House Republican Caucus leadership, from left: House Majority Leader William Lamberth, Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison, Assistant Majority Leader Ron Gant, and Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton. (Photo: John Partipilo)
House Speaker Cameron Sexton sent the governor a letter Wednesday seeking a special session to deal with “misdirected and mandated responses” to the COVID-19 pandemic by local entities and officials.
“It is of the utmost urgency to move quickly due to the potential of significant harm to Tennesseans,” the letter says.
The letter doesn’t call for vouchers that parents could use to enroll their children in private schools if school districts shut down buildings or require masks. But it does note the roles of local health departments in setting policy to handle the virus.
“We believe there is a need to curtail the overreach by independent health boards and officials, confirm a parent’s right to make decisions that impact the mental and physical health of their children, provide support and direction to schools to ensure educators are properly compensated for COVID-19 leave, and protect all Tennesseans from misdirected mandates to limit their ability to make their own decisions,” the letter says.
The House Speaker’s letter is signed by all 73 Republican Caucus members.
It is unclear how the governor will respond, though he supports parental choice on student masks and said this week everything is “on the table.” A spokesperson for the governor said Lee is reviewing the request.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie disagreed Wednesday with the request for a special session, saying the Legislature instead should be focusing on how to return children to school safely.
“I think it was expected. It was a surprise that all 73 signed it. It sounds like there was some real arm-twisting going on there at the end,” said Dixie, a Nashville Democrat. “It’s frustrating that common sense is failing us right now.”
The supermajority is choosing to “play political games instead of realizing we’re dealing with people’s lives,” Dixie said. “It’s disheartening. They have failed the people of Tennessee.”
The signatures are designed to show support for calling a special session and are not a vote to hold an extraordinary session of the General Assembly. Under state law, a special session can be called by the governor or by a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the House and Senate.
The letter contends the state’s six independent health boards and unelected officials “have made and will continue to make decisions that stifle access to educational opportunities for our children and infringe on their freedoms and liberty.” It says some mandates have come with “threats of reckless endangerment, school closure and segregating students based on vaccination status.”
The letter did not give details about those types of threats.
“We believe there is much debate and action needed around the appropriate balance of parents’ right to make healthcare decisions for their children and the government’s ability to mandate healthcare decisions upon them,” the letter says.
In addition to the debate on mask mandates, the letter says the Legislature also needs to evaluate “ongoing discrimination of Tennesseans by prohibiting their access to buildings due only to their vaccination status.”
Some lawmakers could push for legislation to stop companies such as Tyson Chicken from requiring employees to be vaccinated. Such a move could split Republicans.
The Senate is not heavily involved in this request for a special session, though several of its members are concerned about the mandates for masks by Tennessee school boards.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally maintained his stance that elected school boards and private schools “know best” how to run operations amid the pandemic to keep students healthy and in the classroom.
“Amid all the controversy regarding masks, vaccine passports and the like, we appear to have lost sight of the one thing that truly matters: keeping children in the classroom so they can learn,” McNally said in a statement. “Test scores have proven that this pandemic has eroded our progress and threatens the very future of our children and grandchildren.”
If a special session is called, McNally said he would work with Gov. Lee, Sexton and the Legislature to focus on the fact that children do best in the classroom, but only if they remain healthy.
State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said her group “cannot support a special session where the controlling party is only concerned with punishing private business owners and school districts for exercising medically appropriate precautions to keep people safe.”
With 13,000 people dying from COVID and medical experts urging masks and vaccinations, the Legislature should avoid “playing politics,” she said. A special session should deal with affordable health care through Medicaid expansion, the Memphis Democrat said.
House Reps. Ron Gant, Jason Zachary and Rush Bricken, members of the Fiscal Review Committee, said Wednesday they signed the letter and support a special session.
“I think everything like that needs to be aired. There’s enough citizens that want some clarity on this, so that’s what a public body does,” said Bricken, a Tullahoma Republican, noting when a “significant” public controversy arises, it can be resolved with legislation.
Whether it involves mask mandates or vaccine requirements, Bricken said the state needs “consistent public policy.”
Amid a report on low student test scores, Sexton last week said he would ask the governor to call a special session if any school district closes buildings, requires masks or segregates students based on vaccinations. He also said he would seek legislation allowing vouchers to be given to parents in districts that shut down buildings.
But the letter going to the governor says only that the special session is being requested to discuss COVID-related mandates, not any type of legislation dealing with vouchers.
Shelby County Health Department created a firestorm of controversy when it announced a universal mask requirement for all public and private schools in the county, apparently overriding mask policies set by municipal school systems outside of Memphis.
Legislators from Shelby County have been split by party over the matter, with Republicans supporting a call for the special session to deal with health department authority. The Legislature shifted authority from health department’s to county mayors in the 2021 regular session, but the Shelby County Health Department found a way to sidestep that new law.
Metro Nashville Public Schools, Hancock County Schools Williamson County Schools and Henry County Schools also adopted mask mandates for students, but those were done by school board votes. Gov. Bill Lee has said local boards should be the body making those decisions, though he acknowledged the Shelby County Health Department did not break the law.
Irate residents disrupted the Williamson County School Board at its Tuesday meeting, and some anti-mask residents threatened people who supported a mask requirement outside the board’s office, requiring sheriff’s deputies to separate them.
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