Lawmakers question special session after Comptroller suspends COVID-19 exemptions

By: - December 1, 2021 4:49 pm
Expressing concern about Gov. Bill Lee's no-bid contracts are Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Expressing concern about Gov. Bill Lee’s no-bid contracts are Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Comptroller Jason Mumpower office suspended exemptions Wednesday from the state’s new COVID-19 law after two federal judges issued preliminary injunctions against President Joe Biden’s vaccine requirement.

While the decision satisfied legislative leaders opposed to the president’s mandate, the move also raised questions among some legislators about whether the General Assembly was hasty in holding a special session to deal mainly with what was called federal government “overreach.”

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, resisted the special session because he felt the courts would decide the conflict between states and the vaccine mandate for companies with more than 100 employees as well as federal contractors.

“And all we could do was charge up a hill and wave a flag and throw some red meat around and then find out we took the wrong hill,” Gardenhire said Wednesday.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, is questioning Gov. Bill Lee's no-bid contracts. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Legislature spent a total of $136,643 for per diem and mileage during the COVID-19 session in which it also passed bills allowing partisan school board elections and replacement of district attorneys who publicly state they won’t enforce certain state laws.

If anything, the state did pass laws in direct conflict with the federal rule that would force a lawsuit, Gardenhire said. Attorney General Herbert Slatery joined a lawsuit by six other attorneys general on Nov. 5 against the Biden mandate.

Democratic Sen. Heidi Campbell of Nashville said Wednesday the decisions are more proof the October session wasn’t necessary.

“I think that special session just catalyzed more chaos,” Campbell said. “I don’t think we should have spent Tennessee taxpayer dollars on that special session. It just made things worse.”

Campbell contends the session was “politically motivated” and a “negotiated deal” for the Ford special session two weeks earlier in which lawmakers voted to give the auto manufacturer a $900 million incentive package to build a $5.6 billion electric truck and battery plant at the Memphis Regional Megasite in West Tennessee.

“I think there was a quid pro quo there. The Senate was opposed to it, leadership of the Senate, and inevitably part of the understanding was that if we’re going to do the Ford deal, then we also need to do this (COVID-19) session,” Campbell said.

Lawmakers passed a wide-ranging COVID-19 bill that was amended heavily in the early-morning hours of Oct. 30, changing language to placate Ford Motor Co. and the business community, which opposed intervention that put them in a no-win position between state and federal governments.

Ultimately, the legislation allowed companies, government entities and higher education institutions to apply for waivers through the Comptroller’s Office enabling them to require vaccines as a condition for receiving federal funds through contracts, subcontracts or postsecondary grants.

All we could do was charge up a hill and wave a flag and throw some red meat around and then find out we took the wrong hill.

– Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, of holding a COVID special session

The Comptroller’s Office issued 69 exemptions since the law took effect Nov. 12 but suspended exemptions Wednesday after the two federal court decisions Tuesday.

In one case, a U.S. District Court judge from Eastern Kentucky issued a preliminary injunction and stopped the federal government from enforcing a vaccine mandate for federal contractors and subcontractors in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. Because of that decision, the Comptroller’s Office said it could no longer find that complying with the state law would lead to a loss of federal funding.

Consequently, dozens of companies, hospitals and universities will have protections if they require vaccinations.

Those include Aegis Sciences, Corp., AT&T Corp., BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Christian Brothers University, Citibank, East Tennessee State University, Goodwill Industries-Knoxville, Lincoln Memorial University, Rhodes College, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Tennessee State University, University of Memphis, University of Tennessee, UT-Battelle and Vanderbilt University.

Also Tuesday, a U.S. District Court judge in western Louisiana issued a nationwide preliminary injunction stopping the federal government from putting a mandate in place requiring staff of health-care providers to get COVID-19 vaccines.

The Comptroller’s Office said it also suspended exemptions for Medicare and Medicaid providers, some of which it approved after the law passed. 

The state legislature spent more than $136,000 to hold a special session designed to push back on federal vaccine mandates. Now that several federal judges have blocked the mandates, two senators are pointing out the special session was superfluous.  Nashville Democrat Heidi Campbell says the session was “politically motivated.”

Entities affected by that decision include Alive Hospice, Ambulatory Surgery Center of Cool Springs, Erlanger Health System, City of Martin, Maury Regional Hospital, Knoxville Eye Surgery Center, Meritan Inc., Pace Health Care Companies, Tennessee State Veterans Home Board, Washington County/Johnson City Emergency Medical Services, and Williamson Medical Center. 

Requests for exemptions will continue to be accepted but not granted until legally allowed, and those already approved will be reinstated if necessary, the Comptroller’s Office said.

Responding to questions from the Tennessee Lookout, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally did not say whether he thought the special session was necessary but issued a statement Wednesday saying, “The courts have acted swiftly and rightly enjoined President Biden’s obviously unconstitutional mandates. Comptroller Mumpower has also made a swift and correct decision. With the loss of federal funds out of the equation, the exemptions are not currently necessary from a legal standpoint and suspending them makes complete and absolute sense.”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, the primary driver of the COVID-19 special session in late October, also agreed with Mumpower’s decision based on the court rulings. 

“The speaker has always maintained that federal mandates imposed on Americans by the Biden administration were unconstitutional. These injunctions are the first step in preserving the constitutional rights of Tennesseans and all Americans,” spokesman Doug Kufner said in a statement.

In response to questions from Tennessee Lookout, Kufner said Sexton believes the October special session “was absolutely needed” for the General Assembly to protect “personal health decisions, individual freedoms and liberties of all Tennesseans.”


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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 and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.