Stockard on the Stump: Legislature could rescind much of COVID-19 law

December 3, 2021 4:59 am
Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

Barely a month after the Legislature passed a COVID-19 omnibus bill cobbled together in a secret meeting, some lawmakers are ready to unwind it.

Much of the legislation was nearly rendered moot by two federal court rulings that put a hold on President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate, followed by Comptroller Jason Mumpower’s move to suspend exemptions from the COVID-19 law for federal contractors and those receiving federal grants or Medicare and Medicaid money. 

That move ended protections for businesses, universities and hospitals that wanted to require vaccinations and masks for employees. 

Legislators also are taking a look at a provision in the new law that prohibits the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners from disciplining doctors who give out bad information about COVID-19 or use unapproved treatments on patients who contract the disease. State Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, threatened to call the board before the Government Operations Committee if it didn’t remove a message from its website notifying physicians they could face disciplinary action.

Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, voted against a comprehensive COVID measure in a recent special session. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

State Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, chairman of the House Finance, Ways & Means Committee, voted against the final version of the COVID-19 omnibus bill. She declined to discuss specific pieces but gave her outlook for the Legislature’s return in January.

“I have concerns about several parts of that bill,” Hazlewood, a Signal Mountain Republican, said this week. “At this point, I don’t have any plans for legislation, but … I have concerns about several parts of the bill, and I think we’ll be revisiting a number of things in the regular session.”

Hazlewood also opposed legislation for partisan school board elections statewide, saying she felt it would stop many qualified candidates from running.

Rep. Michael Curcio, a Dickson Republican who was one of several in his caucus who voted against the bill, balked at the legislation because he didn’t believe the state could “solve mandates with more mandates.” In other words, putting a new state rule on business would put them in a vice between state and federal government regulations.

“Private business owners need to be able to make their hiring and firing decisions. In a right to work state where we’re about to enshrine the right to work concept in our Constitution, I just felt like it was … an interesting step backwards from that core belief of the General Assembly,” Curcio said.

Curcio didn’t say whether he would be pursuing legislation to reverse any parts of the law. It is supposed to run out in July 2023 anyway.

But Democratic Sen. Heidi Campbell of Nashville thinks the law needs reversal, especially the part prohibiting disciplinary action on rogue doctors.

“I would even go as far as to say … that’s sort of penetrating the sanctity of Western medicine,” Campbell said. “Once we start as a legislature telling doctors how to practice medicine to the point we’re intervening in their ability to perform their duties, then we’ve got a big problem.”

Such measures stem from anti-vaccination efforts taken up by some legislators who are being egged on by groups such as Tennessee Stands, a group whose writings have been disseminated among lawmakers.

Campbell contends the “disdain” for science driving these efforts is putting the state in “big, big trouble.” Whether she’ll get any help from Republicans in trying to turn back the law remains to be seen, especially since most on the other side voted for the legislation. 

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who sponsored the bill, and Sen. Shane Reeves, both pharmacists who urged people to get vaccinated, voted for the measure. So did Sen. Joey Hensley, a physician. Sen. Richard Briggs, a physician from Knoxville, was the only Republican to vote against the bill early Saturday morning of Oct. 30, after most people had left the Capitol.

Once we start as a legislature telling doctors how to practice medicine to the point we're intervening in their ability to perform their duties, then we've got a big problem.

– Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville

In a rare and odd move, lawmakers were told they needed to pass the omnibus bill so it could be sent to a conference committee. There, the real language would be placed in the bill. Thus, most lawmakers probably didn’t get to read the final legislation before they voted on it early that morning.

It sort of reminds me of the argument against the Affordable Care Act. Critics said Congress had to pass it so they could find out what’s in it. Now that everyone knows what’s in the COVID-19 bill, some lawmakers are ready to rescind it.

Racial battle lines

The Department of Education is declining to investigate a complaint by Moms for Liberty from Williamson County who claim the teaching of several books in second grade violates the state’s rule prohibiting critical race theory in classrooms.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told Moms president Robin Steenman the matter is being held up by a technicality because the allegations took place in the 2020-21 school year and the state law only authorizes the department to look into allegations occurring in the 2021-22 school year. 

“Please note that in declining to investigate these claims, the department has not made a determination regarding the merits of these allegations. We encouraged the complainant to work with Williamson County School District to resolve the issues and concerns related to the complaint and to ensure compliance with state law,” a Department of Education says in a statement.

The law says schools can’t teach that one race is “inherently superior” to another or that a person is responsible for or should feel shame for actions committed by their ancestors.

Robin Steenman of the conservative Moms for Liberty group says the Tennessee Department of Education shouldn’t have dismissed a complaint about school curriculum. “When children are negatively affected, you don’t get to dismiss on a technicality,” she said.

Some have dubbed this the “stop blaming white folks” law, although I would never say that.

The Moms for Liberty complaint contends books used in a Wit & Wisdom curriculum called “Civil Rights Heroes” aren’t appropriate for second-graders, including “Separate is Never Equal” by Duncan Tonatiuh, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington” by Frances E. Ruffin, “Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story,” by Ruby Bridges, “The Story of Ruby Bridges” by Robert Coles and MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech.”

(FYI: Commissioner Schwinn approved waivers for the curriculum to be used.)

Steenman, who is preparing a response to the Department of Education, is quick to point out her group isn’t trying to ban those books but instead is targeting the way they are taught through the teacher’s manual. The complaint did tag one book as “wholly inappropriate” for second-graders, according to Steenman.

Yet she points out Wit & Wisdom takes “beautiful” stories and presents them in a way that impacts children “negatively.” And rather than refuse to investigate the matter, Steenman contends the state should look immediately into the Wit & Wisdom curriculum.

“When children are negatively affected, you don’t get to dismiss on a technicality. You must judge on the merit,” she says.

Steenman filed her complaint June 30 but didn’t get a response until the end of November.

Her complaint includes testimony from a mixed-race couple of Thai and white parents who claim their child is “suddenly ashamed to be half-white” and a Black student who assumed he was receiving unfair treatment because it took longer for him to receive a test grade.

Steenman, of Moms for Liberty, says second-graders aren’t ready to deal with social justice issues like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March .on Washington. Fine: let’s wait till third grade.

“These kids are not ready for such deep, heavy, negative material. They’re not ready for social justice,” she says.

I agree. We should not be forcing second-graders to dig into difficult subjects or showing them scenes of police using German shepherds and firehoses to attack Black protesters in Alabama, or state troopers beating the hell out of people crossing the Selma bridge or white officers shooting Black car theft suspects or the deadly chokehold of George Floyd. Forget about George Wallace standing in front of the door at the University of Alabama or lunch counter demonstrations in Nashville.

Those images, whether in books or video, should wait until at least the third grade.

From kindergarten through second grade, we should stick with George Washington chopping down a cherry tree.

Where have you gone, Doug Overbey?

Apologies to Paul Simon and Joe Dimaggio, but we sort of miss former Sen. Doug Overbey. Since he left the Senate and became the U.S. attorney in East Tennessee, then was unceremoniously removed when President Biden took office, that august body (a term senators like to use, not me) lost a voice of reason.

Anyway, Overbey is surfacing again as a candidate for the Tennessee Supreme Court vacancy opened by the untimely death of Cornelia Clark.

The Tennessee Journal reports Overbey is one of several candidates, including William Blaylock, chief hearing officer for the Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s unemployment appeals panel, Sarah Campbell, associate solicitor general and special assistant to the AG, Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge Kristi Davis, state Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Timothy Easter, Nashville Circuit Court Judge Kelvin Jones, State Court of Appeals Judge W. Neal McBrayer, Chief Deputy State Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, Smyrna attorney Gingeree Smith and Belmont University law professor Jeffrey Usman.

Former state senator and U.S. Attorney Doug Overbey is in the running for a seat on the Tennessee Supreme Court. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Former state senator and U.S. Attorney Doug Overbey is in the running for a seat on the Tennessee Supreme Court. (Photo: Ballotpedia)

Gov. Bill Lee’s Council for Judicial Appointments will interview the candidates next week and pick three finalists for the governor to make a final selection. He has the prerogative to go with someone else.

Overbey, who is practicing with his former law firm, says he decided to apply for the high court seat, in part, because he still has “gas in the tank” and he enjoys working, especially including his time as U.S. attorney.

“I think I offer a breadth of experience,” he says, from his time as a county commissioner, state senator and federal prosecutor.

Overbey might not have the inside track, especially compared to those who already serve on state courts and in state office. But considering I cover the state Legislature, I thought I’d give him a plug. Not that Gov. Lee or the nominating committee are listening.

These are hard times

Coming off two years of nearly unprecedented economic growth, the State Funding Board is playing things a tad on the conservative side.

Two weeks ago, I predicted the board would project a growth rate of 2.5% to 3.5% for the coming fiscal year, based on economists’ advice.

Wrong again, Bilbo Baggins.

The board did adjust its general fund growth rate for the current year up to 8.5% as money comes pouring into state coffers. But it set the outlook for fiscal 2022-23 at 1.75% to 2.25%.

This is not surprising, considering board Chairman Jason Mumpower continues to sport the Grinch tie bequeathed to him by former “beloved” Comptroller Justin P. Wilson. Let’s just hope they don’t steal Christmas.

(Not) Paying to play

Sen. Todd Gardenhire is planning to sponsor legislation in 2022 that would keep the Tennessee Republican Party from charging judicial candidates to pay fees to run for election.

The party has been bandying the idea around for a while and appears ready to start building up its war chest a little more – as if it needs the money.

But some critics are saying it’s a bad look for the party, even if the fees would be nominal. After all, it’s supposed to be the Big Tent Party, with room for everyone, regardless of income and social standing. 

And if you believe that, I’ve got some ocean-front property in Leanna you might like to buy.

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)

Anyway, as reported by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Gardenhire is set to sponsor the measure at the request of the Hamilton County judges, who sent him a detailed opinion explaining why it’s a conflict of interest for them to dole out cash to run for election.

Judicial candidates are under different fundraising and spending rules than other political candidates, even if they run partisan races in some counties, Gardenhire points out.

In Shelby County, judicial candidates run on a non-partisan basis, and in Hamilton County, General Sessions Court judges are non-partisan.

“They were very, very concerned about having to pay a fee to run as a Republican that might put them in a position later to rule on something that they thought might put them in a conflict,” Gardenhire says.

We’ll let him fight it out with the party later.

Backing Biden and vets

House Minority Leader Karen Camper, an Army veteran, spent part of the week in Washington, D.C., attending the White House signing of four veterans bills by the president.

One bill initiates a study on racial and ethnic disparities in Veterans Affairs benefits. Another approves $15 million to deal with maternal mortality among ranks of female veterans. The other two cut out-of-pocket education costs for veterans’ children and spouses and give incentives for military medical personnel to take federal health-care jobs.

Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, left, and House Minority Leader Karen Camper, right. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Mrs. Camper goes to Washington: House Minority Leader Karen Camper, right. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“As a veteran and a Black woman, I feel these changes in my bones,” Camper says in a statement. “I appreciate lawmakers from both sides of the aisle putting our veterans ahead of partisanship and crafting this life-changing legislation.”

Come on and join the line

Partner in crime Erik Schelzig, editor of the Tennessee Journal, tweeted a story this week I wrote about Gov. Lee letting his executive order on the COVID-19 state of emergency lapse, even though Tn the Tennessee Emergency Management Plan. One would have thought the state of emergency was over. But alas.

The irrepressible Schelzig wrote: “The state of emergency is over. Long live the state of emergency. Via @StockardSam.”

My response: “Rock is dead, they say. Long live rock!”

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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.