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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Gov. Bill Lee speaks at the recent groundbreaking for the Construction Career Center in the former Mary Ann Garber Elementary School in East Chattanooga.

The next act in the drama about the controversial COVID-19 legislation passed by the Tennessee legislature during its special session last week is whether Gov. Bill Lee will sign it.

Six bills are sitting on the governor's desk, and he told reporters Monday he'd be "looking at each piece of the legislation to see the details of what [legislators have] done."

Lee has 10 calendar days (not including Sundays) to consider the bills. For them to become law, he could sign them or let them take effect without his signature.

Or he could veto some or all of them. We urge him to consider that.

We especially want him to consider vetoing Senate Bill 9014, the omnibus or "big" bill, because some of its tenets don't adhere to conservative principles — namely, government intrusion into private business and a movement away from local control of government.

In the omnibus bill, measures — among other things — forbid school districts from requiring masks for students during the COVID-19 pandemic unless severe conditions are reached, prohibit government agencies or public schools from requiring a person to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, forbid requirements for proof of vaccination, and establish that the state commissioner of health — rather than local health authorities — has the authority to establish quarantine guidelines.

We don't support vaccine and mask mandates in general but believe those decisions should be reserved for local, rather than state, government.

Recall that Lee had resisted calling the special session, the state's third this year. House and Senate leaders had to do so, getting enough of their members to agree.

"My strategy has been a limited government approach," the Republican governor said earlier this month. "I trust Tennesseans to make their own choices for their families whether it's a mask or vaccine."

He has also noted, "I encourage Tennesseans to get vaccinated. It is the single most important and effective tool that we have to battle the pandemic, but I do not think that we should mandate vaccines."

The legislation, in its creation, drafting and passage, has created some interesting partners. The National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee Business Roundtable, and Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, usually on the side of Republican legislation, oppose much of the business-related measures because they place them in the middle of a fight between the state and federal government. They also say the bills weaken their ability to set their own health policy to keep their employees and customers safe.

Democrats, meanwhile, are against all six bills but, in a turn of events, find themselves on the side of local rather than big government.

"Governor," the Joint Minority Caucus wrote in a letter to Lee, "we should be a state that respects the role and authority of local governments and a state that promotes public health and protects the rights of those saving lives." They also said it threatens "the rights of voters, cities, counties, schools and private organizations to sensibly govern themselves."

A Lee veto of the omnibus bill might make some of his more libertarian-leaning Republican supporters unhappy, but it's not going to collapse support for his re-election in 2022. One poll over the summer gave him an approval rating of 85%, but others put his support at a healthy but more modest 56% or 57%. Still, the Cook Political Report race ratings put his 2022 race in the "solid Republican category."

If the governor were to veto any of the bills, another special session could be called by two-thirds of the members of both the House and Senate in which legislators would consider whether to override the veto. Tennessee is one of only six states that requires a majority vote from both of its legislative chambers to override a veto.

Given the governor's reluctance to call the special session, his previous experience as a private businessman, his understanding of the importance of small business autonomy and his appreciation for less centralized government, plus his political standing in the state, we hope he'll give special consideration to the veto of at least the omnibus bill passed last week by state legislators. It may or may not be politically courageous, but it would be the right thing to do.

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