Thursday, November 12

Governor Lee says TN still discussing first-its-kind Medicaid block grant (WKRN-TV Nashville) Governor Bill Lee says he is still looking at a first of its kind way to fund healthcare for a million and a half lower income Tennesseans. In the age of COVID-19, the governor has not given up on what’s called a block grant from Washington to help pay for the state’s Medicaid program TennCare. “We have been talking with CMS about the Medicaid block grant for a year,” said the governor this week at his annual budget hearings. LINK

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee hoping for teacher pay raises amid budget crunch (AP) Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee says he’s looking to include “meaningful” teacher pay raises in next year’s budget despite facing financial crunches brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee was forced to spike his original teacher pay boost earlier this year at the beginning of the virus outbreak. However, recent state revenues are coming in slightly higher than anticipated. Lee on Tuesday said he’s hoping he can allocate more teacher pay in the 2021-22 spending plan. The Republican also didn’t rule out allocating funding for his school voucher program, which is currently blocked due to an ongoing legal challenge. LINK

Gov. Bill Lee says teacher pay raises could happen in 2021 (WVLT-TV Knoxville) Tennessee teachers may see a rise in their salary in 2021. During a Tuesday press conference, Governor Bill Lee announced his hope for teachers to receive a pay raise next year. “We certainly hope that there will be an opportunity for meaningful increases in teacher pay. We hope that happens,” said Gov. Lee. Gov. Lee said he is looking at projects to improve education throughout the state. “There will be reductions in programming and in infilled positions or vacancies and there are proposals for enhanced spending as well. So, there will be some balance of both,” Lee said. LINK

Tennessee governor wants to maintain school funding, raise teacher pay, but offers no promises (Chalkbeat) Gov. Bill Lee wants to maintain funding for public schools in Tennessee’s next budget, even as a statewide decline in student enrollment would normally result in a decrease of at least $320 million. “We believe that districts will be held harmless; that’s what we anticipate,” he told reporters Tuesday, saying that schools should not be penalized next year for having fewer students this year during a pandemic. His comments came on the second day of weeklong budget hearings. About 33,000 fewer students enrolled in Tennessee public schools this fall, down by about 3.5% from last year, for a total of 935,376, according to early enrollment data from the state education department. LINK

Study shows why coronavirus disproportionately affects low income communities (WHBQ-TV Memphis) There are some new answers as to the reason why more people in lower-income neighborhoods see higher numbers of COVID-19 cases diagnosed than in other communities. Researchers have been looking into the issue for months and published their findings in the journal Nature Tuesday … A spokesman for Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said: “nothing is off the table.” “…(Gov. Lee) believes statewide, one-size-fits-all government mandates are not the best way to achieve sustainable compliance from individuals, as they are more likely to trust local leaders and that local leaders know the unique needs of their communities best,” said Gillum Ferguson, the governor’s press secretary. LINK

Longtime lawmaker from East TN takes on new role in state government (WATE-TV Knoxville) After 26 years in the legislature, former Republican state representative Bill Dunn is starting a new job in state government. Earlier this week, Governor Bill Lee announced Dunn accepted the role of senior advisor to Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn. Dunn explained he accepted with the hope of creating meaningful impact, including finding ways to maintain statewide gains in academic performance and bridge any communication gaps between the legislature and the Department of Education. LINK

Renewed call for statewide mask mandate (WHBQ-TV Memphis) State Senator Raumesh Akbari is the latest lawmaker urging Governor Bill Lee to pass a statewide mask mandate. This comes as Germantown alderman passed a resolution calling for a uniform mask policy too. “We’re setting all kind of new records. Our hospitals are at the peak of capacity and something so small as wearing a mask, mask mandate, take the politics out of it and put in a mask mandate,” said State Senator Raumesh Akbari representing Memphis and Shelby County. Abkari said she’s frustrated with how politicized mask mandates have become. The Shelby County Democrat took to Twitter this week urging Lee to take action. LINK

Gibson Co. woman repays state over $76,000 after TennCare fraud charge (WBBJ-TV Jackson) A Gibson County woman has fulfilled an order to repay the State of Tennessee after she was charged with TennCare fraud and theft of services, according to a news release. The release states 43-year-old Dawn Williamson was arrested in July of 2020 and charged with class B and C felony theft of services. According to the Office of Inspector General (OIG), Williamson was sentenced in Crockett County, where she was charged in connection with failing to report her marital status and household income in order to obtain TennCare benefits for herself and her five children. As of November 10, the release states Williamson has repaid the state a total of $76,083.70 for benefits received while she was on the program. LINK

U of M, Porter-Leath break ground on new childhood learning center (Daily Memphian) Officials broke ground Wednesday, Nov. 11, on the Early Childhood Academy in Orange Mound, a collaboration of the University of Memphis and Porter-Leath. Private donors gave $15 million for the center, which will serve children from 6 weeks to 5 years old. The new facility will be located near RedZone Ministries on Park Avenue in a vacant lot in front of Melrose High School. The structure will have 18 classrooms and will serve 48 Early Head Start children and 200 3- and 4-year-olds. Space will also be reserved for children of university students and staff. The academy is expected to open early in 2022. LINK

U of M, Epicenter building the tech path for entrepreneurs (Daily Memphian) Two years ago, Ryan Hughes, a new Ph.D. from Texas A & M, had no connection to Memphis. Today, he is the first to incorporate a science tech business through Patents2Products, the brainstorm of a couple of entrepreneurial minds at University of Memphis FedEx Institute of Technology and Epicenter. In P2P, the university and Epicenter split the cost of the researcher’s salary for two years, offering Hughes and five other post-docs in the pipeline the chance to fine-tune their tech innovations in the university’s labs and prepare sales pitches without having to worry about how they are going to survive and feed their families. LINK

Washington County looks to improve internet access (Kingsport Times-News) With an uptick in reported novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases forcing Washington County Schools to return to a full virtual classroom schedule, county officials say efforts to improve broadband access are now paying off. Bill Flanary, the county’s director of schools, told members of the Washington County Health, Education and Welfare Committee earlier this month that thanks to the work of BrightRidge, less than 5% of families with students are without internet access. The service was made possible after BrightRidge received $2.47 million in Tennessee Emergency Broadband grants awarded by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development in August. LINK

Why Tennessee Won’t Celebrate A $1B Budget Surplus (WPLN Radio Nashville) Rather than cash-strapped, Tennessee is actually quite flush. The latest tax revenues from October show the state has already built up a $1 billion surplus in tax collections. The state started the fiscal year in July expecting less revenue, and instead collections have grown substantially, with another $134 million more than budgeted in October. But Finance Commissioner Butch Eley says federal stimulus money is still propping up household spending. From direct payments to families, grants to small businesses and coronavirus relief funds the state doles out, a total of $14.6 billion has poured into the state, according to a state stimulus dashboard. LINK

Doctors predict COVID-19 will hit Tennessee hard during the winter months (WTVF-TV Nashville) Doctors are projecting COVID-19 will get worse in the months ahead if people don’t take the virus seriously. They say we could see more cases and even more deaths this winter. As we near the ninth month of the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors say the numbers are alarming. And with winter on the horizon, Vanderbilt University Medical Center doctors say we need to prepare. As of Monday, 43 states reported at least 10% more new COVID-19 cases compared to last week, according to Johns Hopkins University. LINK

Record Hospitalizations Raise Red Flags Across Tennessee (WPLN Radio Nashville) Tennessee is yet again setting new records for COVID hospitalizations. As of Wednesday, more than 1,700 people are severely ill with the virus, and conditions around the state are worsening. The Knoxville News Sentinel reports new cases, regional hospitalizations and deaths are all on the rise in Knox County, and in Chattanooga, the pandemic is the worst it’s ever been. The Times Free Press reports that Hamilton County has an average positivity rate above 10%. That’s the threshold that tells public health officials there are likely even more cases than they’re picking up with testing. LINK

5,000+ students, staff in 4 Tennessee school districts quarantined (WKRN-TV Nashville) Nearly 1,500 students and staff contracted COVID-19 last week, according to the Tennessee Dept. of Health. The state’s COVID-19 school dashboard shows about a thousand students tested positive for the virus last week, in addition to the more than 700 the week before, and staff totaling about 800 in the last two weeks. But the numbers we’re not seeing are the number of students and staff quarantined due to exposure. Looking at just four of the biggest school districts in Middle Tennessee, that’s more than 5,000. LINK

Columbia mayor pushes for state-wide mask mandate as Maury County COVID-19 cases increase (WKRN-TV Nashville) As COVID-19 cases trend upwards in Maury County, Columbia Mayor Chaz Molder says the public health response needs to improve. “What we’ve been seeing here in Columbia and Maury County is an increase in new cases, our hospitalizations are on the rise, our average positivity rate over the last seven days has exceeded the state average,” Molder said. LINK

Sumner Regional Medical Center under COVID-19 diversion (WKRN-TV Nashville) Due to climbing COVID-19 case counts across the state, Sumner Regional Medical Center has reached capacity. Hospital officials told News 2 it is diverting patients with the virus to other hospitals. Tennessee Hospital Association President and CEO Wendy Long says this is commonly because of not only lack of ICU beds, but staffing. “A hospitals capacity, most hospitals can find a location to put another bed, but that location isn’t useful without staffing,” Long said. “As your positivity rate increases in the community, the people who work in hospitals are out there in communities and they’re being exposed as well.” LINK

Coronavirus cases in Sumner County continue to rise despite mask mandate (WZTV-TV Nashville) As coronavirus cases spike in counties across Tennessee, FOX 17 News is looking into some of the counties seeing the worst trends. As of Wednesday afternoon, out of the five counties that border Davidson, Sumner County had the highest percent COVID-19 positivity rate. They have an average of 47.3 new cases each day and percent positive case average of 15.5%. Back in March, a big part  the trend was from a spike in a nursing home that had to be evacuated, but now, that’s not the case. Even with a mask mandate in place, the numbers continue to climb. LINK

Hamilton County adds more than 200 COVID-19 cases for second straight day (Times Free Press) As coronavirus cases continue to surge, health officials say residents should double down on their efforts to slow the spread — yet too many people have become more lax, resuming risky pre-pandemic activities without proper precautions. On Wednesday, the Hamilton County Health Department reported 213 new infections, marking the second straight day of more than 200 new cases. The county is now averaging a record 167 new cases a day and a positivity rate of 13.4% for new tests in the past week. LINK

2 schools in McMinn County temporarily closing due to “significant rise” in COVID-19 cases (WTVC-TV Chattanooga) McMinn County’s school district says an elementary school and high school will be temporarily closed “out of an abundance of caution due to a significant rise in the number of COVID-19 cases.” According to McMinn County Schools’ Facebook page, Niota Elementary School and McMinn County High School will operate on a different schedule Thursday and Friday, November 12th and 13th, in order to allow for a thorough cleaning of the buildings. LINK

Tennessee reports record number of new deaths, current hospitalizations; region inches closer to monthly death record (Johnson City Press) Tennessee reported a record number of novel coronavirus-related (COVID-19) deaths and current hospitalizations on Wednesday and its fourth-highest new case count of the pandemic. All of the top-four counts have been reported in the last week. Northeast Tennessee, meanwhile, reported seven new fatalities, bringing it closer to setting a record for deaths in a single month — less than two weeks into November. The region’s active case count, however, is headed in the opposite direction. LINK

Amid surge Ballad Health considers moving waiting rooms to tents in hospital parking lots (WCYB-TV Bristol) Ballad Health is considering adding tents to hospital parking lots to add more space for overwhelmed emergency department waiting rooms. New COVID-19 cases continue to rise each day in our region. Deaths this week are at a record high. Hospitalizations are still creeping upward, but that slow rise is misleading. “We had over thirty discharges, so what we’re seeing is we’re discharging patients, but we’re filling right back up,” Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift said. LINK

Finding workers willing to work in restaurants is an ongoing problem in Mid-South (WMC-TV Memphis) On Wednesday night, Fox Ridge Pizza Bar and Grill on Brookhaven Circle in East Memphis is booming. It’s a welcome sight for an industry hit hard by the pandemic. While this restaurant is thriving, the owner’s daughter says her mother’s second restaurant in Collierville is a totally different story. “That has been the struggle. Unfortunately at Cajun, we’ve had to remain closed because we don’t have the staffing,” Jordan Orl, who works alongside her mother and owner, Lisa Gibbs, at both restaurants, said. LINK

Tennessee rated 3rd highest state where renters are behind on payments (WVLT-TV Knoxville) Thousands of Americans are still struggling to make rent payments months into the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. A recent study finds that renters in some states, including Tennessee, are struggling more than others. LendingTree found that Tennessee ranks 3rd in a list of states where renters are falling behind on payments with 24.8 percent of renters struggling. According to LendingTree, 27.9 percent of Tennessee renters aren’t confident that they will be able to make a rent payment next month. LINK

FedEx will be important in getting Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine distributed (WATN-TV Memphis) Pfizer is laying out plans for how to distribute millions of doses if approved, and it will include Memphis-based FedEx. Wednesday on “Good Morning America,” the company’s regional president Richard Smith spoke about how the company is preparing for distribution and storage once the vaccine is approved. LINK

Chattanooga pastors discuss racism, injustice as part of statewide conversation for change (Times Free Press) A gathering of Chattanooga area pastors Tuesday night was intended to be the first conversation for them about issues of racism in the church and community. But, for many involved, the faces present and topics were nothing new. Around 20 pastors participated in the roundtable discussion at Brainerd Baptist Church, part of an effort by the Governor’s Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives to mobilize local faith communities to build relationships and address racial injustice. LINK

Nashville’s criminal justice fines can add up to thousands, creating ‘poor tax,’ report finds (Tennessean) If the link between Nashville’s reliance on criminal justice fines and city revenue is ever going to be broken, someone with power is going to have to break it, advocates say. “We need to ask the big question,” said Rahim Buford, director of the Nashville Community Bail Fund. “Do we care equally about those who do not have as we do for those who do have?” A new report conducted for the city found a labyrinthine system of penny-ante fines that can add up to thousands of dollars levied at every level of the criminal justice system — often falling on those who can least afford them. LINK

Judge overturns conviction of Tennessee man serving life (AP) After reviewing new evidence, a Tennessee judge has overturned the conviction of a man serving life in prison for a 1998 slaying. The ruling Tuesday came nearly two weeks after the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office filed a motion to vacate the charges against Joseph Webster. Webster was convicted of murder in the killing Leroy Owens. The move came after a unit in the prosecutor’s office investigated the case and found new evidence not presented at trial. That included allegations against another suspect and DNA evidence found on the murder weapon that excluded Webster. LINK

Resume padding isn’t enough to disqualify Knox County judge, Tennessee Supreme Court rules (News Sentinel) The outlandishness of a Knox County judge’s resume padding is proving to be his legal saving grace. The Tennessee Supreme Court has issued a unanimous opinion that Knox County Criminal Court Judge Kyle Hixson’s campaign claim that he oversaw “all” prosecutions in his former post as a supervisory Knox County Deputy District Attorney General was clearly hyperbolic. The court ruled he can’t be forced off the bench in a half dozen cases, court records show. The high court, however, stated in the ruling that the justices do not condone resume padding. LINK

Sen. Crowe presents flags on Veterans Day (Johnson City Press) Veterans Day in Carter County was more quiet than normal this year. Usually, there are two separate and independent events honoring the region’s veterans, but with the concerns of the novel coronavirus, the event at the Elizabethton/Carter County War Memorial was not held this year. The second event, which is targeted toward teaching high-schoolers about the reason for Veterans Day is usually held in one of the five high schools in the county and city. Since some schools are conducting remote learning because of the pandemic, that Veterans Day event was also not held. LINK

Knoxville lawmaker tries again to strip power from Knox County board of health (News Sentinel) For the second time during the COVID-19 pandemic, a Knoxville state lawmaker has introduced a bill that would strip local boards of health of their powers to manage emergencies and give it instead to county mayors. State Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, said state statutes that give the board of health authority create unintended consequences that should be fixed as soon as possible, regardless of current circumstances. LINK

Governor Lee, Tennessee Senate Republicans question Biden’s win (WBBJ-TV Jackson) The Associated Press reports that Tennessee’s Senate Republicans have proclaimed the presidential election has yet to be resolved, while announcing their support of President Trump’s accusations of fraud and voting irregularities in the state’s GOP letter published Tuesday. The letter also cites what it calls voter “irregularities” in a handful of critical states, however it did not name any examples. Only three of the state Senate’s 27 Republicans did not sign the letter, according to AP. AP also reports that Tennessee Governor Bill Lee says he isn’t ready to recognize Biden as the president-elect. Lee declined to answer reporters when asked if he believes that there has been widespread voter fraud. LINK

24 of 27 Senate Republicans agree: Trump should challenge outcome (Tennessee Journal) The Senate Republican Caucus is voicing support for President Donald Trump’s efforts to challenge his re-election loss to Democrat Joe Biden. A letter to this effect has been signed by 24 of 27 GOP members — all but Sens. Richard Briggs of Knoxville, Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, and Brian Kelsey of Germantown. Briggs and Kelsey face potentially tough re-election campaigns in two years. Gardenhire just won another four-year term last week. Here’s the letter: Dear Tennessee Voters, The Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus stands absolutely and unequivocally with President Donald J. Trump as he contests the unofficial results of the Presidential Election of 2020. LINK

Tenn. Republicans, Democrats at odds over outcome of 2020 presidential election (WMC-TV Memphis) State elected officials are wading deeper into presidential politics, with Tennessee Democrats hitting Republican Governor Bill Lee Wednesday for not recognizing Joe Biden as president-elect. Tennessee Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Stewart said Wednesday Lee should explain to Tennessee voters why he’s not recognizing Biden as the president-elect. “Every elected official in this country is responsible for maintaining the effectiveness and legitimacy of our democratic system,” said Stewart. “It is not acceptable for public officials, Democrat or Republican, to not accept the results of elections.” LINK

Gov. Lee says he won’t acknowledge Biden as President-elect yet; lawmaker wants clarity on why (WTVF-TV Nashville) Democrat lawmaker Rep. Mike Stewart is calling for Governor Bill Lee to clarify comments he made about the results of the presidential election. This week, Governor Lee said he didn’t recognize Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election because of questions about the legitimacy of the election. “I think it’s appropriate to work to make sure that this nation doesn’t have the complications associated with this past election,” said Gov. Lee. “We need to do this in a way that’s clear and understood and folks in advance know exactly how elections are going to happen. The way it occurred in our state. We need to make sure that happens across this country.” LINK

‘It’s outrageous’: TN Gov. called out for saying it’s not clear who won presidential race (WTVF-TV Nashville) Governor Bill Lee has come under fire for his recent remarks on the 2020 presidential election. Representative Mike Stewart (D-Nashville) called the Republican governor out during a virtual news conference Wednesday, saying his comments are “an extraordinarily serious and terrible abuse of his power as Governor.” Lee said Monday it’s “not clear” who won the presidential election and that President Donald Trump has “every right” to pursue the process to the end. “The president certainly has every right to pursue that process to the end and should,” the governor told reporters. “We need to make sure that every legal ballot that was cast is counted.” LINK

Top Tennessee Democrat blasts Gov. Lee claims about presidential vote uncertainty as ‘undermining’ electoral process (Times Free Press) A top Tennessee House Democrat on Wednesday sharply criticized Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s refusal to acknowledge Democrat Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 presidential election, charging the governor’s “bogus claims” about uncertainty are “undermining an entire electoral process.” “Assuming that Gov. Lee is just not basing his decision on some crazy political delusion, he needs to explain to the press today why he is not recognizing Joe Biden as victorious,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Stewart of Nashville told reporters during a video news conference. LINK

TVA fined $900K fine for covering up unsafe start-up of Watts Bar nuclear reactor (News Sentinel) The nation’s nuclear watchdog agency has slapped the Tennessee Valley Authority with more than $900,000 in fines for unsafely starting up a reactor at its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant and scrubbing plant records of details. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says supervisors at TVA’s Watts Bar Nuclear Plant pushed to fire up a nuclear reactor in 2015 even though workers repeatedly told them it was unsafe. The plant is located in Spring City, Tennessee, between Knoxville and Chattanooga. LINK

Nashville announces massive solar array project with Vanderbilt University (Tennessean) Mayor John Cooper’s administration announced Tuesday the construction of a joint solar array project with Vanderbilt University that will push Metro one-third of the way toward its 100% renewable energy supply goal. The utility-scale solar power will be built in Tullahoma in partnership with Nashville Electric Service and the Tennessee Valley Authority, to generate a combined 125 megawatts of solar energy between Metro and Vanderbilt. TVA will contract with Nashville-based Silicon Ranch, founded by former Gov. Phil Bredesen. LINK


Jackson Baker: Wish Lists (Memphis Flyer) As expected, the Biden-Harris ticket was an easy winner in Democratic-dominated Shelby County last week; also unsurprising was the overwhelming support enjoyed by the Trump-Pence Republican ticket in Tennessee at large. To the extent that there was any kind of suspense factor, it was in a pair of local races. Even as Democrats nationally made serious inroads on previously Republican suburban areas, the contests for House District 83 and House District 96, both on the suburban fringe, were unusually tight. LINK

Otis Sanford: Giving in to political fear is not leadership, it’s simply fear (WATN-TV Memphis) Everyone knew that most Republican leaders are squarely on the Donald Trump political train – no matter how irrational and dangerous Trump becomes. But not until now did we know for sure that they are also deathly afraid of the defeated President. Or to be more precise, they are afraid of Trump and his millions of voters. Nowhere is that more evident than in Tennessee. Governor Bill Lee, who has been leading from behind since taking office in 2019, is one of those too afraid to say Joe Biden is the President-Elect. Instead, he echoed the GOP rhetoric about upholding the legal process and recounting votes. LINK

From Bill Freeman (Nashville Scene) Political pollsters have been on edge and in the spotlight as this year’s pre-election polls clearly underestimated Donald Trump’s support, seemingly repeating 2016 mistakes. Will Americans continue to trust these polls? Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, doesn’t think so. Noting that pollsters did not do a good job in 2016, Luntz says this year’s polling will cause the public to have “no faith, no confidence.” He even went so far as to say “the polling profession is done.” LINK

Otis Sanford: Black men supporting Trump chose policy over character (Daily Memphian) When James Jones Jr. cast his ballot for president this year, the character of the candidates was on his mind. But even more important were their policies and political philosophy. Joe Biden had the better character, Jones concluded, but Donald Trump, or at least his party, had the better policies. So Jones, an attorney who lives in Bartlett, voted for Trump. He was among the estimated 15% to 20% of African American men who supported Trump in the Nov. 3 emotionally charged election. And while he realizes that his vote will be heavily criticized by other Black voters, particularly Black women, Jones has no regrets. LINK

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