Tennessee House, Senate Republicans return amid bitter stalemate on public safety issues

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton speaks during a 2022 event in Chattanooga. Sexton was critical last week of the state Senate's unwillingness to consider several topics being addressed by the House during the General Assembly's special session on public safety, guns and mental health.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee lawmakers are set to return to the state Capitol on Monday to begin their second week of a special legislative session on public safety, guns and mental health that so far shows little sign of resolution amid an increasingly bitter stalemate between Senate and House majority Republicans.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee called the session following the March 27 deadly attack on The Covenant School, a private Christian elementary school in Nashville. The assault was carried out by a heavily armed 28-year-old woman who was a former student at the school.

The attack left three 9-year-olds and three adults dead. The shooter was killed by responding police.

Lee's fellow Republicans in both the Senate and House balked at the governor's original proposal, which called for passing a gun control measure to remove guns from someone deemed during a judicial proceeding to be a threat to themselves or others. While including it in his special session call, Lee himself retreated and is not promoting it.

The governor's call opened up more than a dozen topics on which lawmakers can take action. House Republicans have passed a number of bills, such as stiffer sentences for violent juveniles while making national news for actions such as cracking down on dissent.One mother of children who attend Covenant was left in tears after a subcommittee chair ordered state troopers to clear the room after demonstrators held up small signs, a violation of new House rules.

A Covenant mother had been scheduled to testify on a bill Covenant parents are seeking to close off to the public most autopsy and medical examiner records involving juveniles.

Senators, meanwhile, have passed several bills Lee has identified as his priorities. A group of six Senate committee barons, among them Judiciary Chair Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Finance Chair Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said that's all they intend to do.

The lawmakers said they can address other topics promoted by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, some of which have already passed the House in the special session, in the legislature's regular session early next year.

"We didn't have time to really look into every one of these bills," Gardenhire told reporters Tuesday. "They were very complicated, and to give them justice, we didn't table them. Hopefully, they'll bring them back in the next session."

Prior to the Senate recessing Thursday, Watson told reporters that "all I can tell you is the Senate has passed the legislative package that the governor and the task force that met with the governor several times through the summer presented to the Senate for consideration.

"We passed virtually all those bills," Watson said. "A couple didn't get introduced, only one we didn't take and that was the DNA bill because we think there's still a lot of conversation around that bill, so from the Senate's perspective, we've completed the work that the governor has asked us to come up here and do."

Lee's proposed DNA measure would require the collection of DNA at the time of any felony arrest.

Senators approved three Lee bills. Among them was a bill incentivizing but not requiring safe storage of firearms by lifting the sales tax on purchases of gun safes and storage devices. It also directs the Department of Safety and Homeland Security to provide free firearm locks the state owns.

Gun theft is a problem in Tennessee. Memphis and Chattanooga ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, among the top five cities nationally with the highest rates of gun thefts from cars, according to EveryTown for Gun Safety. That's based on an analysis of FBI data from 2011 to 2020.

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly in March joined the state's largest cities to urge lawmakers to pass new requirements after two mass shootings in the city last year.

Another bill approved by senators would codify Lee's executive order issued after the attack at Covenant to require the reporting of accurate, complete and timely records from local court clerks on convictions to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation within 72 hours while also requiring electronic submissions of dispositions and expungements to the TBI.

Senators also passed a Lee bill directing TennCare to seek a federal waiver allowing federal matching funds for Medicaid to cover services for mental illness and substance use disorders.

Covenant parents frustrated

The Senate and House standoff has frustrated advocates for change, among them Covenant parents who are promoting bills they want passed.

"We have spent countless hours over the summer meeting with and working alongside these legislators, and to see the House and Senate at an impasse is frustrating and upsetting, especially when there are so many good bills on the table," Melissa Alexander, whose 9-year-old son was at Covenant during the shooting spree, told reporters Thursday.

Another Covenant parent, Mary Joyce, promoted new alarms that would distinguish between fires, shootings and tornadoes, saying it would have helped the son of a friend who died in the shooting..

Joyce and other Covenant parents are also advocating to ban the release of the results of autopsies on most child victims of gun violence.

She said her daughter was dismayed when Covenant class rosters went out for the just-started school year with the names of her three friends who were killed missing from the list.

"These kids are really struggling, and it's hard for them to talk about it," she said."To everyone else, you've moved on, we are still in the trenches of this trauma."

Sexton criticizes Senate's stance

The stance taken by senators to await lawmakers' regular January session to act on other bills isn't sitting well with Sexton and other House GOP leaders.

"The Senate hasn't passed one idea that they've had, so they've been batting zero," Sexton told the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Friday during a sit-down interview in his Cordell Hull Building office. "In the House, we're the only one that defeated the red flag bill, they never did.

"I don't buy the argument that things are too complex that you can't have an open debate about them and pass them," Sexton continued, adding the House has been working on bills for months and meeting with stakeholders. "I don't think the Senate as a whole believes that statement that things are too complex and there aren't things they can achieve or do."

Sexton blamed the Senate's stance on what he thinks is "a very small handful" of senators and believes rank-and-file senators support the House's position. The speaker called juvenile crime a "huge issue" that "we can solve right now."

"We passed bipartisan stuff. We have more stuff to pass, mental health. We added money for higher education institutions to protect their campuses," Sexton said. "We provided money to stop the bleed on mental health facilities from continuing to lose millions of dollars and maybe having to reduce beds or close it all together. We increased money for the mental health safety net for people who are uninsured to get the help that they need."

"I don't think those things are too complicated," Sexton said. "I think there are a lot of bills that are not complicated and could be passed."

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate Republican speaker from Oak Ridge, said the Senate approved most of Lee's priorities.

"There's not a deal with the House," McNally acknowledged.

So what happens next? It depends on what House members pass, the Senate speaker said.

"We sent them four bills, and they might amend those, also the appropriations bills. ... We'll just have to see what comes over from the House," McNally said.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-285-9480.