Tennessee Government Relations Special Update – August 31, 2023
Tennessee Legislature Wraps Up Special Session: Friction Between House and Senate, Intense Floor Sessions, and Controversial House Rules
The Tennessee General Assembly concluded its special session on public safety this week, adjourning sine die eight days after the legislature first convened on Monday, August 21. The special session had been in the works since April, when the legislature opted to wrap up the 2023 regular session in an expedited fashion, declining to deliberate some of the safety measures that Governor Bill Lee was advocating in the wake of the tragic shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School in March. As was the case in April, large crowds of demonstrators filled the Capitol and legislative office building, calling for stronger gun laws and other public safety measures. And also like April, many of the ensuing headlines dealt more with ancillary issues than legislation – such as friction between House Democrats and House GOP leadership, and treatment of spectators and demonstrators in the House galleries and committee rooms – but this session was also marked by a very public disagreement between House and Senate leadership as to the number and scope of bills that the legislature should deliberate.
Differing Approaches Between House and Senate Result in Friction Between Chambers
Most of the major headlines this week concerned the public friction between the House and Senate, with the two chambers having very different views on the amount of legislation that should be considered and passed during the special session. Despite having full legislative calendars, the Senate considered just a handful of bills, often adjourning committee hearings and floor sessions after just minutes. The House took a different approach, holding lengthy committee hearings and floor sessions where they deliberated dozens of bills on multiple topics. With such varying approaches, it became obvious last week that the two chambers were approaching an impasse and it was unclear whether a compromise was in the works. The standoff then came into full view last Thursday when, rather than coming to an agreement as to what additional bills would be considered and passed, the two legislative bodies dug in on their respective positions and adjourned for the weekend.
Unfortunately, the time away from Nashville did little to thaw relations between the two chambers. Senate GOP leadership made it clear on Monday that they were not going to budge on their position that they had passed the key initiatives that were at the core of the special session, and that while several of the additional bills being pushed in the House had merit, a more deliberate process needed to be followed. With rumors circulating that the stalemate could cause session to extend for several more weeks, the end came quickly as both chambers adjourned sine die around midday on Tuesday. For the Senate’s part, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) told Nashville’s WTVF-5, “our position is we’ve completed our business. There are some other bills that have been filed, some of them very good pieces of legislation. But we just don’t believe we’ve got the time in a truncated special session to give them thorough consideration. So let’s wait until January and take those up.”
The Senate approach drew the ire of many of those who converged on the Capitol advocating for stronger gun laws and public safety measures, many of whom made those views very clear from the gallery of the Senate chamber when the Senate adjourned this week. The stalemate also left many House members questioning the actual impact of the special session. House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) said he was “very disappointed that we didn’t get more done in this special session. In the House, we had a lot of bills that got left on the table that I hope will still be taken back up in January to help families in Tennessee be safer.”
In response, Senate Republican leaders noted the importance of being deliberate with such important issues as well as following Governor Lee’s lead and sticking to the issues that were part of the Governor’s package of bills. When asked in an interview with WTVF what he would tell the what he would tell the mothers of schoolchildren that filled the galleries and hallways the last two weeks, Leader Johnson said, “I say we hear you, we hear you. And as I said, there are some really good bills that are among those that have been filed in the House, but what I would say to those families is: we want to get it done right, not get it done fast.”
House Rules Draw Controversy, Litigation
Controversy in the House started right out of the gate, as lawmakers on the first day of the special session spent almost two hours in heated debate over new House rules adopted for the session. A rule to prevent members of the public from holding signs while in the House gallery and committee rooms garnered massive public attention, drawing strong criticism from House Democrats and media outlets as well as subsequently leading to a lawsuit by the ACLU of Tennessee. The ACLU brought its action on behalf of three attendees that were removed from a House committee room for holding up signs, arguing that the rule operated as a violation on the public’s First Amendment rights. In response, Davidson County Chancellor Anne Martin promptly issued a temporary restraining order blocking the House rule, thus allowing signs for the time being, and scheduled an emergency hearing for Monday where she heard competing arguments from the ACLU in opposition to the House rule and the Tennessee Attorney General’s office, which supported the measure. The ACLU argued that the rule operated as an unreasonable suppression of the public’s right of free speech, while also noting the dynamic that under the new rules, the public could bring a gun into a legislative hearing, but not a picture of a gun. The Attorney General argued that the Court had overstepped its authority in temporarily blocking the rule, noting that other states have similar rules barring signs in state capitol buildings, as does the U.S. Supreme Court, and that signs can be a disruption. After considering the arguments, Chancellor Martin ordered that the House rule was to remain blocked, expressing the opinion that the Plaintiffs had demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the rule violated the First Amendment. The temporary restraining order put in place blocking the rule was converted to a temporary injunction which will remain until further order of the Court.
Tensions Remain High In House Floor Sessions
The tensions between House members that were often witnessed during the 2023 regular session once again reappeared in the special session. Starting with the controversy over the rules, tempers ran high between members of the two parties, and floor sessions often contained heated debates and arguments, both over the bills as well as members’ conduct. On Monday, Rep. Justin Jones (D-Nashville) was twice ruled out of order by Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville), leading to a 70-20 vote to silence Jones for the rest of the day under the new House rules. Democrats walked out of the chamber en masse as a result. Then on Tuesday there was a confrontation between Speaker Sexton and Rep. Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) just moments after Sexton gaveled the session to a close. Pearson had attempted to confront Sexton near the dais with a handmade sign as Sexton tried to exit the chamber, and some jostling and shouting ensued between the two. Pearson was quoted as shouting, “we came here and did absolutely nothing to protect kids.” Meanwhile, House Republican leadership criticized the Democratic caucus for the breaches in decorum. House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) characterized the events as “a couple of bad apples trying to spoil the bunch,” while Speaker Sexton said, “it’s unfortunate that it keeps getting there, but it is what it is. I mean, y’all can judge for yourself.”
Pearson and Jones drew national attention in April when the two were expelled from the House on a party line vote for a demonstration on the House floor, but both were quickly reinstated to their House seats by local governmental bodies.
Lawmakers Pass Four Bills Aimed at Public Safety
The House and the Senate ultimately passed only four bills during the special session – three bills aimed at promoting public safety and one appropriations bill. HB7012/SB7085 authorizes the Department of Safety to provide free firearm locks to Tennessee residents upon request, and requires all state-approved handgun safety courses to contain instruction on safe storage of firearms. The bill also permanently exempts the sales and use taxes on firearm safes and firearm safety devices beginning November 1, 2023. HB7013/SB7086 requires court clerks to update records in the state’s background check database within 72 hours and requires case dispositions and expungements be reported to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) electronically. This bill codifies the Governor’s executive order made earlier this year that reduced the timeframe from 30 days to 72 hours. HB7041/SB7088 directs the TBI to submit an annual report on child and human trafficking crimes and trends in Tennessee. The TBI is currently required to track this data, but the new law requires the agency to assemble this information all in one place. The fourth and final bill, HB7070/SB7089, appropriates more than $110 million in public safety funding including $30 million in school safety grants to public and private higher education institutions, $10 million additional funding for school safety grants, $50 million to mental health agencies, as well as $15.1 million for mental health professionals, the behavioral health scholarship program and mental health safety net.
Despite the small number of bills passed, Governor Bill Lee maintains that the special session was a success, stating, “Significant funding was focused on issues that matter to public safety. We improved the background check system, attacked human trafficking, made more access for safe storage [and] funded mental health resources across the state. We made progress.”
The second half of the 113th General Assembly will reconvene on Tuesday, January 9, 2024. As always, please let us know if you have any questions or if we can be helpful with anything during the off-season. Have a great Labor Day weekend.