Axios Nashville

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December 16, 2021

It's Thursday and it's time to read some news!

🌧 Today's weather: Storms and showers are possible throughout the day. A high of 69.

Today's newsletter is 910 words — a 3.5-minute read.

1 big thing: Prisons see overdoses increase

The stone sign outside Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville.
The sign outside Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, a state prison in Nashville. Photo: Adam Tamburin/Axios

Tennessee prisons have seen a spike in overdose deaths this year that mirrors trends across the state.

  • Officials say a growing amount of drugs laced with fentanyl could be driving the increase, which is spurring some changes behind bars.

Why it matters: At least 31 inmate deaths across nine facilities in 2021 have been classified as accidental and drug-related, according to state data shared last week with Axios.

  • That number is likely to increase as more inmate deaths are investigated and classified.
  • The Tennessee Department of Correction takes in more than $1.1 billion annually in state funding but has been criticized for mismanagement, understaffing, and safety concerns.

What they're saying: Former commissioner Tony Parker, who retired last month, recently told lawmakers that fighting drugs and rooting out contraband in prisons was a "never-ending battle."

By the numbers: A statewide report noted 1,842 incidents of drug selling, possession, or use in prisons during fiscal year 2021, up from 1,576 the previous year.

What's happening: Jim Casey, TDOC director of behavioral health services, tells Axios the department is taking steps to "try and attack this problem with a vengeance."

  • A new withdrawal management unit was established this year in West Tennessee to serve inmates who survive overdose events.
  • Last month, the department announced the arrival of new body scanners at every prison in an attempt to crack down on contraband. The department also publicizes arrests of officers and civilians suspected in contraband questions.

The other side: Faye Taxman, director of the Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence at George Mason University, tells Axios that prisons are not always equipped with all the tools needed to treat serious addictions.

  • "They have policies that oftentimes are counterproductive," Taxman said.
  • Taxman says prisons should offer medications such as methadone that can ease withdrawal symptoms. TDOC spokesperson Dorinda Carter said the department offers medication-assisted treatment.

2. Blackburn, Hagerty back bill to combat ALS

Sen. Marsha Blackburn and Sen. Bill Hagerty walk down a hall lined with U.S. flags.
Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty in February. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Tennessee Republican senators Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty signed on this week as cosponsors of the Accelerating Access to Critical Therapies (ACT) for ALS legislation.

  • The bill already cleared the House, but some Senate Republicans were waiting to see how the legislation fared in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Support from Blackburn and Hagerty is an indication it's on track to pass.

Why it matters: ACT for ALS carves out federal funding to research cures for the progressive disease that affects cells in the brain and spinal cord.

  • The legislation follows the same formula as the Operation Warp Speed effort to develop COVID-19 vaccines by cutting red tape and providing patients quicker access to experimental therapies.

What he's saying: For Hagerty, combating the disease is personal. He tells Axios that watching his father-in-law battle ALS was "difficult and emotional for our entire family."

  • Hagerty says his aim is to raise awareness for the disease, which impacts one in 300 people.
  • "This debilitating disease that leads to a loved one's inability to walk, talk, eat, and eventually breathe is traumatizing," he says.

What's next: With at least 62 cosponsors, ACT for ALS is on track for a Senate vote in 2022.

  • Blackburn tells Axios she believes the legislation will "bring hope to all Tennesseans who suffer from this devastating disease."

3. Poll: Lee's support slips

An exterior shot looking up at the Tennessee State Capitol
Tennessee State Capitol. Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP

A majority of Tennesseans still approve of Gov. Bill Lee but his support is slipping, according to a new poll of registered voters released this morning by Vanderbilt University.

  • The Vanderbilt Poll showed Lee with 55% approval, down 10 points from a similar poll in May.

The poll also found that Tennessee voters disapprove of most elements of the new state law limiting COVID-19 safety measures.

  • "Interestingly, members of both parties thought that this bill was a bad idea," Vanderbilt political science professor and poll co-director John Geer said in a statement. "It's a sign that the legislature, in this particular case, was out of touch with the broader public."

Meanwhile: 60% of respondents supported public hearings for the redistricting process, which is underway in Tennessee.

  • 35% of voters want to keep Nashville intact in one congressional district while 14% said they were against the idea.
  • 39% said they neither supported nor opposed keeping Nashville intact.

The big picture: President Biden has a 32% approval rating in Tennessee, according to the poll.

  • 44% said they'd like to see former President Trump run again in 2024, including 79% of Republicans.

The fine print: The poll surveyed 1,002 registered Tennessee voters Nov. 16-Dec. 6, with a margin of error of +/- 3.7 percentage points.

4. The Setlist

Illustration of a neon sign in the shape of an arrow reading "THE SETLIST."
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

🏎 Bristol Motor Speedway announced a community benefits agreement related to its proposed renovation of the fairgrounds racetrack. (The Tennessean)

♻️ Metro's first net-zero energy building opened. (WPLN)

🏥 Vanderbilt University Medical Center got state approval to open a new hospital in Rutherford County. (Tennessee Lookout)

5. Pork Report bashes Ford incentives

Gov. Bill Lee speaking in front of a giant blue Ford logo
Gov. Bill Lee speaks at the announcement of a new Ford plant in West Tennessee. Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP

Incentives for the new Ford plant and a marketing campaign to pay for tourists' flights to Tennessee were among the projects criticized in the annual Tennessee Pork Report released Wednesday by the Beacon Center.

  • The Pork Report singles out what the nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog Beacon Center believes are the worst government contracts and projects in Tennessee.

Driving the news: The winner of "Pork of the Year" for worst overall project was an $18 million no-bid contract by Metro Nashville Public Schools to Meharry Medical Ventures for COVID testing.

6. 1 photo to go

A large crane prepares to hoist a steeple onto a red brick church.
Photo courtesy of Councilmember Freddie O'Connell

Construction crews replaced the steeple on the Church of the Assumption in Germantown some 21 months after the building was damaged by the March 2020 tornado.

Our picks:

Nate is bummed Deshawn didn't win "Survivor," but mercy, what a final fire-making challenge!

📝 Adam is reuniting with his trivia team, which of course is named Trivia Newton John.