An open letter to Tennessee’s State and Local Elected Leaders about The Covid-19 Response

Stand Up Nashville
5 min readApr 6, 2020
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While the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis requires bold action from leaders at the state and national level, local governments have a critical role in addressing the unique impacts of the pandemic on their communities.

Congress has taken some dramatic steps to get needed relief to workers, businesses and state and local governments. We urge the state to provide bold leadership on public health policies that will flatten the curve and provide resources to families and communities.

Local governments need to have every tool in the toolbox available in this critical time. Over the last decade, more and more state laws have been passed that restrict the freedom of local governments on a range of issues. These laws are now limiting the ability of local governments to address the ever changing needs of their communities in this state of emergency. This is especially true for those impacted by the tornadoes that ripped through middle Tennessee on March 3rd.

Restrictive laws that prohibit localities from requiring employers to provide paid sick days create disincentives for workers to follow the best practices of social distancing and other measures to flatten the curve. Community members who feel sick or are exhibiting symptoms are less likely to inform employers they are sick and stay home if they have no paid leave. The choice for many hardworking Tennesseans is either to risk their health and the health of others or face financial ruin, including the loss of their homes.

Local budgets are being decimated as sales tax revenues plummet, especially in counties reliant on Tennessee’s robust tourism industry. Many of these counties could be forced to choose between raising property taxes or laying off teachers, public health professionals, police officers, firefighters and other essential public employees. Current state laws prevent local governments from expanding the criteria for who is eligible for property tax freeze programs, making it impossible to provide temporary relief to those out of work from the COVID-19 response.

The public health of our communities requires that everyone be able to seek testing and treatment. Our health and well-being literally depends on the health of our neighbors. Immigrant communities have come to fear government agencies and places that are meant to keep them safe and may hesitate to access testing and treatment for fear of encountering immigration enforcement and being separated from their families. Punitive state laws threaten local governments whose health departments or other public agencies seek to reassure immigrant communities by instituting policies limiting inquiries into immigration status, increasing risks for everyone.

Finally, in an economic crisis, local governments can provide needed stability and stimulus and will continue spending on essential projects. Local governments could prioritize hiring out-of-work local residents to provide the most targeted relief, but state law currently prohibits that practice. Removing this prohibition would be especially powerful for Middle TN communities dealing with rebuilding after the tornadoes. Similarly, overly restrictive state laws on local zoning make it harder to maintain the character of neighborhoods as they rebuild and help people stay in their homes during the recession.

In light of this crisis, we are calling on Governor Bill Lee to use the emergency powers outlined in Tenn. Code Ann. § 58–2–107 to suspend the following provisions of overly restrictive state laws and delegate authority to local elected officials to take the necessary actions to meet the needs of their communities.

  1. Allow local governments to make sure all employees in their county have paid sick time so they don’t have to choose between public health and paying their bills (Tenn. Code Ann. § 7–51–1802)
  2. Allow local governments to expand the criteria for their property tax freeze program while they confront budget shortfalls caused by adherence to social distancing and the latest public health guidelines so they can protect people who have lost their jobs (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67–5–705)
  3. Ensure immigrant communities feel safe interacting with local health departments and other government agencies so local communities can keep all of their residents safe and healthy (Tenn. Code Ann. § 7–68–103)
  4. Allow local governments to prioritize the creation of employment opportunities for local residents on public projects (Tenn. Code Ann. § 12–4–117)
  5. Allow local governments to ensure the businesses they contract with are providing good wages that boost the local economy and provide economic stability to families during the economic downturn created by COVID-19 (Tenn. Code Ann. § 50–2–112)
  6. Allow local governments to make necessary laws to ensure that housing remains affordable and to incentivize/require building new affordable housing. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 66–35–102)

Furthermore, we urge the Governor to use executive powers to explicitly authorize local municipalities:

  1. To make necessary changes to voting rules, like automatic voter registration and voting by mail, to ensure that everyone can access our democracy in this time of crisis.
  2. To allow municipal courts to suspend eviction proceedings for the duration of this crisis. In addition, we ask that the Governor direct emergency funds towards rent and mortgage relief for impacted Tennesseans.
  3. To freeze utility shutoffs and evictions, thereby ensuring that every resident is, in reality, safer at home.

Finally, Governor Bill Lee should pledge his full support to local governments in their efforts to curb COVID-19 and support their local economies by pledging to veto any future legislative attempts to punish or preempt localities for making the decisions that are best for their communities.

Now more than ever, local leaders need the freedom to help working families with holistic solutions to this public health and economic crisis.

Signed,

Stand Up Nashville

Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition

The Equity Alliance

Memphis For All

Tennessee Justice Center

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 205

A Better Balance

Chattanooga Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO

Central Labor Council of Memphis and West TN, AFL-CIO

Central Labor Council of Nashville and Middle TN, AFL-CIO

Chattanooga in Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence (CALEB)

Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH)

Southeast Laborers’ District Council (LiUNA)

Workers Interfaith Network

Knoxville City Council Movement

Tennessee Equality Project

Tennessee Vote Revival Alliance

A VOICE for the Reduction of Poverty in Nashville and Beyond

Nashville Jewish Social Justice Roundtable

Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH)

International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 91

Welcome Home! The Movement for Affordable Housing

Showing Up for Racial Justice Nashville

Workers’ Dignity

Bedford County Listening Project

Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Nashville

United Campus Workers — Communications Workers of America Local 3865

Urban League of Middle Tennessee

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Stand Up Nashville

Stand Up Nashville is a coalition of community organizations and labor unions that represent the working people of Nashville who have seen our city transformed