covid-19

Not natural? Lee declines signature for bill treating people who have had COVID-19 same as vaccinated

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters after a bill signing ceremony in Nashville on May 24, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A bill declaring previous COVID-19 infections to be same as having been vaccinated has become law in Tennessee without the signature of Republican Gov. Bill Lee.

The measure was sponsored by Rep. Bud Hulsey of Kingsport and Sen. Joey Hensley, a Hohenwald physician. Both are Republicans. The bill passed the Senate on a vote of 26-5 in the Senate and 66-20 in the House.

The bill defines natural immunity as being verified by a lab test or a letter for a licensed physician. Critics said the latter does not require any scientific proof to be established.

The Tennessee Constitution gives the governor 10 days (excluding Sundays) from receipt of a bill to sign, veto, or allow the measure to become law without his signature.

The governor took similar action on a recent bill seeking to establish a three-year residency requirement for congressional candidates to run in Tennessee primaries. By waiting for the entire period before declining to affix his signature, the bill didn’t become law until after the candidate filing deadline.

New TNJ alert: Back to the drawing board, hanging around after the budget, and ivermectin for all

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

The new print edition of The Tennessee Journal is out. Here is what’s in it:

— Back to the drawing board? Republicans scramble to draw new Senate maps in case their appeal of redistricting order falls short.

— Not so super? New law establishing three-judge panels to evaluate redistricting challenges didn’t prevent embarrassing ruling against GOP.

— Long goodbye or veto override opportunity: House plans to hang around for two weeks after passing budget.

— Legislative roundup: Smoking ban, ivermectin for anyone asking, school board hubbubs, public records.

Also: Ford gets “spun up” about takeover of West Tennessee town’s finances, Slatery names a new chief deputy, Windle goes independent, and lawmakers want guidance for motorists about how to behave during traffic stops.

As always, access the your copy of the TNJ here.

Or subscribe here.

Brandon Ogles won’t seek third term in state House

Rep. Brandon Ogles attends a House floor session in Nashville on Jan. 31, 2022. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Rep. Brandon Ogles says he won’t seek a third term in the Tennessee House.

The Franklin Republican was elected in 2018 on a platform that included opposing school vouchers. But upon arriving at the Capitol, Ogles became a key ally to then-House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) and his chief of staff, Cade Cothren, and voted for the voucher measure in a controversial 50-48 floor vote in 2019.

Casada and Cothren have been implicated by former Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson) of participating with her in a scheme to drive business to shadowy campaign vendor called Phoenix Solutions, which they allegedly controlled. Ogles has not been named as part of the investigation, but he has been a vocal defender of Casada, speaking out at a Williamson County chamber of commerce event recently against a Registry of Election Finance subpoena issued for the former speaker and other current and former lawmakers to testify about another mystery political action committee involved in defeating Republican Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg). The Registry has since referred its probe to prosecutors in Williamson County.

Ogles missed about four weeks of last year’s session with what he said was a severe case of COVID-19. The lawmaker says he will work as advocate for victims of violent crimes.

Here is Ogles’ Facebook statement on his retirement:

Lee declines to sign nullification resolution passed during special session

A statue of President Andrew Jackson is seen in front of the state Capitol in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has declined to sign a resolution passed during a recent special session touting the state’s purported right to pass laws to nullify federal COVID-19 vaccination and mask requirements.

The Republican governor does not appear to have transmitted a statement to lawmakers about why he is allowing the resolution to go into effect without his signature.

The Senate version passed 24-6, while the House vote was 64-17.

Rep. John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge) carried the measure on behalf of House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville).

“The nullification theory was first broached in 1832 when Tennessee’s own Andrew Jackson was president,” Ragan said in floor comments. “The state of South Carolina began it, and President Jackson threatened to invade with federal troops to settle the issue. However, the federal government ultimately backed down.”

Ragan’s statement drew a retort from Rep. Michael Curcio (R-Dickson).

“I wanted to make sure the record was clear: the federal government didn’t back down, South Carolina quit,” said Curcio, who voted against the resolution. “But they continued in their behavior until eventually Fort Sumter was fired on, creating a tragedy for this country. I want to remind everybody that emulating such behavior is very, very serious.”

The full language of the resolution follows.

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Lee to let state of emergency expire nearly 7 months after declaring end of public health crisis

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters outside the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee in April declared COVID-19 no longer presented a public health crisis in Tennessee. Now, 206 days later, Lee is announcing he won’t renew a state of emergency related to the pandemic when it expires Friday night.

Here’s the statement from the governor:

For almost 20 months, this tool has provided deregulation and operational flexibility for hospitals and industries most affected by COVID’s challenges. Should our state face any future surges, we will consider temporarily reinstating this tool, but in the meantime, we are evaluating opportunities for permanent deregulation.”

Since the governor’s springtime announcement, Tennessee experienced a sharp increase in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations due to the spread of the delta variant. But the state’s numbers have eased in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, a potential Republican primary challenger to Lee’s re-election bid next year, issued his own state of emergency in an effort to “secure the liberties” of health care workers who don’t want to adhere to vaccination mandates, The Daily Herald of Columbia reported.

Ogles was joined in his Facebook announcement by state Reps. Scott Cepicky (R-Culleoka), Brandon Ogles (R-Franklin), Clay Doggett (R-Pulaski), and Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill).

(Image credit: Screengrab from Facebook Live)

COVID czar launches website to apply for exemptions to vax mandate ban

Jason Mumpower presents a comptroller’s report in Nashville on Jan. 30, 2018. At left is Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Under a bill signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee on Friday, businesses are banned from requiring employees to prove they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Unless, that is, they are granted an exemption from Comptroller Jason Mumpower — who has been dubbed the COVID czar.

Mumpower’s office has launched a website to handle applications. Here’s the full release:

The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office has launched a new webpage that will allow Tennessee businesses, governmental entities, or schools to seek an exemption from House Bill No. 9077/Senate Bill No. 9014, which was signed into law on Friday, November 12.

The new law prohibits most Tennessee businesses from imposing a vaccine mandate unless they receive an exemption from the Comptroller’s Office.

An exemption may be granted by the Comptroller if an applicant can demonstrate that compliance with Chapter 2 or 6 of the new law would result in a loss of federal funding and an exemption is necessary to conform to a federally awarded or amended contract, subcontract, or postsecondary grant.

Exemptions granted by the Comptroller are not permanent and may be renewed for no more than one calendar year.

The Comptroller’s Office invites qualifying entities to begin submitting a notice for exemption by visiting comptroller.tn.gov/covidexemption. This webpage also includes program Guidelines and some frequently asked questions.

Applicants with questions about the exemption process can contact exempt@cot.tn.gov.

New TNJ edition alert: Special session post-mortem, Warner audit comes to nothing

A statue of President Andrew Jackson is seen in front of the state Capitol in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

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

— Business concerns brushed aside in hurry-up special session.

— Registry punts on audit of Rep. Warner’s spending with mystery vendor but proceeds with probe of PAC.

— Knox GOP’s effort to topple incumbents in Knoxville City Council elections fizzles.

Also: Kelsey turns himself (and his passport) in, Robinson has a court date for her second federal fraud trial, Terry gives the Heimlich maneuver to choking colleague, and Ragan’s revisionist history on Andrew Jackson and the nullification crisis.

As always, access your copy of the TNJ here or subscribe here.

Chamber to offer seminars on trying to comply with conflicting COVID-19 rules

House members attend a floor session in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

With federal guidance handed down this week requiring companies with 100 employees to ensure their workers are fully vaccinated by Jan. 4, the state Chamber of Commerce is offering seminars on how to try to comply with that rule while trying not to run afoul of a state bill passed in a special legislative session last week to outlaw most vaccine mandates in Tennessee.

One method may be a federal provision allowing regular testing instead of vaccines. The state bill did not address the question of tests.

The Chamber opposes all vaccination, masking, and testing mandates, but businesses still have to try to follow the law.

“We understand that recent federal orders and state legislation can result in confusion and costly litigation,” Chamber CEO Bradley Jackson said in a release. “Employers have to know how to comply.”

Here’s the release from the Chamber:

Nashville, TN The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry announced it will be hosting a series of free compliance seminars to assist all businesses with navigating compliance of Tennessee‘s newly passed COVID-19 requirements for employers. The essential seminars are intended to assist all employers by providing clarity as they attempt to maintain compliance with both state and federal COVID-19 mandates. “We are working to get the word out across Tennessee to all employers and assist every business that needs guidance to steer through the complexities of both state and federal policies. It is our obligation to ensure all employers understand their requirements under law. We understand that recent federal orders and state legislation can result in confusion and costly litigation. Employers have to know how to comply,” said Chamber President and CEO Bradley Jackson. The Tennessee Chamber has expressed opposition to both federal and state mandates relative to vaccination, masking and testing mandates for businesses. 

The first compliance seminar will be held at 10 AM CST on Tuesday, November 9. The virtual meeting series is free to attend and will have no registration expense or limit. Legal experts will be on hand to step through the complexities of the measures and address questions of employers. This recently enacted legislation could be effective as late as November 13th and Tennessee businesses of all sizes and sectors across our great state who are not in compliance are subject to penalties and litigation exposure. “The compliance curve on this particular mandate is extremely steep. We want to make sure there is no business in Tennessee that doesn’t fully understand their obligations and options.” noted Jackson.

The Tennessee Chamber will be hosting a subsequent seminar on November 17 to focus on the exemption process for qualified employers. In addition a final compliance seminar will take a closer look at expected OSHA emergency rules. 

To register, visit www.tnchamber.org/complianceseminar  

Here is the final Senate vote on the omnibus COVID-19 bill

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

It’s taken a little while for the House and Senate chambers to catch up with the 1 a.m. vote on the final version of the COVID-19 omnibus bill. We had the House totals on Saturday. Here is the Senate breakdown on its 22-4 vote:

SenatorParty Vote
Akbari, RaumeshDN
Bailey, PaulRY
Bell, MikeRY
Bowling, JaniceRY
Briggs, RichardRN
Campbell, HeidiDN
Crowe, RustyRY
Gardenhire, ToddRY
Gilmore, BrendaDA
Haile, FerrellRA
Hensley, JoeyRY
Jackson, EdRY
Johnson, JackRY
Kelsey, BrianRA
Kyle, SaraDA
Lundberg, JonRY
Massey, Becky DuncanRY
McNally, Lt. Gov. RandyRY
Niceley, Frank S.RY
Pody, MarkRY
Powers, BillRY
Reeves, ShaneRA
Roberts, KerryRY
Robinson, KatrinaDA
Rose, PaulRY
Southerland, SteveRY
Stevens, JohnRY
Swann, ArtRY
Walley, PageRY
Watson, BoRY
White, DawnRY
Yager, KenRA
Yarbro, JeffDN

All hail Tennessee’s new COVID czar, Jason Mumpower

Jason Mumpower presents a report to lawmakers in Nashville on Jan. 30, 2018. At left is then-Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Amid heavy pushback from the business and education sectors about Republican lawmakers’ efforts to ban COVID-19 vaccine requirements for employees, the final version of the bill allows companies to apply for waivers in the event their federal funding might be jeopardized by following the new law.

To do so, they will have to submit applications to state Comptroller Jason Mumpower, who is empowered to set his own guidelines for what evidence will have to be handed in to make their case for an exemption.

Mumpower, incidentally, is a former state House Republican leader who is appointed by a joint convention of the General Assembly.

Here’s the language of the provision:

A provision of chapter 2 of this title does not apply to a private business, governmental entity, school, or employer that submits notice in writing to the comptroller of the treasury that compliance with a provision chapter 2 of this title would result in a loss of federal funding, to the extent such an exemption is necessary to conform to federally awarded or amended contracts, subcontracts, or postsecondary grants as a condition to receipt of federal funds. The comptroller of the treasury shall create guidelines as to what information is required in the notice. The comptroller shall review a notice submitted by a private business, governmental entity, school, or employer and, if the comptroller finds that compliance would result in a loss of federal funding, then the comptroller shall notify the private business, governmental entity, school, or employer in writing of its exemption.

Supporters said Mumpower’s office is a logical choice because it already handles a variety of contract issues. Opponents argue that at best the move creates another layer of red tape, and at worst gives lawmakers another chance to meddle in businesses’ internal workings.

Either way, Mumpower was quickly dubbed the COVID Czar.