NASHVILLE — One special session of the legislature deserves another, some GOP lawmakers are saying, as they look for an opening to ban mask requirements and vaccine mandates amid a pandemic that has killed 700,000 Americans.
Gov. Bill Lee has announced a special session on Oct. 18 to consider $500 million in state incentives for Ford Motor Co. for a massive West Tennessee electric vehicle factory.
Now the leaders of both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly want the Republican governor to call a second session focusing on local, state and federal COVID-19 mandates that are roiling their conservative base.
The effort has the support of House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, as well as Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate speaker and Oak Ridge Republican.
McNally previously opposed Sexton's call for a special session focusing on issues ranging from overriding local school mask mandates to opposing the Biden administration's COVID-19 mandates for vaccines or weekly tests for workers in companies with more than 100 employees.
"There are members who have stated that they may be opposed to the Ford incentive bill if they can't get some help for the parents and the families and the businesses back home," Sexton said Friday in a Times Free Press interview.
"The Ford megasite deal is transformational for Tennessee, and we look forward to working with Gov. Lee to finalize this project as part of his special session call for Ford Motor Co.," the speakers said earlier Friday in a joint statement.
"At the same time, we have heard from many Tennesseans seeking relief from burdensome COVID-19 mandates being imposed upon them. We are working together per our state constitution to call an additional special session."
McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider said the situation has changed since his earlier opposition to a COVID-10 special session, given the gathering being called for the Ford incentives.
"While he has been reticent to support such a session in the past, he does not believe it is appropriate to call the membership back to Nashville for the megasite issue without attempting to address the concerns of Senate members and their constituents. That is why he has now agreed to work with Speaker Sexton on a call for the purpose of addressing issues where there is consensus among both chambers," Kleinheider said.
Sexton said, "I've talked to members who the biggest issue in their district is COVID, not whether or not you approve of a $500 million package for Ford. So I'm not saying they're opposed to Ford coming into West Tennessee, but that's not the issue that's driving them at home, and you have to realize that, too. So if we're going to be down there anyway, why not go ahead and try to take care some of these issues to solve some of the problems that we're having?"
Sexton said Lee may get as few as 70 votes in the 99-member House for his Ford incentives if he doesn't agree to a special session to rein in COVID-19 public health measures.
"Who knows?" Sexton said. "But it's not going to be the vote total that everybody is wanting to get if we don't have a second session to address other issues that are important to Tennesseans right now."
In response, Lee communications chief Laine Arnold said in an email to the Times Free Press, "There's widespread support with partners in the General Assembly to create 6,000 jobs for Tennesseans, reap economic benefits in the billions and lead the next American manufacturing boom."
Lee has wide leeway to set health policies in most Tennessee counties, but the six largest counties — including Hamilton County — have independent health departments.
Some GOP lawmakers also want to rein in the powers of the six counties, which can do things such as issue school mask requirements.
Lee's Executive Order No. 84, which he renewed Thursday for 30 days, overrides local health measures by allowing for a parental opt-out for any such requirement. His action has been blocked by three separate judges in cases in the west, middle and eastern sections of Tennessee.
Asked Thursday at an event in Dickson whether he would be willing to consider the pandemic matters in a special session, the governor said no.
"This call is limited to Ford," Lee said. "Regarding masks, you know, I've been really clear just like I said a minute ago, I'm disappointed with the federal rulings. But we will approach that issue by defending the law of the state, the law that I created by executive order was that parents should have the option there. We're going to work with the attorney general to appeal the rulings of both judges, that's the best way forward on the mask issue."
As for the federal vaccine requirement for large employers, Lee said, "We have no, yet, clear definition of the order yet from the president, Biden. But we will push against that order because I do not think it is a good idea to mandate that businesses should mandate vaccines. So we'll oppose that order when it comes, and the attorney general has already stated such, and we'll be supportive of that."
The lawsuits against Lee's order overriding local mask mandates have been filed by families whose children have disabilities that make them particularly susceptible to the spread of the coronavirus.
President Joe Biden and his education secretary say Lee's effort to block school-mask mandates may run afoul of the rights of those students. Biden last month charged that states such as Tennessee have moved to "block and intimidate" local schools into dropping mask mandates.
Special sessions of the General Assembly can come about in two ways. The easiest one is for governors to call them. The second avenue involves lawmakers calling themselves into session. That's proven a fairly high barrier in the past because it involves getting signatures from two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate's membership.
The Ford session would likely provide an opportunity to gather those signatures.
On Sept. 16, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery wrote Biden voicing his concerns about the legality of the nationwide vaccination and testing requirement for COVID-19 for employers who have 100 or more workers.
Tennessee has at times had the nation's worst rates of COVID-19 infections on a per capita basis. Hospitals and health care executives have urged Lee to implement stronger safeguards to protect the public and their workers.
Responding to a reporter's observation that state lawmakers may have a difficult time challenging federal officials on COVID-19 issues, Sexton said, "If we're going to sit here and allow the federal government or President Biden or the federal courts to dictate to us what we can and cannot do or we're going to wait for four months or three months to figure out what the courts are going to say, then what's the role of state government?
"Tennesseans have elected us to work for them, not work for the feds," Sexton added. "Now, I'm not going to play our hand on what we can or can't do, but I wouldn't discount us in finding a solution to the mask issue that maybe hasn't been thought of yet and being able to give some relief to Tennesseans and to the parents and to the children.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.