Editor’s column: Gov. Bill Lee does his best Ebenezer Scrooge impression

December 17, 2020 5:30 am

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee participated in a roundtable discussion with Vice President Mike Pence in an Air National Guard hangar at Memphis International Airport in Memphis, Tennessee on Thursday Dec. 3, 2020. At right was his wife, Maria. (Photo by © Karen Pulfer Focht)

Nothing warms the heart at the holidays like viewings of Christmas fare like “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and adaptations of the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol.” 

Each features a villain lacking in holiday spirit and empathy for his fellow man — or Who, in the Grinch’s case — but who comes to realize the error of his ways and the joy that is found in giving to others. Hoarding money, we all learn, is no way to find happiness and only leads to misery. In “A Christmas Carol,” the miser Ebenezer Scrooge mends his ways and saves the life of the frail child Tiny Tim.

Astounding as it is to imagine, Gov. Bill Lee has apparently never seen these movies. 

It’s easy to call Lee incompetent. He’s demonstrated that amply before the pandemic hit, but there’s more to him. 

Lee isn’t just incompetent. He’s willfully cruel. He does not care if Tennesseans live or die. He does not care if Tennessee children go hungry.

The most recent illustration is Lee’s pusillanimous “plan” for the rollout of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Praise God, the vaccine has come to market in record time and none too soon, as Tennessee has been ranked the leading site of new COVID cases not only in the U.S. but also in the world. 

Lee isn’t just incompetent. He’s willfully cruel. He does not care if Tennesseans live or die. He does not care if Tennessee children go hungry.

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, almost half a million Tennesseans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since March. As of Wednesday, 5,668 have died from it. 

But Scrooge Lee decided rather than distributing the first 975 doses of the Pfizer batch to health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic, he’d rather hold it in reserve. 

Emergency agencies like the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) typically plan to have backup supplies as a best practice, but given Tennessee’s dismal status, best practice might be to get front line workers the first vaccination as soon as possible. 

Lee said he couldn’t decide how to distribute the doses equitably but as Tennessean health care reporter Brett Kelman pointed out, 975 doses would be more than enough to vaccinate every worker at Nashville General Hospital. General is the safety net hospital for the area, treating primarily Black Nashvillians and poorer ones, groups that have been disproportionately hit by the virus. 

And that’s not all. The Moderna vaccine will be arriving next week and Lee has said he’s setting aside 5,000 doses of that rather than distributing them. 

One of his own Republican state legislators, Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, is in Vanderbilt Medical Center on a ventilator. Another, Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, was in intensive care with COVID-19 in August. Even those cases have apparently not moved Lee to take the pandemic seriously as he still hasn’t issued a statewide mask mandate: he’s left the decision to issue mask mandates to county mayors.

Would that Lee’s cold-heartedness only be applied to the pandemic, which would be bad enough, but no. 

Consider the following: 

  • Tennessee has $740 million in funding for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families with no plan to spend it and actually assist families in poverty. As Lee said in November, he’s “grateful to have a balance to use later.” 
  • Lee is also sitting on a $1.2 billion reserve colloquially known as the “rainy day fund,” but officially known as a revenue fluctuation reserve. That fund is slated to get another infusion of $250 million in June. 
  • On top of that, Lee is keeping an additional $3 billion in department reserves. That’s money that was budgeted but hasn’t been spent, so it has built up over time.

And tax collections, far from down in the pandemic, are running at a $500 million surplus. 

In short, Lee has built an impressive record of callousness in less than two years in office. Tennesseans are out of work, out of food and out of money. We are all the Tiny Tim – sick and hungry – to Lee’s Ebenezer Scrooge, unwilling to spend an amassed fortune to save us. But in this case, the money amassed comes from taxpayers: our money unspent while we suffer. 


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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.