Gov. Bill Lee ending his third State of the State address on Feb. 8, 2021. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Gov. Bill Lee is standing behind his administration’s decision to sign hundreds of sole-source contracts over the last year and a half even though many of them didn’t have anything to do with the COVID-19 state of emergency.
The governor’s Unified Command Group, made up of the Department of Health, Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and Department of Safety and Homeland Security, inked contracts and spending agreements totaling $742 million from March 2020 through May 2021. It hasn’t spent all of that money yet.
Gov. Lee defended those practices this week, when asked if his administration would be amending protocol in light of several questionable contracts.
“As you know, we’re not utilizing sole-source contracts anymore, so changes have been made. And we were in a period of time where, if you recall, for example, let’s bring up ventilators. As an example, the country and our TEMA office was desperate to find ventilators because of the shortages. Going through a three-bid procurement process would have meant that we got no ventilators. So it was the right decision, absolutely the right decision at the time to single-source supplies that we needed to save the lives of Tennesseans going forward. And when that was not needed, then we did away with that approach,” Lee said.
Yet during the same time frame, the Department of Education entered more than 760 no-bid contracts totaling an estimated $1 billion from March 2020 through May 2021, according to information from the state’s Fiscal Review staff.
Few, if any, of those involved ventilators or personal protection equipment such as cattle breeding gloves, which were part of a $26 million deal the state signed with a Utah-based company that had no experience handling PPE or COVID-19 test kits when Tennessee was desperate.
Nevertheless, the governor stood his ground.
“Single-source contracts at that time was absolutely the right thing to do, and then we moved away from that when it was no longer necessary,” he said in response to questions from Tennessee Lookout.
When the governor says “we’re not utilizing sole-source contracts anymore,” though, he’s not talking about every state agency.
The Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee approved several sole-source contracts this week, including a request by the TennCare division to work with a company that tracks inmates to make sure they’re removed from the state’s health-care program when they go to prison or jail.
In this case, no other company provides that type of tracking service, according to Zane Seals, chief financial officer for TennCare.
The agency also got approval for sole-source contracts dealing with enrollees who have disabilities and a vendor who keeps up with pharmacy technology, which is in constant flux.
TennCare looked “far and wide” to find another vendor who could track pharmaceuticals but was unable, Seals said, as lawmakers queried him about every contract.
At least now the Fiscal Review Committee is making every agency explain why they’re signing no-bid deals, in addition to asking why contract cost increases are approved with hardly a second look.
Democratic Sen. Heidi Campbell is hammering the Lee Administration for approving several odd contracts, such as the one with Nomi Health of Utah, which shipped all sorts of shoddy PPE and test kits to Tennessee and then forced the state to pay $6 million for services rendered and equipment, including those animal breeding gloves. She also reminded folks about the $8 million sock masks contract the state signed with Renfro Corp. at the start of the pandemic, masks that didn’t meet federal guidelines and also had a pesticide sprayed on them to stop foot odor. (Incidentally, I could probably use some of that on my own socks, but not on my masks.)
Where is all this leading? Gov. Lee says Unified Command isn’t taking those no-bid contracts anymore. Then again, he also says the crisis is over as the Delta variant starts kicking us in the teeth.
With all of the hoopla over mask mandates, Tennessee could use a visit from Mick and the boys, an emotional rescue with a “knight in shining armor riding across the desert on a fine Arab charger.”
Don’t confuse Sen. Todd Gardenhire with the Rolling Stones’ frontman, but he’s still got some bite. The Chattanooga Republican who co-chairs the Fiscal Review Committee is trying to rein in sole-source contracts, potentially bringing legislation in 2022 to change policy in the Emergency Powers Act.
And when it comes to this song, Gardenhire is likely to sing, “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.”
Redistricting brouhaha begins
The U.S. Census Bureau released information Thursday the General Assembly will use to redraw state legislative and congressional districts in advance of the 2022 elections.
It’s going to be a six-month fight at least.
Republicans who control the Tennessee Legislature will be in charge of the process, leaving Democrats to raise hell. Democrats already are asking for a more “transparent” redistricting with public hearings across the state and a committee to take input before putting together the districts.
That’s crazy talk? This is no time for bipartisan work. Everyone knows that’s left to the session when nearly every vote of consequence goes 73-26 in the House and 27-6 in the Senate. Incidentally, that’s the Republican-Democrat split.
But being the cordial Republican who remains above the fray, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally is committed to an “open and transparent” redistricting process.
“Public input is a critical part of that. The Republican-led redistricting process ten years ago solicited public input. That precedent will continue this year,” McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider said. “All legislators, as well as members of the general public, will have an opportunity to provide input and submit a plan. Lt. Gov. McNally encourages that input and looks forward to the Legislature creating a fair and legal plan based on the census numbers provided to us.”
We were wondering if he could work an “arc of redemption” in there somewhere. (Referring to McNally’s recent comments about Nathan Bedford Forrest and removal of his bust from the State Capitol.)
House and Senate Republicans won’t start redrawing the district for a few weeks. They will be affected by the numbers showing slight growth in Shelby County and 5 to 9.9% growth in adjacent Haywood County while the rest of West Tennessee is seeing less than 5% growth or losing population.
In contrast, Davidson County grew between 10 and 20% over the last decade, while surrounding counties, Sumner, Wilson, Rutherford, Williamson and Maury, plus Montgomery, saw growth of 20% or more.
That means seats in West Tennessee are going to disappear and Middle Tennessee is going to gain more voices in the Legislature.
At this point, don’t expect a huge change in the makeup of the General Assembly. Republicans will remain in control until they eat their young.
But Democrats are threatening lawsuits. They contend Republicans will gerrymander the districts out of fears the population is “getting younger and more diverse,” both of which could be problems for the GOP.
In addition, they point out 33% of Tennesseans vote Democrat in presidential elections yet only 18% of Senate seats are held by Democrats and only 26% of House seats. They claim Republicans will continue to gerrymander so they can maintain their supermajority.
Republicans have often said what is good for the old grey goose is good for the gander (Vodka doesn’t reek). Democrats did the same thing to them when they controlled the Legislature.
With that in mind, legal action is likely to be filed as soon as the new maps are approved next January.
(Dang it, I almost forgot to mention Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper’s 5th District seat could be split into pieces, but only if Republicans want to piss off Republican Congressman Mark Green and potentially pave the way for others, maybe former House Speaker Beth Harwell?)
Are you ready?
One of my colleagues this week raised the question: Are legislators addicted to special sessions? The answer: Yes.
In the last few years, they’ve had more special sessions than regular sessions. You can’t sling a dead cat without hitting a special session around these parts. (Sorry about that, cat lovers.)
The other question is whether Gov. Lee will go along with the push by House Speaker Cameron Sexton and House Republicans to come down on school boards and health departments for requiring students to wear masks. He might still be smarting from Sexton’s move to hijack the recent press conference on poor student test scores.
Instead of giving the governor a chance to lament the poor performance caused by students’ time away from schools and in virtual classes, Sexton decided to jump in and spar with NewsChannel5 reporter Phil Williams over COVID-19 policies and masks.
“Let me chime in,” Sexton said as he stepped to the podium to grapple with Williams, clearly getting agitated with the reporter’s questions.
Republicans also have some tough questions to parse before they get in too deep.
Sure, it will be easy to hammer the Shelby County Health Department for requiring masks in public and private schools. But are they willing to hit rural school boards in Hancock and Henry counties for approving mask mandates? Hamilton County also joined Metro Nashville Public Schools in requiring masks in buildings and on buses, and the Johnson City Board of Education was on the verge of doing the same Thursday.
And what about Williamson County School Board, which approved a mandate as people went ape sh—inside and outside the building.
Possibly the bigger problem, though, is dealing with what some are calling vaccine passports. Are Republicans willing to go against everything they’ve ever said they stood for and tell private companies they can’t require people to get the COVID-19 vaccination?
A move to kill the Tyson Chicken worker vaccine mandate would face an immediate lawsuit from the chicken packager. And didn’t Gov. Lee just cut the ribbon on a new Tyson plant in West Tennessee?
Republicans also welcomed former VP Mike Pence to the Tyson factory in Goodlettsville a year or so ago. Tyson is clearly on the Republican bandwagon. But are Republicans ready to ride with Tyson?
This alone could spell trouble for a special session.
Not exactly the Declaration of Independence
All 73 members of the House Republican Caucus signed Speaker Sexton’s letter to the governor this week seeking a special session.
Some were chomping at the bit. Word has it some of them held out until the last few minutes before relenting.
More than likely, the recalcitrant will be safe in Republican strongholds. Yet they’ll have to explain the resulting votes – if any – before the next election.
Biden weighs in
Not that anyone other than 33% of Tennesseans care what President Joe Biden says, but he did stand up for health-care folks who were threatened this week at the Williamson County School Board meeting where masks were mandated for students.
“Our health-care workers are heroes. They were the heroes when there were no vaccines,” Biden reportedly said.
Unfortunately, one of the anti-maskers worked in the health-care field, which might lead some to say, “We don’t need another hero.”
Gov. Lee is facing an uphill climb in the effort to quell the pandemic and encourage people to get vaccinated, possibly because of mixed messages.
The conspiracy theory mill, which is well-oiled in the Internet age, is circulating a batch of ideas about Lee’s recent executive order enabling the National Guard to continue working on vaccinations, according to the Tennessee Journal.
Consequently, the governor’s legislative liaison, Brent Easley, was forced to send a letter to lawmakers Thursday debunking several items, such as the notion the order creates “quarantine camps” where National Guardsmen would take unvaccinated people to get shots, that the executive order is “laying the groundwork for permanent lockdowns” and that livestock are being injected with COVID-19 shots to vaccinate people.
Easley calls all of those “demonstrably false.”
People have a lot to worry about these days, such as high lumber prices, troubled children and meth. The bigger worry is why Easley had to send out this memo. Good Lord.
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