cordell hull building

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.