Lieutenant Governor: State copes with 2 disasters

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 22, 2020 12:11 PM CT | Published: March 22, 2020 12:11 PM CT

Editor’s note: Due to the serious public health implications associated with COVID-19, The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally calls it the “black swan,” an unforeseen event capable of shaking Tennessee’s foundation, yet one the state must be prepared to handle — and on a worldwide scale with a military-like approach.

“Unfortunately, this year we had two, the tornado and the COVID-19 virus,” McNally said as he discussed the frenzied days of 111th General Assembly when lawmakers expedited a $39.8 billion budget and vacated Nashville amid the coronavirus crisis.

<strong>Randy McNally</strong>

Randy McNally

Not only is the state responding to the coronavirus with an emergency declaration, sections of Nashville, Hermitage, Mt. Juliet and Cookeville are still reeling from a devastating tornado that claimed 19 lives.

Waving a bipartisan olive branch, the Oak Ridge Republican pointed toward the state’s fiscal stability, primarily a rainy day fund that will increase to $1.45 billion, done over the years through the leadership of both Democratic and Republican governors, including Phil Bredesen, Bill Haslam and now Gov. Bill Lee.

He also made note of the late Democratic state Sen. Douglas Henry, a longtime chairman of the Senate Finance committee, and the late state Rep. John Bragg, a 30-year House member who chaired the House Finance committee for 24 years.

McNally commended those state leaders “who built the foundation that enables us to weather the storms that come.”

As a result, the state put together a “substantial” rainy day fund. With another $350 million injection in fiscal 2020-21, the fund will the equivalent of 10% of the general fund to deal with emergencies, he said.

State Republican leaders’ responses had changed dramatically in seven days.

A little over a week earlier, House Speaker Cameron Sexton rejected a Democratic lawmaker’s request to pass an emergency budget and adjourn the House temporarily.

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But after legislative leaders and Lee reassessed the spreading COVID-19 last Sunday, March 15, they decided to cut nearly all unnecessary spending — almost $1 billion — and send the General Assembly home. They’re on recess until at least June 1.

Many legislators opted not to come back to Nashville last week because of concerns about the COVID-19, including state Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis, state Rep. Barbara Cooper of Memphis and state Rep. Jim Coley of Bartlett. House Minority Leader Karen Camper went home ill a day early, though not from the coronavirus, and state Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis wore a mask around the Capitol complex on the final day of work.

Though Democrats and Republicans skirmished over the need to put money in the budget to offset Lee’s voucher program, which will direct public dollars to send up to 5,000 students to private schools, Sexton spoke about lawmakers from both sides of the aisle coming together to pass a budget 87-3. It received unanimous approval in the Senate.

“These are troubling times and unprecedented times. Our Greatest Generation has made sacrifices for us over the years, and in days ahead, we as Tennesseans are going to have to sacrifice even more and make some very tough decisions,” Sexton said.

While Lee is seeking a waiver, though, from the federal government to provide health care coverage to uninsured Tennesseans who catch COVID-19, he is declining to seek Medicaid expansion to cover the entire uninsured population, some 300,000 or more.

The House turned down Democrats’ effort on the final night to obtain $1.4 billion from the federal government to provide the coverage. Instead, the governor is beefing up safety net spending by $12.5 million.

The budget for next fiscal year does include $150 million for fighting the COVID-19, in addition to $200 million for cities and counties.

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Otherwise, the state will depend on its $1.1 billion unemployment insurance fund, $750 million in its cash assistance program and the federal food program to keep people afloat.

Small business owners will have to lean on federal Small Business Administration loans of up to $2 million, but Lee said last week he is forming a task force to come up with solutions to shore up the economy as it flounders, and he said every idea will be considered.

A new kind of war

“Tennessee and the United States and all the countries throughout the world are at war with this virus. The people on the front line this time are health care workers and people involved in public safety,” McNally said.

The lieutenant governor encouraged people to find ways to help those workers as the nation tries to stem the tide of the virus, including caring for their children, if necessary.

Democratic state Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville agreed with McNally’s contention that COVID-19 needs to be dealt with like a “military campaign where there are no excuses and actions are immediate.”

And while Democratic leaders are leery of being overly critical during an emergency, Stewart said the Department of Health’s response has lacked information. He pointed out it took two weeks to find out how many ventilators are available across the state. Lee said Thursday, March 19, the state has 530 in hospitals and had bought 570 more.

Stewart, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, also said the governor’s plan to expand Medicaid coverage to uninsured people who catch COVID-19 is not enough.

“We need to fully expand health care so we can bring every possible resource to bear in fighting this coronavirus crisis, and we need to do so as rapidly as possible,” Stewart said.

Stewart and state Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville agreed with Lee’s decision to start pushing private labs to release the number of tests they check to confirm cases of the virus. Lee previously said negative test numbers are not important but changed his mind last Thursday.

Said Yarbro: “It’s critically important to track the number of tests that are being made, the number of positives and the number of negatives. This is a situation where we are desperately behind in information, and without the testing availability due to what’s happened at the federal level, there’s way too much of this country that’s flying blind right now.”

COVID-19 cases rise to 42 in Shelby County

More than 195,000 tests have been completed nationwide and at least 18,000 confirmed positive, according to federal officials. But there is no count on the total number of tests conducted in Tennessee, where at least 228 people have tested positive as of the last state count, including about 40 in Shelby County.

After declaring a state of emergency, the governor has issued executive orders to loosen restrictions on unemployment payments, enable electronic meetings for local governments and to free up hospital beds.

Tennessee and the United States and all the countries throughout the world are at war with this virus. The people on the front line this time are health care workers and people involved in public safety, McNally said.

Yarbro pointed out hospital space is going to need to be “double up” because people who need COVID-19 treatment should be kept separate from patients with other illnesses.

He lamented the fact the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just over a month ago was advising state leaders the situation would not be bad.

“At this point, we know the advice we were getting wasn’t right,” he said.

As a consequence, Tennessee has been slow in responding and in closing venues to keep large gatherings of people away from each other, he said.

Still, Yarbro said he is not ready to tell people to stay home.

“I’m not ready to say that by any stretch,” Yarbro said. “Obviously, some states have made that decision. That may be the right decision for those states, and it may be the right decision for Tennessee. But we need that decision to be guided by the best science, the best expertise that’s available, and the decision, if it’s a hard one, needs to be made.”

Lee doesn’t want to make that call yet, either, saying he doesn’t want to “mandate” behavior in homes and neighborhoods, though he said he could make that decision at some point.

“Nothing is ever off the table,” Lee said. “We don’t know what’s coming, we don’t know the enormity of this crisis.”

COVID-19 in Memphis & Shelby County: March


Randy McNally Cameron Sexton Mike Stewart Jeff Yarbro Coronavirus in Tennessee
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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