As Tennessee Lawmakers Begin Special Session to Fight COVID-19 Mandates, Governor Lee Says He Is Making “No Recommendations”


NASHVILLE – While his Republican counterparts continued to table bills in the General Assembly ahead of Wednesday’s special session to combat local and state COVID-19 mandates – including attempting to prevent the use of vaccine “passports” – the governor of Tennessee, Bill Lee, part of his Tuesday 140 miles away in Chattanooga.

“I’m not making recommendations,” said Lee, who had previously turned down requests from Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Republican Senate Speaker Randy McNally to call the legislature to the special session.

The speakers wanted Lee to convene the special session, which will discuss COVID-19 mandates imposed by local government, school authorities and businesses for the governor to articulate the issues. Instead, lawmakers had to go through the rare process of calling themselves to the meeting.

“I think I made my focus and effort quite clear,” said Lee, who attended the Chattanooga area leaders’ prayer breakfast. “We will defend ourselves against the federal mandates because I think they are not good for our state, they are not good for the people. But we will see what the legislature does.”

The governor’s failure to convene the special session himself – it was convened when all House and Senate Republicans signed to set it up – has quietly frustrated some legislative leaders.

Kent Syler, a professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University, said special sessions of this kind are “a really high risk.”

“It’s certainly designed to play on the Republican base, the most conservative part of the Conservative base. And the timing probably has a lot to do with Republican primary politics,” Syler said.

“Governor Lee has been in a pretty difficult position on the COVID issue for several months, trying not to upset the most conservative part of the Republican base while effectively fighting COVID,” said Syler of the governor, who is up for re-election in 2022. “He doesn’t want a challenge from the right either, so it’s really a certain political risk for him. The whole thing is internal republican politics.”

After Lee Sexton’s and McNally’s motion were denied, the speakers initiated a seldom used process – it was only successfully carried out twice in Tennessee history – and got all members of the House and Senate of the GOP super majority to convene a special session . They easily met the two-thirds requirement for such a call.

These efforts were greatly aided by a bill passed earlier this year by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain. Instead of requiring lawmakers to come to the Nashville State Capitol to sign a piece of paper, it envisioned electronic signatures. The House has made extensive use of the change.

“I think the legislature, we take our full responsibility very seriously,” said Hazlewood in a telephone interview. “That doesn’t mean that we contradict the administration or the judiciary.”

Hazlewood said the legislature was on an equal footing with the governor and the judiciary.

“I think some are about creating that level of equality or making sure that equality is there,” she said.

House Republicans have tabled at least 29 bills, while Senate GOP members have tabled six to date.

The list of bills allows local school authorities to require students to wear masks and puts the state’s six independent health departments under the authority of the district mayor.

There are other bills out there aimed at penalizing companies and employers who require their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or who feel they must comply with the rule proposed by the Biden government requiring larger companies to do so that their employees are vaccinated or tested weekly.

Several bills create legal causes of action for aggrieved employees because of the mandates and set off an alarm in the business community of Tennessee.

A bill bans public K-12 schools and public universities from conducting contact tracing and keeping asymptomatic individuals potentially exposed to the potentially fatal virus out of school.

When asked about the governor’s refusal to convene lawmakers to a special session, Laine Arnold, Lee’s chief communications officer, referred to the governor’s recent comments: alive. “

Former Tennessee Supreme Court William Koch, a Republican, said he had followed the news reports of some of the GOP lawmakers’ deliberations but saw none of the actual bills.

Koch pointed to a source of Republican excitement: Three federal judges in Tennessee have blocked Lee’s executive order that allows parents to override the local school district’s mask requirement for their children. Parents and advocates of disability have sued stopping Lee’s action, saying his order makes their children unsafe in schools.

“I think the idea that a state legislature can somehow block a federal court is nonsense,” Koch, president and dean of the Nashville School of Law, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “It’s something that just can’t be done.”

The efforts of the states to block federal measures on vaccination regulations are also problematic, Koch noted.

“In our federal system we have the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution, which basically says that if a federal law is inconsistent with a federal law, the federal law wins,” said Koch. “Period.”

Efforts to “nullify” federal measures will be a “legal non-starter,” said Koch.

Regarding Lee’s efforts not to get dragged into the fellow Republicans’ COVID-19 session, MTSU’s Syler pointed out something he found while researching the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Albert Gore Sr., D-Tenn. It failed in Congress in 1955, and efforts were made to win President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“The special session might be necessary – but the convocation could be at the expense of the mind of a man named Eisenhower,” Eisenhower wrote.

There was no special session and the transformative law was passed during the regular session the following year.

Contact Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @ AndySher1.

Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or at 423-757-6340.

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