Garnering support for COVID-19 special session not a given

By: - October 14, 2021 5:01 am
Speaker of the Tennessee House Cameron Sexton, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, and Gov. Bill Lee in the legislative library Wednesday. (Photo: John Partipilo)

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)

Republican leaders in the House and Senate are still working to gain two-thirds support and signatures among members to call a special session on COVID-19 issues.

Lawmakers received word recently that the session is “expected” to start Oct. 27. But obtaining 22 signatures in the Senate and 66 in the House remains a work in progress, without Gov. Bill Lee’s backing.

Lawmakers are set to return to Nashville Oct. 18 for a session focusing on the Ford-SK Innovation plant planned for the Memphis Regional Megasite. The companies plan to invest $5.8 billion in an F series electric truck and battery plants.

One of the sticking points is whether Republican lawmakers want to tell businesses whether they can or can’t require employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

The entire House Republican Caucus, 76 members, signed a letter in August asking the governor to call a special session to work on COVID-19 issues. 

Although the House hasn’t gathered the signatures and is still working on the language to call legislators into a special session, it has made more progress than the Senate.

GOP Sen. Jon Lundberg of Bristol, a business owner, isn’t sold on the idea of a special session, saying he’s philosophically opposed to telling businesses what to do or not do about vaccines. “That is up to the free market, with as little interference from the government, whether it be a state government or a federal government,” Lundberg said.

“Speaker Sexton and the House have surpassed the 2/3rds constitutional requirement,” Doug Kufner, spokesman for House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said in a statement to the Times Free Press.

“Call language will be released when all House members have had an opportunity to sign on,” Kufner said. “Items (Sexton) would like to see as part of the call are mask mandates, quarantining, independent (county-level) health departments, and monoclonal antibodies. However, the call will not be limited to just these items.”

The Senate balked at the prospect of a special session in August, but since then Lt. Gov. Randy McNally has shifted positions and is working on putting together the 22 signatures necessary to hold a session. At this point, he doesn’t have the required number but expects to gather enough support within a week or so to call a COVID-19 special session.

The Senate appears split in three parts, with Democrats holding six votes against a special session and 27 Republicans divided but tilting toward an extraordinary session.

Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Republican Sen. Frank Nicely of Strawberry Plains has been bucking for a special session for weeks, saying the state needs to respond to federal “overreach” from President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate on businesses with more than 100 employees. 

Nicely is skeptical of the vaccine, saying people can stave off the virus by taking vitamins and zinc. He also believes the pharmaceutical industry would profit from coming up with a vaccine every year to fight off a spate of viruses.

Nicely favors passage of legislation resembling a Montana law that prohibits businesses from “discriminating” against employees that decline to take the vaccine.

“We can’t have the red states fighting blue states. We can’t have secession. We’ve got to get along. Our foreign enemies want us to break up and fight amongst ourselves,” Nicely said Wednesday. “The best way to keep this whole thing together and keep everybody from being at each other’s throats is if we just tell the federal government, we still love you, but we ain’t going along with you this time, big boy.”

Nicely contends states are going to resume control over some of the authority the federal government has “usurped” over the years, since, he says, it can’t manage the national debt, the Southern border or the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In addition, Nicely argues that the state constantly tells the business community how to operate, whether by requiring a certain number of restaurant sinks or health cards for kitchen workers. He says it’s no different this time, even though Tennessee is an at-will work state and companies can fire an employee almost any time.

In contrast, Sen. Jon Lundberg, a Bristol Republican, is not enthused about a special session, especially if it means telling companies how to operate.

Lundberg said Wednesday he doesn’t know whether McNally has been able to put together enough support for a special session.

“If we have a special session there are some things I think I’d definitely like to address. But the need for it, I don’t know if the need is vast right now because we all want to do some things, but I don’t know if it’s realistic, for example, overturning what a left-wing federal administration is trying to do,” Lundberg said. “As much as we’d like to, I don’t know what kind of true success we can have.”

Lundberg also said, as a business owner and conservative, he is “philosophically” opposed to telling businesses “what to do or what not to do.”

“That is up to the free market, with as little interference from the government, whether it be a state government or a federal government,” Lundberg said.

Perhaps having a short notice special session to address an ongoing global pandemic that's constantly changing and enduringly divisive isn't the best idea.

– Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, Senate Democratic Caucus Leader

He predicted that could prevent a special session from taking place.

Senate Democratic Caucus Leader Jeff Yarbro pointed out Wednesday that it’s supposed to be difficult for the Legislature to call a special session. He speculated that McNally eventually would have enough support.

“The Constitution requires two-thirds to agree to the same agenda, and I try to be hopeful that at least one out of three legislators has some sense,” Yarbro said. “Perhaps having a short notice special session to address an ongoing global pandemic that’s constantly changing and enduringly divisive isn’t the best idea.”

Meanwhile, the business community is caught in the middle of the pending federal order requiring it to follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines and the will of the state Legislature.

Bradley Jackson, president and CEO of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Wednesday his group is still trying to figure out what the Legislature would consider in a special session.

The Chamber of Commerce is “concerned” about President Biden’s executive order on OSHA rules requiring vaccines for companies with more than 100 employees.

“With that said, employers still want to, especially with that pending order out there, have the flexibility to do what they need to do to keep their employers and their customers safe, which is what public health officials have been telling them,” Jackson said.

Before the Biden order came out, 94% of Tennessee companies said they weren’t requiring employee vaccinations and weren’t contemplating it, according to Jackson. 

Previously, the Biden Administration ordered healthcare workers to take the vaccination, and some Tennessee companies had to comply, he said.

Bradley Jackson, Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry. (Photo: Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry)
Bradley Jackson, president and CEO, Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry. (Photo: Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry)

“We’re just really asking the Legislature to consider (that) employers are in a really difficult situation. We want to be compliant, obviously, we have to be with OSHA guidance and any sort of state legislation really has to think of how that impacts our obligations under OSHA,” Jackson added.

Once it sees the final OSHA rule, the chamber will have a better idea how to respond to federal regulations and state action, he said.

Nicely, meanwhile, points out the House is “leading” on the call for a special session.

“You’ve got people in the House who shoot from the hip a little more. Every once in a while, you need to shoot from the hip,” Nicely said.

Whether House members are willing to boycott the governor’s request for $500 million in funding for the Blue Oval City project remains to be seen. 

At least one member, Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, has said the Ford legislation could be sent back to a committee if a special session isn’t guaranteed.


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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.