Tennessee legislative session to rein in COVID-19 restrictions could start Oct. 27

FILE - Gov. Bill Lee speaks during the Tennessee Higher Education Commission session of the state budget hearings on Nov. 10, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Republican legislative leaders have penciled in Oct. 27 for the start of a special session at which GOP members are expected to push back on COVID-19 restrictions and mandates by government and, possibly, businesses.

The session would come after the Oct. 18 session called by Republican Gov. Bill Lee to consider $500 million in incentives promised to Ford Motor Co. for a planned $5.6 billion electric-truck production plant.

"There has been tentative agreement on a timeline for an additional special session following the Ford session," said Adam Kleinheider, a spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican speaker, in a statement. "The specifics of the call are still being ironed out and would need the constitutionally required signatures."

Although Lee has so far shown no interest in calling the General Assembly into session to address COVID-19, lawmakers are exercising their ability under Tennessee's Constitution to call themselves into special session. That takes the signatures of two-thirds of each body or 66 members in the 99-member House and 22 members in the 33-member Senate.

While GOP lawmakers enjoy supermajorities in both chambers, not all Republicans have been keen to jump into the issue. Neither McNally nor House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, have specified exactly what they will state in the call.

The language will control what can be considered.

A number of Republicans are upset with mask mandates and some, especially in the House, want to rein in the independent county health boards in six Tennessee counties, including Hamilton County.

Sexton has been advocating a special session on local mask mandates and related issues since early August. McNally had resisted until recently amid growing pressure from a number of his GOP members as well as in his district.

Other GOP lawmakers have railed at President Joe Biden's move to mandate COVID-19 vaccination or weekly testing for employees of companies with 100 or more workers unless the employees have health or religious reasons and need accommodations.

The issue of employer vaccination mandates kicked up a notch Thursday as Chattanooga-based BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee said it had terminated 19 front-line employees who refused to get vaccinated. That's out of some 900 workers whose jobs involve in-person contact with BlueCross colleagues or outside business and community groups.

State Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, recently sought a legal opinion about whether a private employer can require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of employment. Attorney General Herb Slatery had this to say: "Tennessee law does not prohibit private employers from requiring their employees to be vaccinated as a condition of employment.

"But," Slatery added, "depending on the particular facts and circumstances in any given private employment situation - federal law, as well as collective bargaining agreements and other employment contractual obligations, may preclude a private employer from requiring its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, subject to appropriate exceptions, such as exceptions for medical reasons."

Tennessee lawmakers earlier this year passed a law that bars the state or its political subdivisions from requiring any person to be vaccinated or immunized against COVID-19 or any variant of the virus. But it doesn't apply to private employers, Slatery noted.

Smith said by telephone Wednesday after receiving the Slatery opinion that "based on my very quick reading of this, it appears that there are no current prohibitions for employer mandates of employees with certain accommodations."

She said Slatery expedited writing a partial legal opinion - her original letter asked a series of questions - on the legal landscape. The information is timely and should provide a good basis on which lawmakers can work during the special session, Smith said.

Asked Thursday about BlueCross BlueShield's actions, Smith said by text message, "The need for a special session grows. While it is absolutely understandable that a private company has the right to issue terms and conditions of employment and access to its private property, it's also understandable that, absent the consent of a person to put something in their own private person or property, the conflict is manifested.

"The public discussion and debate revolves around two issues involving private property rights," added Smith, a registered nurse. "Unfortunately, public health has suffered as has public discourse when name-calling and political sniping replaced answering questions and increasing public trust."

Asked about the special session, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said by telephone that lawmakers have gone throughout the pandemic without having a stand-alone special session devoted to COVID-19.

"It really depends on what the issues are we're going to be covering. A lot of the issues we've been getting by these concerned citizens we as a legislature cannot do anything about. Those are federal issues.

"It may sound good to charge up the hill and wave the flag, but if it's not something the legislature can accomplish we've run up the wrong hill," he added. "I want to see what the two speakers say should be in this special call, what issues should be in this special call."

Regarding BlueCross BlueShield's dismissal of the 19 employees, Gardenhire noted Tennessee is an "at-will" state as well as a "right-to-work" state.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, "at-will" means that an employer can terminate an employee at any time for any reason, except an illegal one, or for no reason without incurring legal liability. At the same time, employees are free to leave a job for any or no reason with no adverse legal consequences, according to the conference.

"If a company for whatever reason, good or bad, has a policy that has to do with what the workers can or can't do and they enforce it across the board on an even basis, they can fire anybody," Gardenhire noted.

Tennessee is also a "right to work state" in that workers have a choice when it comes to union membership. Labor unions still operate in those states, but workers cannot be compelled to become members as a requirement of their job.

Sexton first raised the issue of local school and government mandates back in early August and the entire GOP Caucus wrote a letter urging Lee to call lawmakers into special session to block what it charged was "overreach" by schools and other local officials requiring students or business patrons to wear masks.

In a tweet last week, Sexton wrote, "@ltgovmcnally & I have heard from many Tennesseans seeking relief from burdensome COVID-19 mandates being imposed upon them. We are working together per our constitution to call an additional special session upon completion of the @Ford special session to address these issues."

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie of Nashville fired back with his own tweet: "Burdensome Protecting lives is burdensome. Wow!! #LeadershipMatters."

Efforts to reach Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, were unsuccessful.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.