Speaker of the Tennessee House Cameron Sexton, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, and Gov. Bill Lee don’t agree on the need for a special session to address COVID-19 policies. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Citing public complaints about COVID-19 mandates, Tennessee’s top legislative leaders are working to bring lawmakers to Nashville for a special session immediately after a separate gathering to approve funds for an electric Ford truck and battery plant in West Tennessee.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton issued a joint statement Friday explaining their plans.
“The Ford megasite deal is transformational for Tennessee, and we look forward to working with Gov. Lee to finalize this project as part of his special session call for Ford Motor Company. At the same time, we have heard from many Tennesseans seeking relief from burdensome COVID-19 mandates being imposed upon them. We are working together per our state constitution to call an additional special session upon the completion of the megasite session to address issues surrounding COVID-19.”
If Gov. Bill Lee declines to call that type of special session, which he declined to do previously, the two legislative leaders would have to cobble together two-thirds of the supermajority Republican Legislature to hold a special session, 22 of the Senate’s 33 members and 66 of the House’s 99 members.
Backed by the entire House Republican Caucus in August, Sexton urged Gov. Lee to call legislators into a special session to deal mainly with public schools and COVID-19. Sexton threatened to seek legislation to punish school districts that mandated masks for students, segregated unvaccinated children from others and closed classroom buildings to avert COVID outbreaks. Despite previously opposing the governor’s education savings account bill, he went as far as to suggest legislation providing vouchers for parents to send children to private schools if their public schools close buildings and classrooms.
McNally opposed such a move in August, and as part of a compromise Gov. Lee issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates such as those in Shelby County and Metro Nashville Public Schools districts. Since then, three federal judges ruled against Lee’s order in Knox, Williamson and Shelby counties.
Yet the governor said this week he will renew the executive order for 30 days once it expires Oct. 5. He noted he is “extremely disappointed” with the judges’ decisions and accused them of “legislating from the bench.”
The special session Gov. Lee called for Oct. 18 is designed to deal mainly with providing $500 million in incentives for the Ford-SK Innovation deal dubbed Blue Oval City at the Memphis Regional Megasite in Haywood County. Lee said this week he doesn’t want COVID-19 matters to be brought up during those proceedings because of the significance of the Ford project, which involves a $5.8 billion investment to create 5,800 jobs when the campus opens in 2025.
The governor has received nearly universal support from legislators for landing the project.
But McNally and Sexton don’t want legislators to go home without working on COVID matters first.
Though the specific legislation is unclear for a separate session, in addition to school issues, lawmakers have complained about President Joe Biden’s order for companies with 100 employees to require vaccinations.
“Lt. Gov. McNally has had continuing conversations with many Senate members over the last few months regarding various other issues to be included in a special session. While he has been reticent to support such a session in the past, he does not believe it is appropriate to call the membership back to Nashville for the megasite issue without attempting to address the concerns of Senate members and their constituents. That is why he has now agreed to work with Speaker Sexton on a call for the purpose of addressing issues where there is consensus among both chambers,” said Adam Kleinheider, spokesman for McNally.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie scoffed Friday at the need for a special session, saying the Legislature held one more than a year ago to deal with COVID-19 issues and schools but failed to attack the root of the problem.
“We’ve been dealing with COVID now for 18 months and we haven’t come up with a decision or a plan of action. It’s way too late,” said Dixie, a Nashville Democrat.
He pointed out children are in school being exposed to COVID-19 daily with only a scattered approach statewide to protect them from the disease. Thousands of children have contracted the virus or been placed in quarantine because of exposure to others who tested positive. As a result, a Centers for Disease Control study found Tennessee leads the nation in classroom closings caused by the virus.
One child in Shelby County died from COVID-19 complications, and 21 public schools employees, including teachers, staff members and bus drivers have died as a result of the disease since the school year began, the Tennessee Lookout reported.
Several school districts without mask mandates, including those in Sumner and Wilson counties, shut down because of high COVID-19 numbers. Case counts among children appear to be waning, yet Dixie contends children are still at risk for catching and spreading the virus.
“That shows me we have a lack of leadership, and it not only comes from the governor, it comes from the GOP party as a whole. Because they’re in the supermajority, they control all this stuff,” Dixie said. “They fought for no mask mandates, which makes no sense.”
Gov. Lee has said wearing a mask and getting vaccinated are the main two steps a person can take to avoid catching COVID-19, yet he has declined to put any requirements in place. In fact, he has fought mandates.
Dixie pointed out Ford Motor Co. understands the federal climate for a mask mandate and “has no problem with it.” But if the Legislature takes steps that could hold up the Blue Oval City deal, the motives of the governor and legislative leadership will be clearly “political pandering,” Dixie said.
House Minority Leader Karen Camper contends the Blue Oval City project will benefit the entire state economically, educationally and ecologically through clean energy investments and is worried an extra session could distract from it.
“Bringing these benefits to Tennesseans is what we should be focusing on when we reconvene later this month, not partisan politics. I would hope we would heed the governor’s call during the special session and leave the other matters up to the courts. We have a chance to bring good manufacturing jobs to our state and lead the nation and world in new technology jobs. Anything that would put this opportunity in peril is not good for Tennessee,” Camper said.
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