As the Tennessee legislature prepares for the special session to reduce COVID-19 restrictions, Republican lawmakers want a wide range of goals to be met.
Among the nearly 100 bills tabled Wednesday afternoon, some seek punitive measures against companies with mask or vaccine mandates, while others aim to ban mask warrants in schools.
But the most likely to come true are eight initiatives championed by Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge. Rarely do bills sponsor themselves, leadership support for these measures underscores legislative priorities between the two chambers.
“The Senate and its committee process will determine the priorities of the Senate,” McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider said. âThe bills that Lieutenant Governor McNally sponsored are the product of his collaboration with President Sexton. He hopes the bills will be a constructive part of this week’s deliberations.
The actions taken by both Sexton and McNally would dilute the power of school boards, district attorneys, private companies, local health workers and the governor over COVID-19 restrictions.
They would ban private entities from requiring proof of vaccination, allow those quitting their jobs due to a COVID-19 vaccine requirement to receive unemployment benefits, reduce the duration of a state of emergency declared by governor, dilute the authority of local health services, make school board elections partisan, and fine or replace district attorneys who refuse to apply state law.
The session – the third special session of this calendar year and only the third special session called by the legislature itself in Tennessee history – took place after Governor Bill Lee resisted calling one himself in August. Conservative groups, who argue that the mask and vaccine mandates infringe their freedom, have pushed for legislative action.
The session is taking place in a state that has resisted the coronavirus worse than most and is only now recovering from one of the most severe delta surges in the country. Tennessee recorded the second highest number of infections per capita of any U.S. state during the duration of the pandemic, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitals have been pushed to the brink of overflow twice. The virus has killed or contributed to the deaths of more than 16,240 people in the state.
While the worst of the delta wave seems to be over, the state remains vulnerable to the vagaries of the next variant. Less than half of Tennessee residents are fully vaccinated – the eighth lowest rate of any U.S. state – and the pace of new vaccinations has plummeted in the past two months.
The efforts of conservative Tennessee lawmakers, some of whom have publicly discouraged or questioned the need for vaccination, are being criticized by medical professionals, business owners and religious leaders.
âThe COVID-19 disinformation epidemic has severely infected our state, and it appears our elected leaders just want to invite more disinformation into Tennessee,â said Nashville physician Dr. Amy Gordon Bono. “I am worried that the legislative prosecution will only be one step in the development of more deadly and scientifically false information.”
Jim Brown, Tennessee director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, warned lawmakers that additional business regulations could weigh on the industry. The group opposes all bills that “would create new causes of action against Tennessee employers,” he said.
âThe last thing businesses need right now is the added cost and distraction from unnecessary legal actions,â Brown said in a letter to the General Assembly Wednesday. “The legislature should consider legislation to help them recover, not to hinder their very survival.”
Organized by the Statewide African American Clergy Initiatve, around 30 people gathered on Wednesday afternoon for a prayer vigil at Church Street Park to protest the legislative session.
âI pray for every superintendent who argues, fights and debates for the right of children to wear masks in class,â said Reverend Reginald Boyce, president of the Tennessee Baptist Missionary and Educational Congress. “I pray that we do not bow down. I pray to God that we fight for this generation to continue.”
Initiatives supported by leaders
Among the measures co-sponsored by the two speakers in the legislature is a which would prohibit private companies from requiring proof of vaccination – a regulatory measure that could spark strong protests from the business community.
The law project, HB9078 / SB9015, would also prohibit employers from “taking adverse action” or refusing a job seeker because they refuse to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination.
Another measure, HB9077 / SB9014, would allow those who quit their jobs due to COVID-19 vaccine requirements to receive unemployment benefits.
The proposed business regulations represent a very different position among Republican leaders than they did earlier this year when they showed little interest by restricting the ability of companies to impose masks or vaccines.
Two other bills would punish district attorneys who refuse to apply state law by allowing the attorney general to seek fines against them or by allowing courts to replace them with a designated attorney. The measure would directly affect Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk, who has announced he will not prosecute teachers who need masks.
HB9072 / SB9009, worn by both speakers, would make the school board elections partisan – a move echoed by other Tory lawmakers amid heated debates across the state over school mask mandates.
Another measure limit the governor’s emergency power by reducing the duration of the state of emergency from 60 to 45 days. Similar initiatives restricting the governor’s emergency authority surfaced in the regular session earlier this year, but none were passed.
Under HB9076 / SB9013, the governor would have exclusive power to issue orders, and county health departments must receive direction from the governor during a pandemic. The state health commissioner would be responsible for appointing local health workers with the approval of county mayors.
Sexton also sponsored Joint House Resolution 9005, which targets President Joe Biden’s executive order requiring vaccines or weekly testing for companies with more than 100 employees. The resolution would condemn the “unconstitutional” federal order and seek to “overturn” federal rules.
The Tennessee legislature is unlikely to be able to do anything concrete to prevent the federal rules from coming into effect.
“The General Assembly cannot pass any state law that would make what President Biden has done more unconstitutional,” Kleinheider said previously.
Journalist Liam Adams contributed reporting.
Want to read more stories like this? A subscription to one of our Tennessee Publications gives you unlimited access to all the latest political news, podcasts like Grand Divisions, as well as newsletters, a personalized mobile experience and the ability to tap into stories, photos and videos from all the daily sites in the USA TODAY Network .