NASHVILLE, Tennessee – While the Tennessee House of Representatives returned to committee and subcommittee meetings this week, the situation was anything but normal.
The Tennessee General Assembly adjourned on March 19, after passing a limited number of bills and a reduced fiscal 2021 budget, in the interest of slowing the spread of COVID-19. At the time, the General Assembly was to stand in adjournment until June 1.
In preparation for going back into session, House subcommittee and committee meetings were scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday following the Memorial Day holiday.
A normal week of these meetings would number about four dozen, whereas this week totaled less than one-third of that. The hefty calendars, however, more than offset the limited number of meetings with nearly 400 bills set to be taken up.
Visitors to the legislative home of the Cordell Hull Building could access the building only through the Fifth Avenue entrance, and not through the Sixth Avenue or Cordell Hull Tunnel entrances, had to be wearing face masks and have their temperatures taken before entering.
Tennessee Highway Patrol and other security team members at the entrance also wore face masks.
Along with signs reminding of six-foot separations, there were blue painter’s tape markings at the dual staircase, directing those going up to the first-floor committee room level toward the right staircase and those going down to the left staircase.
The cafeteria area was open only to members of the General Assembly and staff, and the Senate side of the first-floor committee level was cordoned off to unauthorized personnel.
Only 40 percent of the House Hearing Rooms were scheduled for use and are newly equipped with clear plastic dividers between each of the member’s desks. The large majority of audience seats were covered with cloths, leaving rows with only seats at the end of the aisles alternating with rows with a seat in the middle of the aisle available for use.
A legislative staff member sat outside the committee rooms, counting those entering and tracking the number of available seats remaining.
For the most part, availability of seats did not appear to be an issue, with only a few members of the public present made up mostly of lobbyists including Tennessee Education Association, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, Beacon Center of Tennessee and American Federation for Children, as well as members of the media.
While the House committee and subcommittee schedule gave start times for the meetings, it was also stated that each meeting would immediately follow the preceding meeting.
As each meeting ended, a cleaning crew swept in to wipe down the House members’ desks and witness tables. In between each bill sponsor and witness, a staff member sitting in the room cleaned the podium and microphones.
Representative Jim Coley (R-Memphis) chaired the first meeting of the day, House Higher Education Subcommittee. It was likely his last, as Coley, who has served in the General Assembly since 2007, previously announced he would not be pursing re-election.
Of the 17 bills on the calendar of the Higher Education Subcommittee, 15 were taken off notice by the bill sponsor.
While only two bills were discussed, the meeting lasted nearly two hours. Both bills covered the same topic: prohibiting a public institution of higher education from preventing a student-athlete from earning compensation as a result of the use of the student athlete’s name, image or likeness.
One bill, sponsored by Representative Joe Towns (D-Memphis) failed on a voice vote, and the other, sponsored by Representative Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis) failed through a tie 4-4 vote, largely along party lines.
The trend of taking bills off notice continued in the House Curriculum, Testing and Innovation Subcommittee and the K-12 Subcommittee, with 11 of 19 and 21 of 32, respectively, ending in that manner.
Of note, the effort by Representative Bo Mitchell (D-Nashville) to delete any and all mentions of the Tennessee Education Savings Account (ESA) Pilot Program of the Tennessee code failed for the lack of a second.
Of course, even if Mitchell’s proposal passed all the way through the House, the Senate would also have to agree to delete the ESA Pilot Program, where it the legislation passed by a wider margin.
In an unusual move, Coley sent what is likely his last bill dealing with an issue he is passionate about – teacher’s annual evaluation criteria – to summer study.
Of the 114 bills put on Tuesday’s House committee and subcommittee calendars, only about 10 had previously passed the full state Senate, most of which were on the calendar of the House Judiciary Committee.
With the Judiciary Committee having a 5 p.m. start time for a 44-item calendar, including several controversial bills like permitless handgun carry and civil asset forfeiture, the meeting was still underway at publication deadline.
It is unclear whether the Senate will take up any bills the House passes in this second session of the 111th Tennessee General Assembly.
The only meeting the Senate has scheduled for this week is of the Finance, Ways and Means Committee, for which an Overview of COVID-19 Related Federal Funding by Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley is the only item on the agenda.
The week of July 1, the Senate schedule shows committee meetings on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, although agendas are yet to be published.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.
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