ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Staff Photo by Andy Sher / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee fields questions from reporters Wednesday, as he says he expects to sign a COVID-19 omnibus.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday he expects to sign a major bill passed by GOP lawmakers that imposes new limitations on how businesses, public schools, local health departments and others grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I anticipate that I'm going to sign that bill, the omnibus bill," Lee told reporters following the state's annual Veterans Day event in Nashville. "There are some issues we need to work through the General Assembly, and I've spoken with both speakers about that, after meeting about that even today. But my plan is to sign that bill."

The main bill, sponsored by House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate speaker, passed Oct. 30 following a three-day special session.

Lawmakers called themselves into session, for only the third time in Tennessee history. That came after Lee opted not to call them into session himself.

While a number of the more controversial provisions in the main bill (House Bill 9077/Senate Bill 9014) were whittled down, it has still managed to put some businesses, local governments and public schools back on their heels.

"A private business, governmental entity, school, or local education agency shall not compel or otherwise take an adverse action against a person to compel the person to provide proof of vaccination if the person objects to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine for any reason," the law says.

Businesses fret over provisions that make it easier for employees to collect unemployment benefits if they are terminated for refusing to follow COVID-19 protocols.

The Biden administration has required employers with 100 or more workers ensure their employees are vaccinated or else submit to weekly testing. That federal mandate, which was to take effect Jan. 4, has been suspended by a federal appeals court.

The Tennessee omnibus bill also creates a new cause of action for workers to sue their employers for violating provisions seeking to protect workers against the federal vaccinate-or-test mandate.

In announcing his intention to sign the bill, Lee, a businessman, sought to brush business' concerns aside.

"I think the greatest concern we have and the reason this came about is because of the federal mandate for requiring businesses to vaccinate their employees. That created the General Assembly's response," Lee said.

Noting that Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery is opposing the Biden administration's mandates in court, Lee said he wants to make sure the particulars of the bill are the appropriate ones.

"But on balance, I agree with what's in the package, which is why I plan to sign it."

Other provisions in the omnibus bill block government entities and public schools from imposing mask requirements except during cases of severe conditions defined as local COVID-19 case rates of at least 1,000 cases per 100,000 cases, a milestone that has been achieved twice so far in Tennessee during the pandemic.

Lee stayed largely aloof from legislative proceedings during the special session, although some of his commissioners did show up to raise concerns.

"It would have been helpful to have the governor's public leadership before the legislature passed these new COVID regulations," Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, told the Times Free Press on Wednesday via text message.

"Signing wrong-headed and obviously defective bills into law with the hope of fixing them later really isn't the right way to govern," Yarbro added.

(READ MORE: Tennessee business groups upset with COVID-19 special session outcome)

One provision of the bill that has drawn concerns from Lee seeks to force hospitals to allow visitations by at least one family member of someone hospitalized for COVID-19, provided the family member has tested negative for the disease and remains asymptomatic.

McNally and Sexton publicly disagree over the extent of the provision, with Sexton saying it's intended in end-of-life circumstances, while a spokesman for McNally said the Senate speaker sees it as broader.

Lee said on that point that it is his view the provision is intended for end-of-life circumstances.

Tennessee businesses and the governor's own commissioner of labor and workforce development, Jeff McCord, have voiced concerns about some bill provisions they worry could land the state's Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration program in hot water with the federal government and leave the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in charge.

"I want to make certain in our conversation with both teams that we feel good about the provisions around TOSHA, our Tennessee state plan, to make sure that we preserve that," Lee said.

Asked by the Times Free Press about alarms raised by Tennessee businesses over the possibility of yearslong impact to Tennessee's reputation as a business-friendly state as a result of legislation crafted mostly in secret by members of a House and Senate conference committee before its adoption by the two chambers, Lee had this to say: "We're one of the most business-friendly states in our country, which is why companies from all across this country are moving here. We continue to be that, we have a good working relationship with the business community and will continue doing that going forward."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County mayor decries state stripping of local public health powers)

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

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT