Tennessee Legislature closes in on approving overarching COVID rules bill

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After discussing more than two handfuls of COVID-19-related bills in committees Thursday, the Tennessee Legislature settled its focus on one comprehensive bill to address its approach going forward on COVID-19 measures.

Senate Bill 9014 , sponsored by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and presented by Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, addresses everything from mask and COVID-19 vaccination mandates in businesses and schools to unemployment for those who leave jobs to avoid a COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

“We have reached a point where those who want to get the vaccine can get it,” Johnson said, noting he believes in the vaccine and that he is vaccinated. “We need to stop weaponizing the vaccine.”

The bill passed through the Senate’s Commerce and Labor, Judiciary and Health and Wellness committees Thursday. The bill will be heard in the Senate State and Local Government Committee at 9 a.m. Friday.

Its House companion bill, House Bill 9077 , was recommended to pass in the COVID-19 Committee and has been sent to the House floor for its 9:30 a.m. Friday session.

The overarching bill continues legal immunity against COVID-19-related lawsuits for those who follow the measures in the bill, which include blocking businesses from forcing those who enter to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination.

Several Tennessee business groups sent a letter to legislative leadership opposing any measures that could place added liability on businesses.

“We must express our opposition to any proposed legislation that may conflict with these federal requirements and overly complicate or conflict with employer operations during the pandemic,” the letter read. “We oppose any proposals that outright remove the ability of an employer to determine their own vaccination and mask policies. We believe that any legislation of this kind is unnecessary government intrusion into the operation of our businesses.”

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery signed a letter along with 20 other attorneys general asking the federal government to withdraw a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal contractors.

As part of the bill in the Legislature, venues can ask for proof of a COVID-19 vaccine or allow for a negative COVID-19 test, Johnson said.

“The Tennessee Legislature in this COVID-19 special session is hastily considering some of the most intrusive government regulations of private businesses in our history, as well as massive power grabs to undermine locally elected officials,” Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, tweeted .

The bill prohibits a COVID-19 vaccine from being given to a minor without parental consent and mask mandates require strict stipulations, including the governor declaring a state of emergency and a county having a rolling 14-day case rate of more than 1,000 cases per 1,000,000 residents.

“I don’t believe that this threshold is a reasonable threshold,” Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis, said.

School districts cannot have district-wide mask mandates but can at individual schools with a requirement the school provides N95 masks to students age 12 and over.

Schools also would be required to provide reasonable accommodations for those who require compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act.

The bill also allows those who quit a job or are placed on unpaid leave to avoid a COVID-19 vaccination mandate to collect unemployment.

Several other bills, addressing everything from partisan school board elections to the authority of district attorneys, remain alive.

Many of the measures debated, amended and passing through committees were introduced by House Speaker Cameron Sexton with a companion bill in the Senate from McNally, including a bill (House Bill 9072 ) that would make local school board elections throughout the state partisan.

“Our voters back home have no clue what that underlying political philosophy is,” Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said. “I know it’s not a perfect measure, but at least having that candidate identify with a party gives the voters – and in this day and age I think it’s more important than ever – an idea of the underlying, the foundational beliefs of the person running for school board.”

Bell was displeased when the Senate version of the bill, Senate Bill 9009 , was amended before being recommended for approval by the Senate Education Committee to allow local county parties to determine whether a race would be partisan. If one party chose it, then candidates could be part of a partisan primary. The House version was recommended for approval by its Elections Committee.

Tennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins confirmed partisan school board positions would make municipal elections, and certain county offices in specific parts of the state, the only nonpartisan elected positions remaining in the state.

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