NASHVILLE — The Republican-led Tennessee General Assembly opened its special session Wednesday to push back on local, state and federal COVID-19 mandates with measures sponsored by its two top leaders.
The speakers' bills include language to ban businesses from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccinations from customers or workers and turning local school board elections into partisan contests.
Certain Republicans have long thought partisan school board elections would make the boards more responsive to members of the party base who oppose measures such as mask mandates for students.
One House resolution introduced by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, meanwhile, asserts that state lawmakers can "nullify" or negate a pending regulation from President Joe Biden's administration that would require employers with 100 or more workers to ensure the personnel are vaccinated for COVID-19 or else are tested weekly.
Sexton's resolution requests state Attorney General Herbert Slatery look at challenging it in court even though the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government the upper hand.
Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, told the Times Free Press after a committee meeting that the Republican GOP supermajority is acting like it's "drunk on power" and pushing measures that will dictate to businesses about how they run their operations.
"They [Republicans] don't like mandates, but they're trying to impose mandates out the other side of their mouth," Clemmons said. "And then when you start talking about nullification, I've heard second-hand a state senator is using the term 'soft secession,' and now we have our own speaker of the House talking about nullification."
Clemmons, an attorney, said nullification has never been upheld by a federal court in U.S. history.
The resolution's language hearkens back to the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s, when South Carolina legislators called a state convention to proclaim a federal tariff null and void. President Andrew Jackson prepared to enforce the tariff by force, and eventually the dispute was resolved with a compromise measure.
Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, took the rare move to ask legislators to call themselves into session to address COVID-19 mandates angering their constituents. That came after Gov. Bill Lee, a fellow Republican, declined to do so.
Lawmakers have only succeeded in calling themselves into special session twice before in the state's 225-year history.
As he and McNally issued their call last week, Sexton said lawmakers have heard from Tennesseans who have "significant concerns over unconstitutional and burdensome mandates" and it was lawmakers' responsibility to let those voices be heard.
The measure dealing with businesses and vaccinations, Sexton said, is a "caption" bill, meaning it opens up the pertinent code sections. He said he expects the measure will change with new language, which he didn't specify.
Other Republican bills include measures to block schools' ability to issue mask mandates and use contact tracing to track and contain the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 16,000 people in Tennessee.
In his latest executive order issued last month, Lee extended school leaders' ability to impose mask requirements on students — with a provision that allows parents to opt out their children.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said businesses he is hearing from aren't happy about measures affecting them.
"I've heard from some individual businesses on some issues," he said by telephone. "They really don't want us dictating to them what they can and can't do."
The issue gained steam last month when businesses began implementing mandates on their own. Among those employers is Chattanooga-based BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, which recently fired 19 front-line workers who chose not to be vaccinated.
Other provisions in the speakers' various bills would allow workers who quit their jobs over COVID-19 vaccination requirements to qualify for unemployment benefits.
Yet another provision targets district attorneys general who don't prosecute crimes. Nashville's district attorney, Glenn Funk, has said he will not enforce Lee's order requiring school districts to allow a parent opt-out for student mask mandates. Lee's order has been blocked by three federal judges pending lawsuits in which families of disabled children say it endangers their children and violates their rights.
"I will not prosecute school officials or teachers for keeping children safe," Funk said in August.
Lee says parents are in the best position to determine what's safe for their children. Lee has declined to get involved in the special session and said in Chattanooga on Tuesday he is "not making recommendations." But if any measures do pass, Lee will face decisions about whether to sign, veto or allow them to become law without his signature.
Partisan school boards
Efforts to require school board candidates to run as Republicans, Democrats or independents have surfaced in previous sessions. Now, Sexton and McNally's measures would achieve that if approved.
Gardenhire said he has been hesitant in the past to support changing school board contests that are currently nonpartisan.
"But the actions by the school board the other night in Hamilton County might make me change my mind by mandating that teachers and staff members have to wear a mask," Gardenhire said
School board members last week narrowly voted down making mask use optional for staffers.
Gardenhire, who uses hearing aids, said he has researched the issue of masks and education. Some 15% of students have hearing problems, and mask use can make things even more difficult, he said. It can reduce a student's comprehension by 75%.
"We have to see the lips of people talking," the senator said, later adding, "there has to be some kind of reasonable exceptions for policies that we put down."
House Finance Committee Chair Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, told the Times Free Press after a committee meeting that she'll be listening to the discussion.
"I've heard from folks on both sides of the partisan school board issue," she said.
Hamilton County School Board Chair Tucker McClendon told the Times Free Press in the nation's current hyperpartisan environment, school boards here "don't have the pressure of partisan elections, and it should stay that way."
"I don't think it does anything good for the school system, for the students, for the teachers, for the parents," McClendon said. "I think anyone that runs for school board can tell you, you have to have a heart for children, you have to have a heart for education, and once you allow that to turn into partisan politics, it opens a gateway for it not to be such a good thing."
Times Free Press reporter Anika Chaturvedi contributed to this report.
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