state capitol

Protesters blocked from entering Capitol while Senate candidate hobnobs with lawmakers

State troopers rushed to block demonstrators from entering the state Capitol on Monday. Meanwhile on the inside of the building, U.S. Senate candidate Bill Hagerty pressed the flesh with Republican lawmakers inside the building.

The protesters were given several reasons for why the couldn’t attend Monday’s floor session, including that House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) had closed the building to visitors and that the THP was concerned protesters had previously been involved in defacing the building. The Senate side of the Capitol complex has been closed to all visitors since the General Assembly returned from its coronavirus hiatus.

Later on Monday night, 21 protesters were removed from the Capitol complex for violating a camping ban.

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.

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.

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. 

 

Vacancy on Capitol Commission puts off decision on Forrest bust

It could be months before Gov. Bill Lee fills a vacancy on the Tennessee Capitol Commission, meaning the panel will remain in a holding pattern about whether to recommend the removal of a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

The AP’s Jonathan Mattise reports that Lee is focused on other priorities since his appointee Deputy Chief Tyreece Miller of the Jackson police stepped down from commission. Miller, who is black, has been nominated by President Donald Trump to become the U.S. Marshal for West Tennessee.

“There have been other things that have filled the docket between that point and now,” Lee told reporters in Nashville. “But we will be making an appointment to that commission over the next few months and they will be meeting again. They haven’t determined when they will be meeting. But I’m sure that will unfold over the next several weeks.”

 

That’s a wrap! Lawmakers go home for the year

Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) speaks to reporters in the House chamber in Nashville on April 17, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Tennessee General Assembly has concluded its business for the year. Here’s a roundup of some of the last-minute festivities:

Who was at the closed-door DeVos meeting?

While reporters headed out to set up for a photo-op and gaggle at a Nashville charter school, Gov. Bill Lee and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos hosted a closed-door roundtable in a conference room in the state Capitol. The specifics of what was discussed were not divulged, but attendees helpfully took photos to give hints about who was there.

Besides the usual suspects of Senate and House leadership, the Beacon Center appears to have been heavily represented with Vice Chairman Joe Scarlett (the retired head of Tractor Supply Co.), board member Fred Decosimo (Lee’s campaign treasurer), and President Justin Owen. Others included Lee Barfield (a former lobbyist and longtime voucher advocate), Victor Evans (of TennesseeCAN), Hugh Morrow (president of Ruby Falls), Bradley Jackson (head of the state Camber), and Mark Gill (president of Rodgers Capital Group). Not pictured is Scarlett’s daughter, Tara.

Seemingly not in attendance? State Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. (We hear she was out of town on TNReady business)

Recognize anyone else?

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Lee won’t lift gun ban within state Capitol

Gov.-elect Bill Lee won’t lift the ban on firearms within the state Capitol when he takes office.

That’s according to Sam Stockard over at the Daily Memphian.

“I think the regulations as they are will stand. I’m not going to change that,” Lee said.

As of the start of the year, 628,427 Tennesseans had state-issued permits to carry firearms in public. The state suspended or revoked 2,252 permits for criminal charges or orders of protection in domestic violence cases. Another 2,882 permit applications were denied.

The General Assembly began allowing handgun carry permit holders to bring their firearms into the new Cordell Hull legislative office complex when it opened last year. But outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam maintained the ban within the Capitol.

Permit holders must present themselves to state troopers at the Cordell Hull entrances, and are required to keep their guns holstered all times within the building.

New House Speaker Glen Casada told the publication he sees no reason to change the policy.

“I support the current policy in place allowing citizens to go armed in the Cordell Hull building,” he said. “An armed, law-abiding citizen creates a safer environment for all Tennesseans.”

Democratic state Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis), a former Marine, said Lee’s decision to keep the ban in place is unsurprising.

“I think he wants to keep himself safe,” Parkinson said.

Capitol Commission: Not so fast on Polk move

Gov. Bill Haslam attends a ceremony at the James K. Polk tomb in Nashville on Nov. 2, 2012. (Image credit: Gov. Bill Haslam’s office)

(A report from on our James K. Polk correspondent J.R. Lind)

The Capitol Commission, the obscure hodgepodge body charged with maintenance of the state Capitol grounds, will wait just a bit longer to decide whether to give its imprimatur to the effort to relocate the tomb of President James K. Polk and his wife, Sarah.

The commission heard arguments from both sides Friday, but opted to delay a vote to some unspecified future date on the advice of chairman Larry Martin, the commissioner of Finance and Administration.

Spearheaded by Maury County legislators led by Republican Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald, the movement to exhume the Polks from their tomb on the Capitol grounds and move them to the Polk Ancestral Home in Columbia has wound through the legislature for nearly two years.

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Nobody goes there? House panel OKs Polk move

Gov. Bill Haslam attends a ceremony at the James K. Polk tomb in Nashville on Nov. 2, 2012. (Image credit: Gov. Bill Haslam’s office)

Supporters of moving the body of President James K. Polk body say he never wanted to be buried on the grounds of the state Capitol, a site about 500 feet from where his will called for him to be interred. So they want to move him about 50 miles south to Columbia, a city where he lived as a young man.

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