war memorial auditorium

Gov. Lee’s annual State of the State won’t be held in the state Capitol. But is that legal?

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

In the interest of social distancing, tonight’s State of the State address has been relocated to the War Memorial Auditorium. There’s just one problem: State law requires the annual address to be given inside the state Capitol.

A 1973 newspaper ad.

Governors used to deliver their annual State of the State speeches to the Tennessee Press Association. Lawmakers didn’t like that arrangement, so they changed the law in the 1970s to require the speech to be given before a joint convention of the General Assembly gathered in the House chamber.

It’s not the first time Gov. Bill Lee’s plans for the State of the State have raised questions. Following his 2018 election, Lee announced he’d try to get out of the “bubble of Nashville” by delivering the annual address at various locations around the state.

Those plans were thwarted by the same state law requiring the speech to be given in the state Capitol, the Associated Press reported at the time.

“Bill will give the State of the State speech in the House Chamber each year as mandated by the statute,” a Lee spokeswoman told the AP in 2018. “But he also plans to give addresses outside of Nashville around the State of the State to engage with Tennesseans.”

UPDATE: Lawmakers point to a joint resolution passed by both chambers on voice votes in January that said the House and Senate would meet “in the War Memorial Auditorium for the purpose of hearing the State of the State address by the Honorable Bill Lee, Governor of Tennessee.”

But the state law says the General Assembly “shall” call a joint convention “to convene in the chamber of the House of Representatives.” Whether the statute gives lawmakers the leeway to call a meeting outside of the House chamber is a matter of interpretation.