Gov. Bill Lee, third from right, with Ford Motor Co. CEO, to his right, and Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Bob Rolfe, to Ford’s right, at Monday’s announcement of the Ford Blue Oval Campus. (Photo: Gov. Bill Lee official Facebook page)
With a legislative special session likely in two weeks to approve the state’s Blue Oval City deal, talk is circulating about COVID-19 issues sneaking into the debate.
Gov. Bill Lee could call the General Assembly together Oct. 18-20 to approve a $500 million incentive package for the Ford-SK Innovation deal at the Memphis Regional Megasite, along with oversight of the electric truck and battery campus.
Yet with COVID-19 still a thorny matter, virus matters could find their way into the House and Senate chambers.
Rep. Vincent Dixie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Wednesday he’s heard talk that Republican lawmakers want to attach a “no-vaccine mandate” to the legislation dealing with Blue Oval City where Ford Motor Co. and South Korea-based SK Innovation would build F-Series electric trucks and batteries.
The campus is supposed to be carbon neutral when it opens in 2025, a $5.6 billion investment where 5,800 people will work. In addition, it is to produce no waste to go into landfills.
Dixie, a Nashville Democrat, noted he’s always concerned about a “political agenda” being inserted into the looming special session and called the possibility of attaching a “no-vaccine mandate” to the legislation “silly and asinine.”
“But if the governor truly wants to get this deal done, and that’s truly his focus, he needs to have a narrow scope on what we’re gonna deal with and not let politics, as it has been in the past, always dominate the conversation,” Dixie said.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s Office referred questions about potential details of a special session to the Governor’s Office.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally “wholeheartedly” supports a special session to approve the funds needed for the Ford megasite project, spokesman Adam Kleinheider said Wednesday. He had not heard of any efforts to incorporate a “no-vaccine mandate” into the special session.
“Ford’s historic commitment to invest in West Tennessee is a game changer for the state and the region. It is vitally important the deal points Gov. Lee and Commissioner (Bobby) Rolfe negotiated be approved deliberately and efficiently. The specific legislation will be proposed by the governor after the official call is made. Lt. Gov. McNally understands the deal includes a wide array of incentives and investments as well as all-important clawback safeguards to protect our state’s treasury and Tennessee taxpayers,” Kleinheider said.
The Department of Economic and Community Development has not provided information specifying the types of incentives in the $500 million. Nevertheless, Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday the state will build a College of Applied Technology on the Blue Oval City campus.
House Republicans and some Senate Republicans have been clamoring for a special session this summer to clamp down on the state’s independent health departments in urban areas and stop them from mandating masks in schools, eliminate any segregation of unvaccinated students from other children in K-12 schools and possibly to provide vouchers to parents whose school districts close buildings because of the pandemic. Other legislative measures could include efforts to stave off President Joe Biden’s vaccine requirements for companies with 100 or more employees.
Speaker Sexton led the charge for a special session to deal with those types of COVID matters. But Gov. Lee opted for a compromise in which he issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of mask requirements. Three federal judges in East, Middle and West Tennessee have ruled against the governor’s order.
The fight continues, nevertheless, among lawmakers to enact new COVID-19 measures, though they don’t necessarily agree on the timing.
State Rep. Bruce Griffey is among those who says the Legislature should take up pandemic bills during the special session.
“I’ll fully support what we need to do to get Ford here. I wish if we were going to have a special session that it would broaden beyond just the Ford Economic and Community Development package. That’s important and I’m hugely thankful and grateful to Ford for picking Tennessee,” said Griffey, a Paris Republican who recently took part in a rally against vaccination requirements near the Capitol.
Rep. Tom Leatherwood, an Arlington Republican, says the Blue Oval City deal will be transformational for West Tennessee, not just because of the Ford-SK Innovation jobs, but because of the spin-off economic growth.
The project is projected to generate 27,000 jobs, directly and indirectly, resulting in $1.02 billion in annual earnings. Temporary construction jobs totaling 32,000 with $1.87 billion in salaries are expected during the building phase.
Leatherwood noted he supports the call for a special session to deal with everything from masks and vaccinations to health departments. Yet he believes those should be kept separate from the session to deal with Blue Oval City.
“I would expect this call from the governor to be very narrowly drawn … to just address the issues necessary to complete this deal with Ford. And I understand that, and actually I support that,” Leatherwood said.
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