the CARES Act. In 2020, the group proactively invested these dollars into the state’s unemployment trust fund, which successfully protected jobs and prevented tax hikes. The FSAG also supported the allocation of over $300 million in grants to small businesses across Tennessee.

The FSAG is currently preparing for implementation of the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund, an additional tranche of relief authorized by Congress in March 2021.

Effective April 2021, members of the group include:
• Governor Bill Lee
• Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally
• House Speaker Cameron Sexton
• Senator Bo Watson
• Senator Raumesh Akbari
• Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile
• Representative Patsy Hazlewood
• Representative Pat Marsh
• Representative Harold Love Jr.
• Jason Mumpower, Comptroller of the Treasury
• Commissioner Butch Eley, Finance & Administration

Tennessee ranks fifth from bottom in COVID-19 vaccination rate

Graffiti scrawled on the side of a shuttered Nashville gas station denounces COVID-19 vaccinations on April 11, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee ranks fifth-worst among the states for the percentage of residents who have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccines. The 30.3% rate was above only Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, according to CDC data compiled by The Washington Post.

Tennessee slipped another spot among states delivering both doses of the vaccine, with its rate of 18.2% besting only Alabama, Utah, and Georgia.

Here are the counties with the highest percentage of fully vaccinated residents:

  • Loudon (26%)
  • Meigs (23%)
  • Pickett (23%)
  • Unicoi (23%)
  • Washington (23%)
  • Cumberland (22%)
  • Madison (22%)
  • Sullivan (22%)

Those with the lowest rates are:

  • Moore (8%)
  • Sequatchie (10%)
  • Grundy (10%)
  • Lauderdale (11%)
  • Cannon (11%)

Among the state’s largest counties, Shelby’s rate was 17%, Davidson and Knox were at 19%, and Hamilton reached 21%.

The rollout will likely be further complicated by a recommendation by federal authorities to pause the adminstration of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Here’s who has been vaccinated among the TN congressional delegation

Bill Hagerty attends the Tennessee Republican Party’s Statesmen’s Dinner in Nashville on June 15, 2019. At right is U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood). (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Both of Tennessee’s U.S. senators have been vaccinated against COVID-19, the state’s nine House members are more divided.

According to reporting by States Newsroom and the Chattanooga Times Free Press, four House members from Tennessee have gotten the shot: Democrats Steve Cohen of Memphis and Jim Cooper of Nashville, and Republicans Scott DesJarlais of Winchester and David Kustoff of Memphis.

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Chattanooga) is holding off for the moment.

“Because I was diagnosed with COVID-19 in January, I am waiting to be vaccinated until those who are at a greater risk for the virus are able to be vaccinated first,” he told the Times Free Press. “I continue to strongly urge all Americans to get vaccinated.”

The four remaining Tennessee members, all Republicans, did not respond to the survey or newspaper: Tim Burchett of Knoxville, Mark Green of Ashland City, Diana Harshbarger of Kingsport, and John Rose of Cookeville.

U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood) and Bill Hagerty (R-Nashville) responded they had already been innoculated.

Here are the projected amounts headed to TN cities and counties under the COVID relief program

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference in Nashville on March 22, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee’s cities and counties are projected to receive $2.27 billion under the latest federal COVID-19 relief package. On a conference call about the influx earlier this week, Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) asked for a breakdown of exactly how much is headed to each local government.

There’s a big caveat: The rules for how the money can be spent aren’t entirely clear yet. So state officials are warning local governments to be careful about how they plan to spend the money.

And even then the answer for local allocations isn’t simple.

The Federal Funds Information Service has come up with projections for the totals that could be flowing soon. Estimates for the biggest cities is based on Housing and Urban Development data while smaller towns and cities’ are based on census estimates from 2019. County totals are filtered through adjusted Community Development Block Grant data.

While none of it is final, here’s how FFIS sees it breaking down for counties and cities:

CountyAmount
Anderson14,929,409
Bedford9,641,530
Benton3,134,132
Bledsoe2,921,570
Blount25,811,598
Bradley20,967,269
Campbell7,727,111
Cannon2,846,708
Carroll5,385,239
Carter10,936,687
Cheatham7,887,114
Chester3,354,647
Claiborne6,198,251
Clay1,476,882
Cocke6,982,754
Coffee10,961,706
Crockett2,759,821
Cumberland11,737,481
Davidson134,624,954
Decatur2,261,967
DeKalb3,973,909
Dickson10,462,882
Dyer7,206,759
Fayette7,977,492
Fentress3,592,422
Franklin8,185,982
Gibson9,529,043
Giles5,714,361
Grainger4,522,770
Greene13,395,507
Grundy2,604,084
Hamblen12,593,549
Hamilton71,333,321
Hancock1,283,908
Hardeman4,858,293
Hardin4,975,047
Hawkins11,013,295
Haywood3,356,004
Henderson5,453,119
Henry6,273,114
Hickman4,883,118
Houston1,590,533
Humphreys3,603,864
Jackson2,285,822
Jefferson10,568,970
Johnson3,449,873
Knox91,214,310
Lake1,360,710
Lauderdale4,971,363
Lawrence8,561,069
Lewis2,379,303
Lincoln6,665,074
Loudon10,486,156
Macon4,771,406
Madison19,003,393
Marion5,606,335
Marshall6,666,820
Maury18,693,665
McMinn10,433,015
McNairy4,983,193
Meigs2,409,170
Monroe9,027,116
Montgomery40,532,905
Moore1,258,308
Morgan4,150,980
Obion5,831,697
Overton4,313,505
Perry1,566,290
Pickett979,029
Polk3,264,463
Putnam15,563,024
Rhea6,432,535
Roane10,353,110
Robertson13,927,689
Rutherford64,444,630
Scott4,279,953
Sequatchie2,914,200
Sevier19,054,982
Shelby181,757,575
Smith3,909,326
Stewart2,659,940
Sullivan30,710,619
Sumner37,098,160
Tipton11,946,747
Trousdale2,188,462
Unicoi3,468,298
Union3,873,446
Van Buren1,138,838
Warren8,005,420
Washington25,091,485
Wayne3,233,626
Weakley6,463,760
White5,303,394
Williamson46,238,539
Wilson28,055,334
TOTAL1,324,476,243
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Lee (quietly) gets COVID-19 vaccine

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

Gov. Bill Lee received his first dose of COVID-19 vaccine over the weekend. But he didn’t let on about getting the Pfizer shot until pressed by Tennessean reporter Natalie Allison following an event at the state Capitol on Monday.

Unlike when the governor received a flu shot last fall, Lee did not publicize getting his first of two Pfizer vaccines at the Williamson County Agricultural Center on Saturday.

“We believe that it’s important that Tennesseans get a vaccine if they feel so inclined, but we’re encouraging them to do so because that’s how we’ll get most quickly to herd immunity,” the governor said.

Health commissioner warns of possible COVID-19 surge

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

State Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey is warning of the next potential spike in COVID-19 infections despite the downward trends of the last quarter.

The Nashville Post reports the state’s infection rate dropped 85% between January and the middle of this month, but that 8,500 new cases were reported over the last week, with the active case count jumping by 1,000 people. Hospitalization rates are also creeping up.

“I’m fairly certain it’s going to get worse. What I don’t know is how high the next surge might be,” Piercey told lawmakers. “We are already starting to see — we saw a plateau for three to six weeks — now we are starting to see it tick back up ever so slightly. What I don’t know is whether that will be a blip or if that will be a pretty substantive surge.”

Piercey said the statistics underscore the need to convince more Tennesseans to get vaccinated. Gov. Bill Lee has announced the state will drop all restrictions on COVID-19 vaccines by early April, meaning innoculations will be available to anyone who wants one.

“Some of the vaccine hesitancy we have encountered was expected. We anticipated some of it, but there has been, to be honest, some vaccine hesitancy that we did not anticipate, and we can’t readily identify reasons for that,” she said. “That’s why the market research piece is so important, in all 95 counties, particularly among rural conservative and rural white men, why they are hesitant and how to address it properly.”

Lee, Blackburn say state being short-changed by $164M in COVID-19 relief bill

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)

Gov. Bill Lee and fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn say in an opinion piece for Fox News that congressional Democrats’ $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill is a “blue state payday that shortchanges Tennessee by $164 million because it uses a distribution formula based on unemployment figures rather than population.”

Left unsaid is that the difference makes up about 2.7% of the $6.1 billion in federal money projected to flow to the state under the plan. And nobody is talking about saying no to the massive influx of federal dollars into Tennessee.

“This hyper-partisan bill and the process through which it’s being passed represents everything that’s wrong with Washington,” Lee and Blackburn say in the piece. “And unfortunately, Tennessee and other fiscally conservative states are on the losing end of the deal.”

Warner got another $138K under federal PPP program in January

Rep. Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) is sworn into the House in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Freshman state Rep. Todd Warner, the Chapel Hill Republican who had his business and legislative offices searched by the FBI in January, received another $138,435 in federal COVID-19 relief funds later that month. That’s on top of the $149,630 he received in April 2019.

Warner last week denied to The Tennessean that any of the money he received under the the federal Paycheck Protection Program had gone toward funding the $154,100 he loaned his campaign last year. “If I’m charged with it I feel like I’m innocent,” he told the paper.

The federal funds were directed to his contracting company, PCS of TN, which reported employing 16 people.

The candidate’s largesse raised eyebrows during the race because Warner had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection a decade earlier due to his inability to pay $20 million in debts. Warner said he obtained the money for his political pursuits via an unrelated bank loan.

Warner defeated incumbent Rep. Rick Tillis of Lewisburg in the August primary.

The FBI also searched the homes and offices of Republican Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin and Robin Smith of Hixson. The Registry of Election Finance informed Warner it was reopening a complaint filed by the Tillis camp against him and an independent expenditure group called the Faith Freedom Family Find.