covid-19

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.

The doors of the Senate shall be open again

The Senate Education Committee meets on March 16, 2020, amid a ban on public attendance in the Cordell Hull Building (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Senate is reopening to the public after shutting down most access during the pandemic. According to a Tennessee Lobbyists Association memo, the upper chamber is dropping most of the restrictions it had imposed when COVID-19 struck last year. The House restrictions were never as wide-ranging to begin with, and most its mitigation efforts were lifted last month.

Here is the memo outlining the Senate changes:

TLA Members,

We were notified of the following changes this evening:

Due to increased vaccine availability and the overall decline in the spread of COVID -19, Lt. Governor McNally will be implementing revised building protocols beginning Monday, March 8. These protocols apply to the 7th Floor of Cordell Hull Building, Senate Hearing Room I and Senate Floor Sessions:

1. Members of the public will be admitted to the Cordell Hull Building using the main entrance on Rep. John Lewis Way and will have elevator access to the 7th Floor.

2. Until elevator programming is adjusted, General Assembly staff will assist the public with elevator access to the 7th floor. Once programming is complete, elevator access for the public will be open.

3. Members of the public are encouraged not to enter a member’s office without an appointment.

4. Senate Hearing Room I will be open to the public with limited seating. So-cial distancing and capacity restrictions shall be maintained and enforced.

4. The public may access the Capitol through the tunnel for Senate Floor Sessions. One elevator will be designated for members only for session.

5. The Senate Gallery is open with limited seating available for the public and reserved seating for media. Social distancing and capacity restrictions shall be maintained.

6. The area outside the Senate Chamber is reserved for Senate staff.

7. The 8th Floor and 7th floor Senate Conference Rooms remain closed.

8. There shall be no Days on the Hill, group meetings or tours.

9. Appropriate CDC facial coverings are required in the Senate facilities of the Cordell Hull Building and the Capitol, including the tunnel.

10. Individuals with 2021 Photo Identification Badges issued by the General Assembly may access the Cordell Hull Building through the entrance on 6th Avenue.

11. The north elevator is reserved for members and staff, no public use.

12. Committee chairs may choose in-person or remote testimony for their committee meetings.

The protocols are subject to modification at any time.

COVID diagnosis in Senate raises concerns (UPDATED)

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

A state senator has tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the special session and other lawmakers and staffers may have been exposed, The Tennessee Journal has learned.

UPDATE: Sen. Ed Jackson (R-Jackson) has confirmed he has tested positive:

“I was informed yesterday afternoon that I have tested positive for COVID-19.  I am quarantining at home with mild symptoms,” Jackson said in a statement. “I have received excellent care and am thankful for all of our health professionals who are on the front lines in fighting this virus.”

One further senator is believed to be in quarantine, while another is remaining on duty because he already had COVID-19. The office of legislative adminstration declined to confirm or deny any infections due to privacy concerns.

The incident comes despite enhanced measures the Senate has taken to try to fight the spread of COVID-19. The upper chamber has required social distancing between members in committees and on the floor while banning the public from its meetings. But nothing prevents lawmakers from congregating in their offices, elevators, or hallways of the Capitol complex.

At least nine House members have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

Dems’ effort to require face coverings punted in House

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

Democrats’ efforts to amend House rules to require masks be worn in committees and on the floor have been put off by the chamber’s Republican supermajority.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis) made the motion on Friday, a day after House members had approved their rules for the 112th General Assembly. Speaker Pro Tem Pat Marsh (R-Shelbyville), who chairs the Rules Committee, said every member had been given the opportunity to suggest amendments when the panel met earlier in the week. No mask rule was introduced at that time, so Marsh made the motion to send Hardaway’s proposal back to the committee. It’s unclear when the panel will meet again.

At least 10 House members have tested positive for COVID-19 so far. They are:

  • Bill Beck (D-Nashville)
  • David Byrd (R-Waynesboro)
  • Karen Camper (D-Memphis)
  • Kent Calfee (R-Kingston)
  • Scott Cepicky (R-Culleoka)
  • Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah)
  • Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby)
  • Torrey Harris (D-Memphis)
  • Gary Hicks (R-Rogersville)
  • Kevin Vaughan (R-Collierville)

In the Senate, Mike Bell (R-Riceville), Ed Jackson (R-Jackson), and Page Walley (R-Bolivar) have had COVID-19.

All have recovered except Byrd, who at last report remained on a ventilator at a Nashville hospital.

Senate to block public access to committee floor

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

The state Senate will continue to bar public access to committee meetings during the upcoming legislative session. According to guidelines shared with members, the restrictions will mirror the COVID-19 mitigation steps taken by the upper chamber last summer.

The House is expected to continue to allow access by lobbyists and other members of the public.

Here’s is the memo sent by Senate Clerk Russell Humphrey:

To:     Members of the Senate, 112th General Assembly

From:   Russell A. Humphrey, Chief Clerk

In consideration of the infection rates and State of Tennessee COVID-19 guidelines, Mr. Speaker McNally and Senate Leadership have set the following protocols:

  *   The Senate side of the first floor of the Cordell Hull Building and the Senate Hearing Room are only to be utilized by Senators and authorized staff.

  *   On the 7th Floor of the Cordell Hull Building only Senate Members, Senate Staff, and appointments pre-scheduled by the pubic are authorized on the floor.  Please notify Ms. Connie Ridley of Senators appointments with members of the public the afternoon in advance.  Once appointments are concluded, guest must leave the floor.

  *   The Senate Chamber and the Senate Hearing Room are arranged to provide seating at a minimum physical distance of six feet. Only Senate Members, limited Clerk’s staff, and a press pool reporter are allowed in the Senate Chamber.

  *   Members are requested to wear face covering that covers both the mouth and nose while in public areas, including the Senate Chamber and Senate Hearing Room.

  *   Staff are required to wear face covering that covers both the mouth and nose while in public areas, including the Senate Chamber and Senate Hearing Room.

  *   Testimony in Committee meetings by non-members will be conducted remotely only. Please let the Chairman’s office know if you have someone to testify on a matter.

  *   Due to space limitations, seating is limited to staff and press in the Senate Hearing Room and the Senate Gallery.

  *   No accommodations are available for Days on the Hill or local, regional or state Leadership Groups.

These protocols shall remain in effect until further notice.  Mr. Speaker McNally ask you to be flexible, as these will change as conditions improved. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

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.

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.