Tennessee House Republicans edge closer to calling special session on COVID-19 issues

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Cameron Sexton, speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, makes a speech at McConnell Elementary School on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, in Hixson, Tennessee, to present the school with the Governor's Civic Seal, an award given to schools and districts that prioritize teaching the nation's history and core values.
photo Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Cameron Sexton, speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, makes a speech at McConnell Elementary School on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, in Hixson, Tennessee, to present the school with the Governor's Civic Seal, an award given to schools and districts that prioritize teaching the nation's history and core values.

NASHVILLE - Leaders of Tennessee's House Republican super majority say they have informally met the required legal threshold to call themselves into special session on coronavirus-related matters. However, discussions with the GOP-led Senate on actual parameters of the formal call have yet to begin.

"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."

House Republicans have a 73-member majority in the 99-member chamber. It takes 66 House members to say yes to meet the legal threshold to call for a special session. In the 33-member Senate, where Republicans have 27 seats, the threshold is 22 members agreeing.

A number of Republican lawmakers are incensed over mask mandates and decisions by county health departments or school boards. They're also upset over favorable preliminary injunctions from three federal judges to block state efforts to ban mandatory school mask mandates in three public school districts. The suits were filed by disability groups on behalf of disabled children. The trials have yet to occur.

Lawmakers already have another special session on their plate that was called Sept. 30 by Republican Gov. Bill Lee to address the state's proposed $500 million incentive package for funding, buildout and oversight of Ford Motor Co.'s planned $5.6 billion investment at the Memphis Megasite for a new electric vehicle assembly plant and associated battery manufacturer. That session will be Oct. 18.

Despite requests from Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, for Lee to call a second special session on COVID-19 issues, the governor has shown no interest in doing so.

Asked last week at a news conference on education funding about some of his fellow Republicans seeking to prevent employers with 100 or more workers from requiring employees to get vaccinated for COVID-19, Lee said, "Well, I haven't seen that proposal. I know there's a lot of conversations about what needs to be done.

"But," he added, "I'm not involved in the legislature's conversation about where they're headed with a proposed special session."

Local legislators weigh in

Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, said the special session was discussed during a Zoom meeting that she and seven to eight GOP representatives had with House Clerk Tammy Letzler and Sexton.

Other Republicans gathered in similar Zoom meetings.

Smith said members were asked to indicate to Letzler if they were satisfied with the scope of the call at that time, which would serve as an indication of support for the special session.

"I did not feel pressured to vote at all, nor did I feel any pressure to vote one way or the other," Smith said. "I did vote to support the special session to address COVID-related issues from the perspective of an employee, employer, student, parent of a student and the scope and magnitude of mandates."

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said last week that lawmakers have gone through 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," Gardenhire said.

"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."

Recently elected Rep. Greg Vital, R-Georgetown, president of Morning Pointe, which runs assisted senior centers locally and in other areas of the state, said he's heard from constituents about a number of coronavirus issues, including property rights, government mandates and President Joe Biden's vaccine mandates for employees of companies with more than 100 workers.

"We're sensitive to public health, but we're also very sensitive to what we hear from people," he said. "We're trying to balance that. There's a lot of concern about forced vaccinations. A lot of people have chosen to get vaccinated, but there is great concern about being forced to get vaccinated or wear masks, especially with our [infection] numbers going down."

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, a Chattanooga Democrat, said a number of Republican lawmakers appear to be listening only to a minority of people, not the majority.

"What they're not recognizing is the broad number of parents who are concerned about their children. They say mask up because of the danger to themselves and their children. It seems like they don't understand that they're putting both children and adults at risk of this virus. They talk about liberty and free will, but what about those persons - the majority - who want to have masking, who want their children to be safe in schools?"

Rep. Mark Hall, R-Cleveland, said he favors the special session and signed what he described as a "letter of intent" to encourage it.

"For the simple fact that I think our constituents need total transparency," he said. "They need to know where we are in the pandemic, where we are on the mandates and also give a crystal-clear path on how to get out of this and how to maneuver through this maze of craziness that we've experienced over the past year and a half. I think it's important that we do this."

Efforts to reach Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Reps. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, and Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, were unsuccessful Monday.

Lee maintains distance

In August, Sexton asked Lee to call lawmakers into special session about public K-12 mask mandates in Shelby County and Metro Nashville schools, but the governor declined. Since then, three federal judges in cases involving Shelby County, Metro Nashville and Knox County are hearing challenges brought by parents.

A number of Republican lawmakers are incensed about Biden's executive order directing employers with 100 or more workers require the employees be vaccinated or cite specific religious exemptions.

The issue was fanned last week when Chattanooga-based BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee fired 19 of out of an estimated 900 workers for refusing vaccinations. The workers' jobs involve in-person contact with colleagues or outside business and community.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.