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Previewing the Special Legislative Session

Alyssa Hansen
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If it seems like virtually no time has passed since we sent out our legislative wrap-up for the year, that's because it hasn't. Less than two months after lawmakers adjourned (seemingly for the year) on June 19th,  Governor Bill Lee announced last week that he is calling the Tennessee General Assembly back into a special session beginning TODAY (Monday, August 10th.) The main reason for doing so? To address COVID-19-related liability protections for businesses, not workers. It's no secret that the priorities of Governor Lee and the Republican supermajority have never included working families and their needs, but this is even more definitive confirmation of that fact. From not including one worker or worker representative on his Economic Recovery Group back in April, to rushing to reopen Tennessee while ignoring the danger that it posed to those on the front lines of the pandemic, Governor Lee has proved repeatedly that he is unable to lead our state during these unprecedented times. 

So what exactly will the next few days look like? The short answer is that, similar to the resumed legislative session back in June, many questions still remain unanswered. At a minimum, the special session is required to last at least three days. In accordance with the rules, all proposed legislation will be heard on the floor and must be considered for three calendar days before a vote is taken. Don't forget, you can always watch both the House and Senate floor sessions (safely and socially distanced, of course) by clicking here. As more details are made available, we will share them on social media and via our legislative updates. Stay tuned for additional actions that you can take to connect with your legislator as well, especially as it relates to the COVID-19 liability bill protecting businesses. Whether the upcoming special legislative session lasts three days or three weeks, we will be communicating with lawmakers (particularly those who are strong champions of labor) to ensure that the priorities of working families are heard loud and clear on the floor of both chambers!

What's on the Agenda? 

Per the official special session call, there are three major pieces of legislation on the agenda, two of which we highlighted in our legislative recap: extending broad COVID-19 liability protections to businesses and other groups, expanding telehealth opportunities, and increasing the penalty for peacefully protesting and camping at the Capitol. Below are brief summaries of the first and third pieces of legislation, their "new" bill numbers for the special session, and a quick recap of where things left off in June.  

-House Bill 8001: Without the guise of a caption bill to hide its true intentions, this piece of legislation is known as the "Tennessee COVID-19 Recovery Act." Despite the name change, the goal of bill remains the same: to extend broad COVID-19 liability protections to businesses and other groups. What the original legislation didn't do at all (and neither does this bill) was protect front line workers or those in industries with a higher likelihood of contracting COVID (restaurant workers, etc.) from employers who might be forcing them to return to work, even if they did not feel it was safe to do so. This legislation would also make it very difficult (if not, impossible) for someone to sue a particular business or organization if they contracted COVID, essentially freeing employers from any accountability. 

Through conversations that we had with Representative John Ray Clemmons, he led the charge (especially on the House floor) to highlight how the original legislation in no way protected workers or accounted for their needs. After bouncing back and forth between the chambers and ultimately going to a conference committee to address outstanding differences, the bill failed on the House floor in the wee hours of the final day of session. This legislation was retroactive (which is almost unheard of), and many legislators from both sides were concerned it being challenged in court. 

-House Bill 8005: Similar to HB 8001 in that it does not need the cover of a caption bill to hide its true motives, this piece of legislation targets peaceful protesters who have been camping out in front of the Capitol for months now. The seeks to increase the penalty for "camping" on state property and would even allow someone to be charged with a crime, even if they are not present at the scene. 

Just like earlier this year, House Majority Leader William Lamberth is leading the charge on this legislation. While this bill currently does not target activity related to the labor movement (strikes, etc.), we are watching this carefully to ensure that the bill is not amended to include it. Regardless, it has the potential to impact all Tennesseans' right to peacefully assemble, which is protected by the First Amendment.  

-House Bill 8004: While not part of the original group of bad bills that we saw back in June, this legislation would allow the Tennessee Attorney General to prosecute cases dealing with protests, even if the local district attorney chooses not to do so. This is a major over-reach of power and yet another example of the state meddling in the business of local governments.