Lieutenant governor continues to oppose COVID-issue special session

By: - September 15, 2021 3:55 pm
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, photographed at the Tennessee Capitol on March 18, 2020 by John Partipilo.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, photographed at the Tennessee Capitol on March 18, 2020 by John Partipilo.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally is staving off requests for a special session by conservative senators who believe the Legislature should react to what they consider government “overreach.”

In response to letters by at least four senators, a McNally spokesman issued a statement Wednesday saying the lieutenant governor’s position hasn’t changed and that he doesn’t see “an urgent need” for a special session, the Tennessee Journal reported.

“President Biden’s unconstitutional executive order does not change that,” said spokesman Adam Kleinheider, referring to the president’s vaccine mandate. “The General Assembly cannot pass any state law that would make what President Biden has done any more unconstitutional. It is already the height of federal overreach.”

Nevertheless, McNally could urge Attorney General Herbert Slatery to file a legal protest against President Biden’s order, which would force companies with more than 100 employees to require worker vaccines or weekly proof of negative COVID-19 tests.

“As soon as Biden’s actual rules and regulations have been adopted, our attorney general, in conjunction with other states attorneys general, can challenge this order in the courts, the arena where this issue will ultimately be decided,” Kleinheider said in a statement.

Republican Rep. Bud Hulsey of East Tennessee said earlier this week he is writing a letter to Slatery urging the Attorney General’s Office to file suit against the federal government to stop the vaccine mandate from taking place in Tennessee. 

The General Assembly cannot pass any state law that would make what President Biden has done any more unconstitutional.

– Adam Kleinheider, spokesman for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally on a special legislative session

Hulsey broached the idea of a special session, but House Speaker Cameron Sexton has already requested the governor to call the Legislature into session to deal with COVID-19 issues.

Kleinheider reiterated McNally’s position after Republican Sens. Kerry Roberts, Mike Bell, Dawn White and Paul Rose wrote letters asking him to seek a special session from the governor. McNally opposed the call for a special session in August when Sexton sought one to deal with school districts that close buildings, mandate masks or segregate unvaccinated students.

Gov. Bill Lee responded with a compromise in which he issued an executive order giving parents the ability to opt out of school district mask mandates.

The chorus for a special session began to grow, though, when Biden issued his order last week, which also seeks to increase the number of vaccinated teachers and school staff. 

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville (Photo: John Partipilo)

Bell, a Riceville Republican, wrote a letter Tuesday to McNally requesting the Legislature be called back into session “to protect Tennesseans’ constitutional rights from an overreaching federal government.”

“Our state and nation are in very troubling times. The recent unconstitutional mandates coming out of Washington have caused great concern from citizens across the 9th Senatorial District and they are looking to their elected officials to take action to oppose this inappropriate federal overreach,” Bell said in his letter. He noted he shares those concerns about the “abuse of power” and threats to “personal liberties.”

Bell, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and is considered a Senate leader, pointed out that even though the General Assembly banned vaccine passports this year, residents in his southeast Tennessee district are worried the federal mandate will “override” their decisions on whether to take the vaccine, forcing them to choose between workplace-mandated vaccines and providing for their families.

“This type of tyranny bluntly contradicts the U.S. constitutional principle of federalism and must not go unchecked,” he wrote.

Bell pointed out the argument will likely be decided in courts but said he wants the Legislature to be able to take steps to protect the public’s constitutional rights and to give parents a “voice” in students’ education “during this critical time.”

White, a Murfreesboro Republican, said she has heard concerns from numerous constituents in Rutherford County about “unconstitutional and inappropriate mandates” announced by the federal government.

Others have questioned decisions by local governments that have kept students out of school for long periods or diminished parents’ control over their children’s education and healthcare decisions, she wrote.

“While the General Assembly has previously taken action to prohibit government entities within our state from implementing vaccine passports, last week’s actions by President Biden clearly demonstrate a lack of regard for personal liberty and longstanding constitutional principles,” White wrote in her letter requesting McNally seek a special session.

Roberts, a Springfield Republican, issued a letter obtained by the Tennessee Journal asking for a session in which the Legislature could deal with mask mandates in schools and public buildings; recognize acquired immunity or immunity from monoclonal antibodies as satisfying vaccine requirements; Stop venues that receive government funds such as Bridgestone Arena from putting COVID-19 restrictions in place; put independent health departments such as Davidson and Shelby under General Assembly oversight; challenge Biden’s vaccine mandate; and require state of emergency executive orders longer than 90 days to be reviewed by the Government Operations Committee.

Democratic reaction: “The priority in Tennessee right now should be getting folks vaccinated to halt the rampant spread of virus and deaths,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville on Wednesday.

Rose, a Covington Republican, also sent out a tweet saying “federal overreach” and “aggressive mandates” infringe on the public’s constitutional rights.

“We in the Senate need to fully engage to ensure our rights are safeguarded. I have supported for some time now, and will continue to staunchly support a special session,” he said in the tweet.

In his letter to McNally, Rose said he has received numerous requests from West Tennessee constituents for a special session to deal with “overreach” of the Shelby County Health Department. The department, which operates independently from the state, issued a mandate that was supported by Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris for students in all schools to wear masks, in accordancec with U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines and American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, photographed at the Tennessee Capitol by John Partipilo on March 18, 2021.
Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis (Photo: John Partipilo)

The requests came even though Tennessee leads the nation in COVID-19 cases, as student numbers ramp up because of the Delta variant.

Senate Majority Leader Jeff Yarbro argued that Tennessee’s COVID-19 response doesn’t need “more partisan politics.”

“The priority in Tennessee right now should be getting folks vaccinated to halt the rampant spread of virus and deaths,” Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, said Wednesday. “Anything that distracts from that goal – or worse, undermines that goal – is counterproductive and, frankly, dangerous.”

In contrast to Republicans’ statements, Sen. Raumesh Akbari, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, contends that Biden’s rule on vaccines and testing is “popular” because families, schools and business owners want to end the pandemic and “get life back to normal.”

“Tennessee has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. There is no need to waste more time grandstanding against the president and vaccines. We need shots in arms,” Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, said in a statement.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.