Republicans at Tennessee House are rushing forward with a broad set of proposed restrictions on COVID-19 vaccination and mask warrants in a special session called to discuss economic incentives and government authority for the investment of Ford’s $ 5.6 billion.
But the bill, HB8003, was doomed this week after gaining no traction in the state’s upper house, without any Senate sponsor carrying the bill and no Senate committee. be set up to discuss the legislation.
It is also unclear whether the bill fits into Governor Bill Lee’s call for the special session, which has been adapted to the legislation surrounding the $ 884 million legislative package for the Ford deal. But the work House Republicans did on Tuesday could prepare them for next week’s special session on COVID-19 restrictions.
While Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton R-Crossville told reporters on Monday that the House Clerk’s office decided the bill fell under this week’s special session, the office of the lieutenant governor Randy McNally does not share this interpretation.
“Lieutenant Governor McNally believes the call for the current special session clearly limits the session to issues surrounding megasite,” McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider said. “No bill complementary to HB8003 – or any other bill apart from the appeal – was tabled in the Senate during this session.”
The governor’s office did not say whether Lee thinks the bill fits the current special session.
Related:Tennessee lawmakers launch special session to incur $ 884 million in spending for Ford deal
Following:Tennessee Lawmakers Formally Call Special Session on COVID-19 Restrictions
“We are certainly monitoring the bill, but we are focusing on what we have proposed regarding the credits, monitoring and management of the Megasite,” said Lee spokesperson Laine Arnold.
The legislation, introduced by Representative Rusty Grills, R-Newbern, was originally designed to guarantee unemployment benefits to those who left their jobs due to COVID-19 vaccine requirements.
In a three-hour House Health and Safety Committee hearing on Tuesday, the bill was amended to prohibit government and private entities from requiring proof of vaccination, prohibiting schools from require masks and allow workers on unpaid leave for refusing to be vaccinated to continue to receive the benefits.
Republican committee members backed the bill, arguing that the omnibus package would allow Tennessee residents to make their own personal health choices and not be punished for them.
Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, who sponsored two of the three amendments, said the goal is to “protect the ability of all Tennesseans to maintain their freedom and to defend their inalienable rights to life, liberty and in search of happiness “.
But the bill met with stiff opposition from Democratic lawmakers on the committee, who argued that vaccines and masks save lives.
“Dude, I thought I was coming here to split $ 1 billion,” GA Hardaway representative D-Memphis said. “We are talking about life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Life comes first.”
Package a response to federal executive decrees, court decisions
Although lawmakers said the bill was part of the call for discussions on the megasite, the project, along with Ford’s name, was barely mentioned during the hearing.
The bill was passed by the 12-5 committee, with votes divided among parties.
Zachary first targeted President Joe Biden’s executive order requiring employers with 100 or more employees to prescribe regular weekly vaccines or tests.
“The threat of the Biden administration is now costing people their livelihood,” he said.
In a September letter, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery challenged the legal basis for Biden’s order. Some senators, including McNally, have warned that the legislature is unlikely to do anything that could change Biden’s course.
Following:Tennessee GOP lawmaker slams colleagues for supporting companies’ right to demand vaccines
A government operations committee criticized the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Monday and discouraged the agency from adopting a set of emergency rules establishing safeguards against COVID-19 in healthcare facilities and support services.
Under the amended bill, no private company would be able to demand proof of vaccination, which would make vaccination warrants effectively inapplicable.
Zachary’s other amendment would ban school districts from requiring masks. It was sparked by decisions by three federal judges in Tennessee to block Lee’s executive order allowing parents to remove their children from school mask warrants in three counties, including Knox, he said.
Representative John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, also sponsored an amendment that would allow people on unpaid leave because they refused to be vaccinated to qualify for unemployment benefits.
Democrats on the committee strongly opposed the proposals. Representative Gloria Johnson, R-Knoxville, said students have the right to “go to schools safely.”
Hardaway called the bill “bad legislation”.
“We can put the whole reason why we are here in danger in order to prosecute him,” he said.
Bill potential target during special COVID-19 session
While it is doubtful whether the bill can move forward during the Ford session, the omnibus package could return next week for the now official COVID-19 special session.
“There is a good chance that you will revisit this language if we get another special session,” Zachary said.
If federal rules conflict with state law, Zachary said the issues could be taken to court, forcing the judiciary to resolve the dispute.
When asked why the rush to introduce the bill this week rather than next, Zachary said he was eager to legislate for his constituents whether or not the bill dies.
“I cannot come here for a special session and not take measures to protect the people I represent,” he said. “Bills fail here all the time. Whether or not it fails is up to the body’s will.
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