Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has called for a special session of the General Assembly beginning two weeks from yesterday to consider an incentive package for Ford Motor Co.'s announced massive investment in West Tennessee.
While the automaker's deal is good news for state residents and the incentive package is likely to pass, it's not the special session some Republican legislators were hoping for.
That would be one to deal with — take your pick of one or more: the prevention of mask mandates, the prevention of the closing of schools, the prevention of President Joe Biden's mandate that employees in businesses with more than 100 employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 or the curbing of the "emergency powers of the governor."
While we share some of the concerns of the legislators, we don't believe an additional special session is needed to put in place laws to deal with a pandemic we continue to hope will wind down within the next year. New daily virus cases in the U.S. already have declined 35% since Sept. 1, and the number of Americans hospitalized with the illness has fallen 25% since the same day.
This month's special, or extraordinary, session will be the state's third in just over a year and the fourth during Lee's term, one shy of Gov. John Sevier's record of five during two tenures as governor, 1796-1801 and 1803-1809.
However, the state has had only 62 previous special sessions, all but two of them called by governors. The legislature is allowed to call a session, but to do so it must be called by the presiding officers of both the Senate and House and must be supported by the written request of two-thirds of the members of each chamber.
When a governor calls a special session, though, he and he alone determines its subject matter, according to the state constitution, which says "he shall state specifically the purposes for which [legislators] are to convene, but they shall enter on no legislative business except that for which they were specifically called together."
Whether enough Republicans, who hold supermajorities in both houses, would be interested in mustering the votes to call a special session is not known. But, according to state legislative librarian Eddie Weeks, we know back-to-back special sessions called by the governor in the fall of 1913 had the legislators pleading for relief.
In a 2020 Nashville Tennessean podcast, he related how legislators had drawn up a resolution asking Gov. Ben Hooper for time to get more clothes and to get wood gathered for winter before another special session be called.
Some Republicans, according to the Tennessee Journal, already have been grumbling that Lee hasn't called a special session on the pandemic-related subjects and may make their feelings known by refusing to vote on the Ford incentives.
"If there wasn't a special session [on masks, mandates, etc.]," House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, told WWTN-FM, "you'd have members who vote against [the Ford deal] in the House. Instead of getting the 90-plus votes that is like everyone's in unison with the decision and wanting Ford, you'd be in the 70s. It would still pass, but is that really the message you want to send to the biggest investment in Tennessee history?"
He also posed the two subjects almost like a quid pro quo.
"You just have members who are like, if I'm in East Tennessee, and it's great that we landed that in West Tennessee, but I've got families and parents over here and who need help and we're not doing anything to help them," Sexton said. "And why can't we?"
Lee, who has upset a portion of state residents by not calling for more mask mandates and not pushing vaccinations to their satisfaction, has said he prefers to combat federal rulings and orders about forced vaccinations and mask mandates in court rather than in the General Assembly.
If the governor chooses not to call an additional special session, we at least hope things won't come to the point they did in 1895, when, during a special session on the state's convict lease program, the superintendent of state prisons was murdered in the Capitol.
Other subjects for special, or extraordinary, sessions have ranged from appointing the state's first congressional representative, to ratifying the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote, to allowing members of the armed service to vote.
Special sessions in 1861 also twice dealt with the state seceding from the union. In the first vote, legislators put the vote to the people, who said they wanted to remain undivided. After war broke at at Fort Sumter, S.C., later that year, legislators themselves made the decision and voted to secede.
Tennessee was the last state to join the Confederacy and the first to be taken back into the union after the Civil War.
We trust matters won't become nearly as tense during the upcoming session, whether or not virus matters get an airing in a session of their own.
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