covid-19

Lee declines to sign nullification resolution passed during special session

A statue of President Andrew Jackson is seen in front of the state Capitol in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has declined to sign a resolution passed during a recent special session touting the state’s purported right to pass laws to nullify federal COVID-19 vaccination and mask requirements.

The Republican governor does not appear to have transmitted a statement to lawmakers about why he is allowing the resolution to go into effect without his signature.

The Senate version passed 24-6, while the House vote was 64-17.

Rep. John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge) carried the measure on behalf of House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville).

“The nullification theory was first broached in 1832 when Tennessee’s own Andrew Jackson was president,” Ragan said in floor comments. “The state of South Carolina began it, and President Jackson threatened to invade with federal troops to settle the issue. However, the federal government ultimately backed down.”

Ragan’s statement drew a retort from Rep. Michael Curcio (R-Dickson).

“I wanted to make sure the record was clear: the federal government didn’t back down, South Carolina quit,” said Curcio, who voted against the resolution. “But they continued in their behavior until eventually Fort Sumter was fired on, creating a tragedy for this country. I want to remind everybody that emulating such behavior is very, very serious.”

The full language of the resolution follows.

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Lee to let state of emergency expire nearly 7 months after declaring end of public health crisis

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters outside the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee in April declared COVID-19 no longer presented a public health crisis in Tennessee. Now, 206 days later, Lee is announcing he won’t renew a state of emergency related to the pandemic when it expires Friday night.

Here’s the statement from the governor:

For almost 20 months, this tool has provided deregulation and operational flexibility for hospitals and industries most affected by COVID’s challenges. Should our state face any future surges, we will consider temporarily reinstating this tool, but in the meantime, we are evaluating opportunities for permanent deregulation.”

Since the governor’s springtime announcement, Tennessee experienced a sharp increase in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations due to the spread of the delta variant. But the state’s numbers have eased in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, a potential Republican primary challenger to Lee’s re-election bid next year, issued his own state of emergency in an effort to “secure the liberties” of health care workers who don’t want to adhere to vaccination mandates, The Daily Herald of Columbia reported.

Ogles was joined in his Facebook announcement by state Reps. Scott Cepicky (R-Culleoka), Brandon Ogles (R-Franklin), Clay Doggett (R-Pulaski), and Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill).

(Image credit: Screengrab from Facebook Live)

COVID czar launches website to apply for exemptions to vax mandate ban

Jason Mumpower presents a comptroller’s report in Nashville on Jan. 30, 2018. At left is Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Under a bill signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee on Friday, businesses are banned from requiring employees to prove they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Unless, that is, they are granted an exemption from Comptroller Jason Mumpower — who has been dubbed the COVID czar.

Mumpower’s office has launched a website to handle applications. Here’s the full release:

The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office has launched a new webpage that will allow Tennessee businesses, governmental entities, or schools to seek an exemption from House Bill No. 9077/Senate Bill No. 9014, which was signed into law on Friday, November 12.

The new law prohibits most Tennessee businesses from imposing a vaccine mandate unless they receive an exemption from the Comptroller’s Office.

An exemption may be granted by the Comptroller if an applicant can demonstrate that compliance with Chapter 2 or 6 of the new law would result in a loss of federal funding and an exemption is necessary to conform to a federally awarded or amended contract, subcontract, or postsecondary grant.

Exemptions granted by the Comptroller are not permanent and may be renewed for no more than one calendar year.

The Comptroller’s Office invites qualifying entities to begin submitting a notice for exemption by visiting comptroller.tn.gov/covidexemption. This webpage also includes program Guidelines and some frequently asked questions.

Applicants with questions about the exemption process can contact exempt@cot.tn.gov.

New TNJ edition alert: Special session post-mortem, Warner audit comes to nothing

A statue of President Andrew Jackson is seen in front of the state Capitol in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

In this week’s edition of the print edition of The Tennessee Journal:

— Business concerns brushed aside in hurry-up special session.

— Registry punts on audit of Rep. Warner’s spending with mystery vendor but proceeds with probe of PAC.

— Knox GOP’s effort to topple incumbents in Knoxville City Council elections fizzles.

Also: Kelsey turns himself (and his passport) in, Robinson has a court date for her second federal fraud trial, Terry gives the Heimlich maneuver to choking colleague, and Ragan’s revisionist history on Andrew Jackson and the nullification crisis.

As always, access your copy of the TNJ here or subscribe here.

Chamber to offer seminars on trying to comply with conflicting COVID-19 rules

House members attend a floor session in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

With federal guidance handed down this week requiring companies with 100 employees to ensure their workers are fully vaccinated by Jan. 4, the state Chamber of Commerce is offering seminars on how to try to comply with that rule while trying not to run afoul of a state bill passed in a special legislative session last week to outlaw most vaccine mandates in Tennessee.

One method may be a federal provision allowing regular testing instead of vaccines. The state bill did not address the question of tests.

The Chamber opposes all vaccination, masking, and testing mandates, but businesses still have to try to follow the law.

“We understand that recent federal orders and state legislation can result in confusion and costly litigation,” Chamber CEO Bradley Jackson said in a release. “Employers have to know how to comply.”

Here’s the release from the Chamber:

Nashville, TN The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry announced it will be hosting a series of free compliance seminars to assist all businesses with navigating compliance of Tennessee‘s newly passed COVID-19 requirements for employers. The essential seminars are intended to assist all employers by providing clarity as they attempt to maintain compliance with both state and federal COVID-19 mandates. “We are working to get the word out across Tennessee to all employers and assist every business that needs guidance to steer through the complexities of both state and federal policies. It is our obligation to ensure all employers understand their requirements under law. We understand that recent federal orders and state legislation can result in confusion and costly litigation. Employers have to know how to comply,” said Chamber President and CEO Bradley Jackson. The Tennessee Chamber has expressed opposition to both federal and state mandates relative to vaccination, masking and testing mandates for businesses. 

The first compliance seminar will be held at 10 AM CST on Tuesday, November 9. The virtual meeting series is free to attend and will have no registration expense or limit. Legal experts will be on hand to step through the complexities of the measures and address questions of employers. This recently enacted legislation could be effective as late as November 13th and Tennessee businesses of all sizes and sectors across our great state who are not in compliance are subject to penalties and litigation exposure. “The compliance curve on this particular mandate is extremely steep. We want to make sure there is no business in Tennessee that doesn’t fully understand their obligations and options.” noted Jackson.

The Tennessee Chamber will be hosting a subsequent seminar on November 17 to focus on the exemption process for qualified employers. In addition a final compliance seminar will take a closer look at expected OSHA emergency rules. 

To register, visit www.tnchamber.org/complianceseminar  

Here is the final Senate vote on the omnibus COVID-19 bill

The Tennessee Senate meets on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

It’s taken a little while for the House and Senate chambers to catch up with the 1 a.m. vote on the final version of the COVID-19 omnibus bill. We had the House totals on Saturday. Here is the Senate breakdown on its 22-4 vote:

SenatorParty Vote
Akbari, RaumeshDN
Bailey, PaulRY
Bell, MikeRY
Bowling, JaniceRY
Briggs, RichardRN
Campbell, HeidiDN
Crowe, RustyRY
Gardenhire, ToddRY
Gilmore, BrendaDA
Haile, FerrellRA
Hensley, JoeyRY
Jackson, EdRY
Johnson, JackRY
Kelsey, BrianRA
Kyle, SaraDA
Lundberg, JonRY
Massey, Becky DuncanRY
McNally, Lt. Gov. RandyRY
Niceley, Frank S.RY
Pody, MarkRY
Powers, BillRY
Reeves, ShaneRA
Roberts, KerryRY
Robinson, KatrinaDA
Rose, PaulRY
Southerland, SteveRY
Stevens, JohnRY
Swann, ArtRY
Walley, PageRY
Watson, BoRY
White, DawnRY
Yager, KenRA
Yarbro, JeffDN

All hail Tennessee’s new COVID czar, Jason Mumpower

Jason Mumpower presents a report to lawmakers in Nashville on Jan. 30, 2018. At left is then-Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville). (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Amid heavy pushback from the business and education sectors about Republican lawmakers’ efforts to ban COVID-19 vaccine requirements for employees, the final version of the bill allows companies to apply for waivers in the event their federal funding might be jeopardized by following the new law.

To do so, they will have to submit applications to state Comptroller Jason Mumpower, who is empowered to set his own guidelines for what evidence will have to be handed in to make their case for an exemption.

Mumpower, incidentally, is a former state House Republican leader who is appointed by a joint convention of the General Assembly.

Here’s the language of the provision:

A provision of chapter 2 of this title does not apply to a private business, governmental entity, school, or employer that submits notice in writing to the comptroller of the treasury that compliance with a provision chapter 2 of this title would result in a loss of federal funding, to the extent such an exemption is necessary to conform to federally awarded or amended contracts, subcontracts, or postsecondary grants as a condition to receipt of federal funds. The comptroller of the treasury shall create guidelines as to what information is required in the notice. The comptroller shall review a notice submitted by a private business, governmental entity, school, or employer and, if the comptroller finds that compliance would result in a loss of federal funding, then the comptroller shall notify the private business, governmental entity, school, or employer in writing of its exemption.

Supporters said Mumpower’s office is a logical choice because it already handles a variety of contract issues. Opponents argue that at best the move creates another layer of red tape, and at worst gives lawmakers another chance to meddle in businesses’ internal workings.

Either way, Mumpower was quickly dubbed the COVID Czar.

How they voted: House COVID bill limps across finish line

The House meets at the state Capitol in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

After much chest-beating and saber-rattling, the House backed off on several provisions of its bill aimed at blocking COVID-19 vaccine and mask requirements. When the final vote was taken at 1:15 a.m. Saturday, the measure received the support of just 57 Republicans — a significant drop from the unanimous 73 who signed on to the petition to hold the the special session.

The House started out with an effort to create a near-universal ban on businesses imposing mask or vaccine mandates on either customers or employees — a rule that would have even extended to people hired to provide home care in private residences. The final version of the bill retained the ability of sports and entertainment venues to require proof of vaccination or a negative test, restored the power of private citizens to set requirements for their homes, and allowed all private businesses to require masks.

Also exempt from the vaccine mandate ban are health care facilities and companies or institutions that can show their federal funding would be imperiled by noncompliance.

The bill does impose a ban on mask mandates at all public (but not private) schools. But the issue has been the subject of litigation ever since Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of mask mandates. (A separate bill to fine local officials up to $10,000 for ignoring executive orders (as was done in Shelby County and Nashville) failed in the Senate.)

Business groups will be parsing through the final language of the omnibus measure to see whether their concerns about increased litigation and conflicting state and federal rules have been addressed.

Read the Tennessean and Associated Press accounts for the full rundown.

In the end, 57 Republicans and one Democrat, John Mark Windle of Livingston, voted in favor of the bill. Thirteen Democrats and nine Republicans voted against. Nineteen members were either absent or abstained.

Here’s the breakdown:

RepresentativePartyVote
Alexander, RebeccaRAbsent or abstained
Baum, CharlieRNo
Beck, BillDNo
Boyd, ClarkRYes
Bricken, RushRAbsent or abstained
Byrd, DavidRYes
Calfee, KentRYes
Campbell, ScottyRYes
Camper, Karen D.DNo
Carr, DaleRYes
Carringer, MicheleRYes
Casada, GlenRYes
Cepicky, ScottRAbsent or abstained
Chism, JesseDAbsent or abstained
Clemmons, John RayDNo
Cochran, MarkRYes
Cooper, BarbaraDAbsent or abstained
Crawford, JohnRAbsent or abstained
Curcio, Michael G.RNo
Darby, TandyRYes
Dixie, VincentDAbsent or abstained
Doggett, ClayRYes
Eldridge, RickRYes
Faison, JeremyRYes
Farmer, AndrewRYes
Freeman, BobDNo
Gant, Ron M.RYes
Garrett, JohnnyRNo
Gillespie, JohnRYes
Griffey, BruceRYes
Grills, RustyRYes
Hakeem, YusufDAbsent or abstained
Halford, CurtisRYes
Hall, MarkRYes
Hardaway, G. A.DNo
Harris, Torrey C.DNo
Haston, KirkRYes
Hawk, DavidRYes
Hazlewood, PatsyRNo
Helton, EstherRYes
Hicks, GaryRYes
Hicks, TimRYes
Hodges, JasonDNo
Holsclaw, Jr., John B.RYes
Howell, DanRYes
Hulsey, BudRYes
Hurt, ChrisRYes
Jernigan, DarrenDAbsent or abstained
Johnson, CurtisRYes
Johnson, GloriaDNo
Keisling, KellyRYes
Kumar, Sabi ‘Doc’RNo
Lafferty, JustinRYes
Lamar, LondonDNo
Lamberth, WilliamRYes
Leatherwood, TomRYes
Littleton, MaryRYes
Love, Harold M., Jr.DAbsent or abstained
Lynn, SusanRYes
Mannis, EddieRNo
Marsh, PatRYes
McKenzie, SamDAbsent or abstained
Miller, Larry J.DAbsent or abstained
Mitchell, BoDNo
Moody, DebraRYes
Moon, JeromeRAbsent or abstained
Ogles, BrandonRYes
Parkinson, AntonioDAbsent or abstained
Potts, JasonDAbsent or abstained
Powell, JasonDNo
Powers, DennisRYes
Ragan, JohnRYes
Ramsey, BobRAbsent or abstained
Reedy, Jay D.RYes
Rudd, TimRYes
Rudder, IrisRYes
Russell, LowellRYes
Sexton, CameronRYes
Sexton, JerryRAbsent or abstained
Shaw, JohnnyDNo
Sherrell, PaulRYes
Smith, RobinRYes
Sparks, MikeRYes
Stewart, MikeDNo
Terry, BryanRYes
Thompson, DwayneDAbsent or abstained
Todd, ChrisRYes
Towns, Joe, Jr.DAbsent or abstained
Travis, RonRNo
Vaughan, KevinRYes
Vital, GregRYes
Warner, ToddRYes
Weaver, Terri LynnRNo
White, MarkRYes
Whitson, SamRNo
Williams, RyanRYes
Windle, John MarkDYes
Wright, DaveRYes
Zachary, JasonRYes

Tenn. Trucking Association decries GOP bill on COVID-19 rules as ‘anti-business’

The Tennessee Trucking Association is speaking out against the hastily assembled omnibus legislation aimed at trying to dial back COVID-19 mandates.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) earlier this week specifically cited a story he had seen about the challenges facing the trucking industry in pursuing the legislation. But state Trucking Association President Dave Huneryager is asking for lawmakers to let them sort it out for themselves.

“We are hopeful that the federal administration will continue to allow trucking companies to manage their own operations, as has been the case over the past 18 months,” he said in the letter. “Whatever the final federal or OSHA rules may be, the trucking industry is a business that operates in interstate commerce and has to follow federal mandates.”

Huneryager also took issue with a plan to extend unemployment benefits to people fired for refusing to get vaccinated.

“We believe this is an anti-business policy and adopting anything like this would provide a reason for employees to draw unemployment compensation instead of working in full-time employment,” he wrote,

Here’s the full letter sent to all members of the General Assembly.

On behalf of the Tennessee Trucking Association and its 500 members that represent one out of every thirteen jobs in Tennessee, I am writing to you about issues that will be considered by the Tennessee General Assembly during the upcoming Special Session. TTA is an organization that has been in existence and active in legislative matters for more than 75 years and our industry is hopeful that you will sincerely consider some of the issues that are of major concern to our members as you proceed during the Special Session.

There have been many rumors circulating for weeks regarding the issues that will be addressed within the framework of the call of the Special Session. There have been numerous newspaper articles and other comments from members of the General Assembly related to issues that directly affect private businesses in Tennessee. Now that the Special Session has been called and legislation is being filed, TTA wanted to reach out to you with its concerns.

Fortunately, for years Tennessee has maintained an excellent reputation as a business-friendly environment, in large part through limited government intervention through laws, regulations, or taxes. The trucking industry is very appreciative that the legislature created this environment. For the past 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented the trucking industry with operational challenges that have never existed before now. Maintaining a safe working environment and being a key player in the movement of all cargo throughout the United States has been difficult to navigate. At this time, there is a supply chain crisis in this country that has placed an additional burden on the industry. Recruiting and keeping CDL truck drivers has never been more critical than it is now. The federal government is presently considering the imposition of COVID-19 vaccination mandates or weekly testing on all employers who have 100 or more employees.

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Ford concerns about COVID-19 bill referred to lawmakers

The Memphis Regional Megasite.

Ford Motor Co., which just last week received the glowing praise of a vast majority of state lawmakers when they approved an $884 million incentive package for the automaker to build a new plant at the Memphis Regional Megasite, apparently isn’t so thrilled about efforts to outlaw mask and vaccine mandates by private employers.

Word spread around the legislature that Ford had called Gov. Bill Lee to register its complaints. But the governor has famously declined to get involved in the special session, perhaps fearing the very situation that lawmakers now seem to be putting the state in.

Officially, the governor’s office isn’t saying much.

“We have heard from a number of businesses and groups regarding proposals, and we have told them to reach out directly to legislators with their concerns,” said Lee spokeswoman Laine Arnold, adding that other automakers in Tennessee have also raised concerns.

UPDATE: The Tennessee Lookout reports a Ford official sent a text message to senators saying the company worries about being barred from requiring its employees from wearing masks.

Sen. Page Walley, R-Bolivar, alluded to Ford’s concerns in a committee meeting Friday.

“I’m very concerned we don’t adversely impact that with this legislation and what Ford is attempting to achieve and what they say has been critical for them to be able to manage their operations and stay open in other parts of the state with their ability to utilize masking requirements,” the Lookout quoted Walley as saying.

“I’m not going to be comfortable unless we have a plan on how we’re going to address this.”