NASHVILLE – On the same day, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and executives from Ford Motor Co. announced last week’s agreement to set up a $ 5.6 billion electric vehicle plant in rural western Tennessee , Conservative opponents of school mask mandates and federal immunization requirements rallied at Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s hometown of Oak Ridge to pressure Lee and other Republicans to support their efforts .
The two COVID-19 issues are now garnering McNally’s support with Lee’s call for a special session for the GOP-dominated legislature to approve $ 500 million and other incentives that are part of the Ford deal.
McNally, the Speaker of the Senate, had previously resisted efforts by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Oak Ridge, to persuade Lee to hold a special legislative session to address COVID-19 mandates that are unpopular with the grassroots in the United States. GOP.
But as lawmakers returned to session on the Ford incentives on Oct. 18, McNally joined Sexton late last week in asking Lee for a second special session to address local school mask mandates and requirements. vaccines from employers imposed by President Joe Biden.
During the rally – posted on Facebook Live and reported by The Oak Ridger – an unidentified man urged the crowd of more than 100 protesters to pressure Lee, McNally, Senate GOP caucus chair Ken Yager, R -Kingston and Senator Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, to support a special session on COVID-19.
“Lt. Gov. McNally, we love you. We appreciate you, but do your job,” said the man, who from previous remarks appeared to be from neighboring Roane County. “Sen. Yager, we love you. We appreciate the years you have been doing this. Do your job. There is no more room to remain silent at this point, to side with Joe Biden.”
When asked if the rally in his hometown helped McNally come to terms with Sexton’s pressure for a special COVID-19 session, McNally’s spokesman Adam Kleinheider said the lieutenant governor “appreciates and always encourages its constituents to voice their concerns through the First Amendment.
“While he does not believe that a special session is necessary, he has heard from many senators and constituents who believe otherwise. Ultimately, Lieutenant Governor McNally did not believe that the General Assembly could in any case conscience return to Nashville to approve a multi-million dollar deal with Ford without addressing other concerns voiced by senators and voters throughout the summer. That’s why he’s working with President Sexton on a call for a additional extraordinary session. “
Lee has so far disagreed, leaving the two speakers to pursue a more difficult path to a separate special session, involving lawmakers meeting in session via collecting signatures from members.
Lee’s efforts to act alone on mask warrants – such as an executive order saying parents can remove their children from any local mask requirements – have run into obstacles. Judges in three parts of the state blocked his order, over the rights of families whose children with disabilities are more likely to spread COVID-19.
Lee’s press secretary Casey Black had little to say about the Oak Ridge rally other than noting that it took place last week.
” Is there something new ? ” she asked.
When asked Thursday at an event in Dickson if he would be prepared to consider pandemic issues in his appeal to the special session, the governor said no.
“This call is limited to Ford,” Lee said. “As far as masks go, you know, I’ve been very clear like I said a minute ago, I’m disappointed with the federal decisions. But we’ll address this issue by defending state law, the law that I created by decree was that parents should have the option there. ”
Lee added that “we will work with the attorney general to appeal the decisions of the two judges, this is the best way forward on the mask issue.”
As for the federal vaccine requirement for large employers, Lee said, “We don’t have a clear definition of President Biden’s order yet. But we’re going to oppose that order because I don’t think it is a good idea to force companies to tax vaccines. So we will oppose that order when it comes, and the attorney general has already said that, and we will support it. “
The federal requirement for vaccines or weekly tests for employees applies to companies with more than 100 workers. Among them are the Y-12 National Security Complex and the Oak Ridge National Laboratories, which employ thousands of people.
Efforts to reach Senator Bo Watson, R-Hixson, an ally of McNally, failed on Monday.
Briggs, who is traveling to Europe, said in a telephone interview Monday that he was unaware of the ongoing unrest in Tennessee.
“Can we overturn federal judges’ orders?” Briggs asked in an interview with The Times Free Press. “They talk about employer mandates. Can we order the US military not to impose vaccines on active duty soldiers? I don’t think we can. I don’t think the Tennessee legislature can overrule them. federal judges.
“And I don’t think the secretary of the military or the secretary of defense will say, ‘well, I guess we can’t do it for the military. “”
Briggs, a doctor, said: “I’m fine if they want to do a special session,” adding that he has been saying since March 2020 that he doesn’t think vaccines should be mandated by the government because there are too many resistance.
But he questioned Tennessee’s ability to dictate employment policies to a foreign company or bypass the federal government if it says hospital workers need to be vaccinated or the hospital will no longer be able to. participate in the Medicare program – “which basically means they’ll have to shut down,” he said.
Briggs said he didn’t see how the Erlanger Health System in Chattanooga, Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville and UT Medical Center in Memphis could just say “OK, we’re going to have to shut down.” [the] doors.’ I don’t think we can do that. “
When it comes to school boards and county health departments issuing mask warrants, Briggs made a distinction. School boards are elected, he noted. Health services are appointed.
Still, Briggs said: “I don’t even think I can comment because it’s too much from a legal point of view. I’m not a lawyer. Even though I was a lawyer, I don’t think you could. understand because some of these things they do, school boards all have legal counsel.
But that would ultimately be determined by the courts.
“And that’s because the judges don’t agree, that’s why we have judges in the courts,” he said.
Contact Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @ AndySher1.