Published 10:00 p.m. CT May 25, 2020
When Tennessee lawmakers return to Nashville this week for the first time in months, there will be vastly different approaches between the two chambers, with one closed to outsiders while focusing on essential work and the other letting in a limited number of people while weighing legislation including the most controversial measures this year.
Although there are always disagreements between the House and Senate, during most legislative sessions the chambers’ leaders are largely on the same page in terms of timing, ideas and some basic fundamentals.
But that won’t be the case when the legislature returns for the first time since mid-March, after it was forced to recess early amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The two chambers appear headed for a collision course on everything from what types of bills to consider and the public’s access to lawmakers’ office building to the length of the session.
Most notably, the chambers have a fundamental disagreement on the bills they will consider.
Last week, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said the Senate would focus on three types of bills: ones that effect the state budget, time-sensitive measures like appointment resolutions and legislation related to COVID-19.
“Senate members are going to try to be responsible and limit themselves to those three issues,” he said Thursday, speaking to the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce.
Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, told the same group the House could consider as many as 400 different bills, including measures to limit abortion in Tennessee, allow residents to carry guns without a permit and making the Holy Bible the official state book,
“Our goal is still to try to pass as much good policy as we can,” he said.
A look at the chambers’ early calendars reflects the different views.
The lone Senate scheduled this week will take place Thursday, when the finance panel will consider no legislation but instead meet with Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley. A preliminary schedule for the week of June 1 shows just 34 bills will be considered in the Senate’s eight committees.
This week, the House has scheduled at least 20 committee meetings with 391 total bills on calendars.
Based on the committee calendars, the House is pressing on with run-of-the mill proposals as well ones that generated significant discussions, including the governor’s signature measures on abortion and guns.
On Thursday, Lee said it was the legislature's responsibility to set their own agenda. The governor said he thought the two chambers would come together in time.
"We all know that the greatest importance in this agenda coming forward is going to be the budget," he said.
Doug Kufner, a spokesman for Sexton, said the House’s approach for the session will include making adjustments and cuts to the state’s budget, which he said will be a priority, as well as “passing effective public policy.”
But among the bills calendared to be considered in the House next week is a measure to make the Holy Bible the state’s official book. Last time the body considered the bill - in 2016 when the House unsuccessfully tried to override former Gov. Bill Haslam's veto - the chamber had two hours of debate.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said the ongoing pandemic makes it clear to most Tennesseans that the legislature should not be operating as if everything is business as usual.
"It's going to be really important that we have a do no harm principle," he said. "Our primary goal right now needs to be to prevent the legislature from going in the wrong direction."
Another sticking point between the two chambers is over access to the Cordell Hull building, home to lawmakers’ offices and committee meetings.
In March, after having a greater understanding of the severity of the pandemic, legislative leaders mutually agreed to close the building to the public while they worked on what they said were essential-only measures.
They scaled back the budget while encouraging members of the public to take advantage of the state’s website which offers livestreaming of all committee and floor meetings. Despite some technical glitches, members of the public, including lobbyists, largely accepted the building closure.
But this week, there’s differing views on building access.
The Senate prefers to limit the public’s access, given the limited scope of bills that will be considered. That’s in part an effort to minimize opportunities for the virus to spread among the chamber’s members and staff.
As many as 60 of the legislature's 132 members, or roughly 45%, are over 60 years old — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's definition of vulnerable population. In the Senate alone, the average age is 61 years old. Just 14 of the chamber's 33 members are under 60.
“Lt. Gov. McNally prefers the rest of the legislative session to mirror the week prior to recess in most, if not all, respects,” said Adam Kleinheider, spokesman for the Senate speaker.
In recent weeks, the Cordell Hull building has continued to be closed off to everyone, except lawmakers, staff and the press. “The Senate prefers that remain the case,” said Kleinheider.
But the House disagrees.
Starting this week, the House plans to allow members of the public, including lobbyists and others, into Cordell Hull.
“Sometimes the two bodies don’t always agree,” Sexton told the chamber last week.
Although it’s still unclear how many people will be allowed into the Cordell Hull building - decisions will be based on public health officials' recommendations while incorporating square footage - there will be noticeable changes for anyone who enters.
Guests, as well as House staff, will be required to enter the building from 5th Ave, where they will undergo a temperature check and be asked to wear a face mask. Anyone who does not have a mask will be provided one. Any members of the public who refuse to wear one could be forced to leave the building, said Holt Whitt, Sexton’s chief of staff.
Elevator access will be limited, with special exceptions for those with mobility needs.
Only staff and lawmakers will be able to use the building’s cafeteria. Water fountains will be closed off.
Portions of the ground floor of the building will be cordoned off, as will other sections of the building where lawmakers have committee meetings.
Seating areas inside and outside committee rooms will be limited, with black cloth placed on chairs in the audience. Inside one of the House’s larger committee rooms, only 23 seats will be available, with staff keeping a strict count on the number of people in the room. Standing in the aisles or against the side walls of committee rooms – a common practice when controversial bills are taken up – will not be allowed.
Overflow audience will be required to watch proceedings on TVs outside committee rooms. Signage will encourage social distancing.
Lawmakers’ seats in committee rooms have been outfitted with three-sided plexiglass, which is also expected to be added to their chamber desks.
And as was the case in March, deep cleaning throughout the building before and after meetings will continue.
Such changes will allow a handful of members of the public to watch or participate in House meetings. It is unclear how the House would handle a large influx of people, including protesters.
The Senate’s side of the Cordell Hull building will be cordoned off, limited to lawmakers, staff and the press.
In the Capitol, there will be similar alterations.
Members of the public will not be allowed into the building through a commonly used elevator from the Cordell Hull building. Instead they will have to enter the Capitol on the first floor, which is expected to have limited access given the presence of offices for the executive branch and constitutional officers.
From there, the public will be directed to the second floor, where the House and Senate chambers are located.
Like in Cordell Hull, the Senate chamber will not allow members of the public. Members’ desks will be spaced out throughout the floor, forcing staff and some members of the press to sit in the upstairs gallery. Reporters will also be allowed to watch the proceedings from a livestream in a lounge area across from the chamber.
In the House, half of the chamber’s upstairs balcony will be open to a limited number of Tennesseans, with the other side for staff and the press. A limited number of reporters will be allowed on the chamber floor.
A seating area outside the chamber – which is commonly used by lobbyists – will be limited to encourage social distancing.
'A huge challenge'
Another point of disagreement between the two chambers, although to a lesser extent, is the length of session. The Senate is hoping is adjourn in just a few weeks. The House expects to be in Nashville for upwards of four weeks.
Despite all the discord, most everyone is in agreement on the need to make difficult financial decisions during the session.
Speaking to the chamber of commerce last week, McNally estimated the state needed to make more than $1 billion in cuts on top of what had already been done.
“We’ve already trimmed the fat and most of the meat, so we’ll be into the bone of the budget,” he said.
The Senate speaker, who has been in the legislature since the 1970s, outlined the historic nature of the current pandemic. "Probably in the 42 some odd years that I’ve been in the legislature that this is the worst budget crisis that we’ve faced," he said.
Sexton, the House speaker, noted Republicans have had to make major budget cuts in the past. He pointed to what he said were $1 billion in cuts during Haslam's early years in office.
"We don’t have to raise taxes to get through this," he assured members of the chamber.
During a conference call with lawmakers last week, the governor likewise remarked on the task ahead.
Lee said he was looking forward to the legislature's return which he said would be a chance to “do something that’s going to powerfully impact the people of this state” through responsible budget management.
“The work that we have ahead of us is going to be a huge challenge,” he said.
Want to read more stories like this? A subscription to one of our Tennessee publications gets you unlimited access to all the latest politics news, podcasts like Grand Divisions, plus newsletters, a personalized mobile experience and the ability to tap into stories, photos and videos from throughout the USA TODAY Network's 261 daily sites.
For more articles or subscription information: