cordell hull building

House issues guidance for return to session

The doors of the state Capitol were closed to the public on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

As of late last week, there was still disagreement between the House and Senate about whether to allow visitors onto the legislative floor of the state Capitol. Under a compromise struck on Friday, the House will be able to welcome members of the public into its gallery, but not into the lobby outside the two chambers. The Senate side will remain closed to anyone but its members, staff, and the media. The tunnel connecting the Cordell Hull Building with the Capitol will be closed to the public.

Here’s a memo sent out by Holt Whitt, the interim chief of staff to House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville):

As you are all aware, the House has several days of session planned on the floor next week. Due to protocols put in place to maximize space, legislative assistants in the House will not be permitted to attend session in person. Limited space will be designated for House Research and staff in House leadership offices. Staff walking to session are encouraged to use the steps outside if they are able to do so to allow members priority access to the elevators inside the Cordell Hull Tunnel.

The general public (guests, lobbyists, etc.) will be permitted to attend House session and access will be limited based on the number of seats designated in the house balcony. The general public will not be permitted to use the Cordell Hull Tunnel to access the Capitol. Any general public entering the Capitol must do so on the 1st floor of the building. Accommodations can be made for those that are unable to access the Capitol on the 1st floor.

Policies inside the Cordell Hull Building will remain the same as they were for committees this week.

All House staff is required to wear a mask in the common areas of both buildings.

If you have any questions please let me know. Thank you all for your hard work and have a great weekend.

A look at preparations for Tennessee lawmakers’ return amid the coronavirus pandemic

The state House and Senate are still at odds about the scope of the upcoming return into session, but that’s not stopping them from getting the Cordell Hull Building prepped for lawmakers’ return.

Here’s a look at some of the changes being made to the legislative office complex:

Plexiglass barriers have been installed in the main House committee room on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Signs remind visitors to keep a six-foot distance outside the elevator bank in the Cordell Hull Building on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Taped arrows show the path to the cafeteria in the Cordell Hull Building on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Audience seats are covered and witness and member chairs are separated in the main Senate committee room on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Plexiglass barriers were being installed in the main House committee room on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Plexiglass slides can be pulled back to shield lawmakers when they are sitting in the committee room, as seen on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A bench in the entryway of the Cordell Hull Building is taped off on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Audience seats are covered and witness and member chairs are separated in the main Senate committee room on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A middle urinal is taped off in the Cordell Hull Building in the interest of social distancing on May 19, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Legislative office access to be by appointment only

The doors to the Cordell Hull Building are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Cordell Hull Building will reopen to staff and members on Monday, but the legislative office complex will remain largely closed to the public. There will be an exception for guests who have scheduled appointments with lawmakers.

About 23,000 executive branch employees who have been working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic will be doing so for another month. About 18,000 state employees, or 44% of the total full-time workforce, have still been required to come to work during COVID-19.

 

Here are the guidelines put out by the office of legislative administration:

RETURN TO WORK: What to Know

In preparation for our return to operations at the Cordell Hull Building, your health continues to be of primary concerns to us.  Our Speakers receive regular updates from top health officials concerning conditions and will continue to provide you with relevant information.

All staff is scheduled to return to work on Monday, May 4, 2020, at your regular schedule.

The Cordell Hull Building will continue to be closed to the public until further notice with the exception of guests who have a scheduled appointment with a Member.   All guests should be directed to enter through the 5th Avenue Main Entrance and should remain in hallways or common areas until the time of their appointment.  Please notify me one day in advance of any guest scheduled to come into the building for an appointment so that security can be notified for approval to enter the facility.

Following the Centers for Disease Control recommendations, we ask that staff practice these suggestions while at work:

  • Maintain six (6) foot physical distancing.
  • Wear a cloth mask or facial covering while in common areas and around other people in the facility. A simple scarf or bandana to cover your nose and mouth is sufficient.  If you need a mask, please let me know and we will provide one.
  • While in your suite, keep your door shut. Guests should remain in hallways and common areas until the time of scheduled appointments.
  • Avoid gathering in groups.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze using a tissue if possible.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer often.
  • Avoid touching your face.

If you are at home or at work and become ill with symptoms including fever, cough or shortness of breath, remain at home or leave the facility immediately and remain at home until you are free of fever and other symptoms without using fever-reducing medicine for at least 24 hours.  Notify your Member/Supervisor as soon as possible.

FACILITY OPERATIONS: Cleaning and Disinfecting Regularly

The Facilities Management Office has implemented new procedures for cleaning and disinfecting the building.  The facility is cleaned thoroughly on an on-going basis following the guidelines and products recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.  This includes common areas and office suites and air processing systems.

The Facilities Office staff will deliver to your suite all mail that has been held during our remote work absence.  Mail will be in your suite when you return to work on Monday.

 

Legislative office complex to remain shuttered until May 4

The doors of the state Capitol were closed to the public on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Cordell Hull Building will remain closed to lawmakers, staff, media, and the public until at least May 4. The announcement by building administrators follows Gov. Bill Lee’s decision extend a statewide stay-at-home order for nonessential business until the end of April.

The legislative office complex has been vacated since March 23. The General Assembly the previous week passed an emergency budget and left for what was planned to be a 75-day hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic. The plan has been to return on June 1.

Here is the notice sent out by Connie Ridley, the director of legislative administration, on Monday:

Lieutenant Governor McNally and Speaker Sexton advise that staff should not plan to return to the Cordell Hull Building until Monday, May 4, 2020.  They will continue to monitor the situation and update you as necessary.

Please continue to perform duties remotely per our earlier notice and monitor your email for updates.

Prior approval must be obtained from your Chief of Staff, Chief Clerk, your Director or me to enter the building during this period.

Legislative staffers over 60 told to stay home if they have chronic conditions

The doors to the Cordell Hull Building are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

House staffers over the age of 60 who have serious chronic medical conditions won’t be required to report for work while the state Capitol is on limited access because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Tennessean’s Joel Ebert reports that an email from House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) told the affected employees they will “receive full pay and benefits during this period of absence.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified the over-60 population as the most vulnerable to the virus. Ebert crunched the numbers to determine that 60 of 132 state lawmakers are at least 60 years old, or 45% of the entire membership.

The House last week ended its internship program in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The Senate did not follow suit at that time. But when the upper chamber’s interns showed up for work on Monday, they were told to go home.

The Cordell Hull Building is operating on a limited-access basis this week, allowing only members, staff, and the press into the facility.

Lee adminstration to forgo legislative liaisons amid Capitol closure

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol on Sept. 16, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee will forgo the assistance of legislative liaisons while the Capitol complex is closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Tennessean’s Natalie Allison first reported that Lee’s legislative director, Brent Easley, sent an email to lawmakers on Sunday night to inform them of the decision.

“After deliberation and conversations the Governor has had this weekend, we will not have legislative liaisons at the Cordell Hull Building tomorrow,” Easley wrote. “That will extend until a time to be determined.”

Private sector lobbyists had raised concerns that the ongoing presence of legislative liaisons while the rest of the public was kept out of the building would give an unfair advantage to the governor’s initiatives while lawmakers met behind closed doors.

 

Questions abound over closed-door legislative session

House budget hearings head  in Nashville on Dec. 16, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The closure of General Assembly proceedings to the public in response to the coronavirus pandemic is raising questions about fairness in the legislative process.

Under the guidance issued by the governor and the speakers on Friday, no one other than lawmakers, staff, and the media, will be allowed inside the Capitol complex. That means entry will be barred to all other parties interested in the fate of  legislative initiatives.

While lawmakers like to downplay the effect Capitol visitors have on their ultimate votes, there’s little question that advocates — both professional and amateur — can have a huge effect.

A prime example was last year’s passage of the $27 million Katie Beckett waiver to cover healthcare costs for children with disabilities whose families wouldn’t otherwise meet income restrictions. That Medicaid expansion took place following a concerted effort by parents to bring their children to lawmakers’ offices and committee meetings to make their case for the waiver.

Big public participation in legislative debates is usually reserved for the hot-button topics, and this year’s session still has several of those pending. They include bills on abortion, guns, and medical marijuana. There are are also several less public, but just as hotly-contested items being still being wrangled about, ranging from the regulation of roadside billboards to updating online sales tax requirements.

Lobbyists fear that if they are excluded from the building, the governor’s army of legislative liaisons (who as staff are expected to keep their access to the building) will have unchecked influence with lawmakers.

The word from legislative leaders is that members will be urged to set aside bills unrelated to the getting the budget enacted, but it remains to be seen how lawmakers will react to putting their pet legislation to bed for at least another year. There are also several bills still pending that would have an impact budget, both in terms of new revenue and over spending priorities.

For now, the public is told to just watch the live-streaming video if they want to keep up with proceedings. But as anybody who’s spent time at the legislative office complex knows, just about everything of consequence happens off camera.

Lobbyists included in Capitol ban but told remainder of session to focus on budget

Lawmakers await Gov. Bill Lee arrival for his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Lobbyists are to be included in the General Assembly’s decision to close access to the legislative office complex in the face of the coronavirus crisis, but legislative leaders have told the Tennessee Lobbyists Association that lawmakers will be “encouraged to only continue with legislation pertaining to the budget and funding.”

Presumably that would mean lawmakers would put hot-button issues on ice while charging ahead on getting the annual spending plan passed. But state funding is a major focus of many lobbying activities, so it remains to be seen how the plan would work in practice.

And as several observers have noted, encouraging members to act in a certain way isn’t the same as putting a hard stop to hearings on controversial bills. One way to underscore the plan to wary advocates would be to begin shutting down major committees early in the week to allow the finance panels to become the center of attention.

“It was confirmed to me that beginning on Monday, only members, staff, and media will have access to the CHB until further notice,” Steve Buttry, the chairman of the Tennessee Lobbyists Association and a former state lawmaker, said in an email to members. “This means lobbyists will not have access to the building during the closure to the public.

“I was also told that the goal is an expedited session. Members are being encouraged to only continue with legislation pertaining to the budget and funding,” he said. “Obviously the situation is very fluid.”

Tennessee Capitol complex to close doors to public

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessee Capitol and legislative office complex will be off limits to the public starting on Monday amid the spread of the coronavirus.

“COVID-19 is an evolving situation but we urge vulnerable populations, including those over age 60 and with chronic medical conditions to limit participation in mass gatherings and to take extra precautions for personal well-being like increased hand-washing,” Gov. Bill Lee said in a statement. “With 26 confirmed cases in our state, we have issued further guidance to help communities mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

Here’s a joint statement from House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally:

Governor Lee continues to take a thoughtful approach to containing the possible spread of COVID-19. We applaud his steps to better protect the public’s health. Beginning Monday, March 16, we will limit access to the Cordell Hull Building out of an abundance of caution. Access is prohibited to everyone except elected members, staff and members of the media until further notice. However, the citizens of Tennessee will still be able to access the work they have elected us to do through the livestreaming services available on our website.

We must take any and all reasonable steps to slow the spread of COVID-19. It is imperative the public’s health be prioritized and economic disruption minimized. We will continue to evaluate this situation, remain in contact with Governor Lee, the state’s health leaders, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to determine whether additional action is needed.

The governor’s office also gave the following guidance:

Mass Gatherings

Heading into the weekend, many Tennesseans will be making decisions regarding faith gatherings and church attendance. Congregations and groups are urged to consider alternatives to traditional services by utilizing livestreams, pre-recorded messages and other electronic means. 

While at this time, mass gatherings such as conferences or other large social events remain at the discretion of the organizer, we strongly discourage events of 250 people or more as an important step in limiting exposure to COVID-19. 

Schools

At this time, school districts have been advised to exercise discretion when canceling school for K-12 students. The state will provide further support for districts pursuing this action but urge districts to consider the prevalence of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in their area. In partnership with districts, students who depend on school-provided meals will still receive this support, regardless of school closure.

State Employees, Business Travel 

Effective immediately, state employees who have been trained and certified to work from home within the state’s Alternative Workplace Solutions (AWS) program will work from home through March 31, 2020. Approximately 11,000 state employees are certified AWS employees and can begin work from home with no disruption to state business. 

Effective immediately, state employees have been instructed to cease all non-essential business travel through March 31, 2020. 

Tennessee State Capitol Closed to Visitors

The Tennessee State Capitol is closed to tours and visitors through March 31, 2020. Members of the media will continue to have access to the State Capitol building. 

 

25 killed in Middle Tennessee tornadoes, legislature resumes regular business

At least 25 people have been killed in severe weather that tore through Middle Tennessee early Tuesday, including 14 in Putnam County alone.

The start of Super Tuesday voting was delayed by an hour in Nashville after a overnight tornado touched down in the city causing widespread damage. In addition to the Putnam County fatalities, three died in Wilson County, two in Davidson County, and one in Benton County.

The storm did major damage to the Germantown neighborhood of Nashville, just north of the state Capitol complex. A power outage at the Cordell Hull Building led legislative leaders to cancel all morning committee meetings. The cancellations meant a week-long delay of Senate hearings on an effort to cut the privilege tax for brokers, doctors, and attorneys.

But a decision to resume activities at 1 p.m. meant bills could still get hearings on implementing sweeping restrictions on access to abortions in Tennessee and allowing adults to carry firearms in public without a permit. Legislation to grant 12 weeks of paid leave for state employees to care for a new child or sick family member was put off by a week.

Gov. Bill Lee ordered all non-essential state employees in Middle Tennessee to stay home.

“We have activated the State Emergency Operations Center and are engaged with emergency and local officials throughout the affected areas,” he said in a statement. “Please join Maria and me in praying for the victims, their families, and all those tragically affected by this storm.”

Secretary of State Tre Hargett ordered the polls to open an hour late in Nashville, but they are still scheduled to close at the normal time of 7 p.m. Central. Nashville voters whose polling places were damaged by the storm can vote in alternate locations outlined here.

One heavily damaged building was the Basement East, a music venue in East Nashville that had been the site of a “Berniefest” fundraiser for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Staffers cleaning up after the show huddled in the basement as the storm tore off the roof and destroyed a large exterior deck, according to reports.

The Monday evening event at the Basement East, which was heavily damaged by a tornado in Nashville on March 3, 2020.