(The Center Square) – A number of bills have been filed heading into Wednesday’s start of the Tennessee Legislature’s special session on COVID-19-related matters.
House Bill 9001 and House Bill 9002, filed by state Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, address employer or higher education liability if they require a vaccination for employment or enrollment and make local school board elections partisan.
Cepicky voted against both Ford-related bills during last week's special session, stating he believed COVID-19-related regulations needed to be addressed first.
House Bill 9003, filed by Rep. Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport, prevents vaccine mandates for public employers and puts liability on private companies that do require a vaccine.
House Bill 9004, filed by Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, prevents government officials or entities from requiring a medical treatment or requiring visitors or employees to divulge medical treatment status status.
House Bill 9005, also filed by Zachary, prevents a school district from creating a mask mandate while allowing for a process for individual students to apply for a status that creates a special environment where no one can come within six feet of that student without wearing a mask.
House Bill 9006, filed by Cepicky, prevents discrimination based on vaccine status. House Bill 9007, filed by Cepicky, prevents public schools, charter schools and public higher education institutes from implementing contact tracing. House Bill 9008, filed by Zachary, changes the authority for appointing county health authorities from the commissioner of health to the county mayor.
"The Biden administration has weaponized the free market against us, forcing you to put something in your body that you don't want against your will in order for you to maintain employment," Zachary said in a video posted to social media. "... The president needs to understand that this is all about freedoms. The Constitution provides us certain freedoms. We are to protect the unalienable rights that are granted to us by God. That is one of our roles as government.
"... Starting on Wednesday, we are going to step in on behalf of all Tennesseans and do all we can to protect your freedom."
During last week’s special session on Ford’s $5.6 billion electric truck facility on 3,600 acres of the Memphis regional megasite, another COVID-related bill, House Bill 8003, was proposed, debated and left on the table with no Senate-sponsored companion bill filed. That bill began as one that would have allowed employees who leave employment because of a vaccine requirement to be eligible to receive unemployment benefits.
It morphed into a bill that would have prevented employers from requesting vaccination status, prevented schools from spending state funds to require or enforce mask mandates and allowed employees put on unpaid leave because of vaccination status to receive unemployment benefits.
After the Ford special session, Gov. Bill Lee discussed proposed COVID-19 vaccine mandates after reiterating the vaccine is “the most important and effective tool that we have to combat this virus. We will continue to make it widely available, and we will continue to encourage Tennesseans to get a vaccine.
“But we think that that should be a choice,” Lee said. “The Biden administration has taken this important tool of the vaccine and weaponized it by making it a mandate.
“The president promised to stay out of the business of mandates but has, in fact, inserted himself right in the middle of American businesses. Vaccines have been politicized by the Biden administration from the start. But for regular Tennesseans, it’s about a paycheck and about a personal health decision of their own,” Lee said.
A call for this week's special session from Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton outlined the special session parameters.
“For several weeks, we have heard from Tennesseans that have significant concerns over the unconstitutional and burdensome mandates being imposed upon them,” Sexton said. “As an elected body, it is our responsibility to let the distinctive voices of our communities be heard on these issues. I look forward to working together with Lt. Gov. McNally, the House and Senate to create solutions that preserve the individual choices, freedoms and liberties of all Tennesseans.”
When asked Friday about this week's special session and whether legislation should be passed regarding vaccine mandates, Lee said that wasn't his focus.
"I have been focused on (the Ford) special session because this is the most important thing for me to focus on," Lee said. "You will have to ask the General Assembly about the next session they called."
This week's session can discuss uniform measures on masks, vaccines and restrictions, along with the use of monoclonal antibody treatment and access to the COVID-19 vaccine for minors without parental consent.
Lee mentioned in his news conference, while the COVID-19 vaccine is the most-effective treatment, he doesn't believe in a "one-size-fits-all mandate" because new medications, prophylactics and a new anti-virus oil medication also exist.
The special session also could address employer liability for vaccine mandates, such as Cepicky’s proposed HB 9001, and the governor’s executive order powers, along with partisan school board elections, such as Cepicky’s HB 9002.
Lee's executive order against school mask mandates has been fought in federal court in Shelby, Knox and Williamson counties. Judge Wavery Crenshaw Jr. in U.S. District Court ordered Friday an injunction against Lee's executive order will last until the case is finalized.
Each case was based upon an argument that preventing mask mandates violates the Americans with Disabilities Act protections of students with disability because of evidence showing that preventing mask mandates mean that those disabled students cannot have a safe in-person schooling environment.
The final section of the call allows for appropriations related to any actions taken during the special session or enacting that legislation.
Each day the House and Senate meet costs $30,750 in per diem for lawmakers, while each round trip for all lawmakers costs taxpayers $15,474 in mileage, according to Connie Ridley, the director of Tennessee’s Office of Legislative Administration.
“The members of the Senate and their constituents have been clear about the need for this session,” McNally said. “The COVID-19 crisis – and how various institutions have adapted and reacted to it – has created new and unique legislative challenges. This is an opportunity to make the General Assembly’s voice heard on issues regarding masks, vaccines, executive power, and federal mandates.”