NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) - Tennessee lawmakers passed a budget Thursday night that sets aside money to combat the effects of the coronavirus outbreak and adds 350 million to the state’s emergency fund.
“We have done what I believe is in the best interest of every Tennessean,” Governor Bill Lee said at a Friday morning news conference.
“We don’t know what lies ahead. But we do know that we have a responsibility to prepare for what lies ahead,” he said.
Lee thanked lawmakers for passing his amended budget, which cuts money for programs that lawmakers had hoped to include, and instead moves 150 million to an emergency health and safety response fund.
Lee said he hopes the federal government will give the state clearance to use Medicaid expansion dollars to pay for health care for uninsured Tennesseans who become ill from the coronavirus.
Democrats who have pushed unsuccessfully for Medicaid expansion for low-income Tennesseans said this is a good start.
“We will encourage him doing so but I think we will inevitably need to draw down every Medicaid resource we can to keep people safe and treat them during this time,” said Senator Jeff Yarbro.
Lee did not know any specifics on the timing for possibly reopening 13 rural hospitals in the state that have closed in recent years. An executive order signed Thursday will ease regulations so that more beds can open and more health care professionals can practice.
Lawmakers shared personal stories about how the virus is affecting their families.
“My son is 8 years old. And it breaks my heart that he prays every night that he’ll be protected from the coronavirus. Words that he never should have even known existed,” said Rep. William Lambreth.
Pray - Governor Lee said - but he had strong words for churches planning to hold services in spite of the CDS’s warnings.
“Churches that continue to meet and gather with elderly and putting groups of people in the same setting- quite frankly - they are risking peoples lives,” Lee said.
Governor Lee was asked about mandating closures of business and social gatherings. He said the state needs to keep businesses open as long as they operate in accordance with social distancing requirements and follow CDC guidelines. He mentioned that his own daughter lost her job when a restaurant closed. Though she has resources to fall back on, he said, she shared her concerns about two of her coworkers who aren’t as fortunate.
“A married couple who have four children - and the day that restaurant closed, they both lost their jobs,” Governor Lee said.
The governor is now easing rules that will make it easier and faster to apply for unemployment benefits, and the state plans to triple its staff to handle new claims.