Tennessee GOP lawmakers sprint in bid to curb COVID rules

Friday, October 29, 2021, Vol. 45, No. 44

NASHVILLE (AP) — Republican lawmakers in Tennessee could be voting within days on whether to ban most businesses from solely requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for their customers and workers and severely limit when companies and government entities — including schools — can require masks.

Lawmakers on Thursday quickly advanced the measure carrying the prohibitions, despite growing opposition from the business community, and could vote by week's end. Prominent groups asked lawmakers not to put them in "an impossible position between federal and state mandates," including the upcoming employer vaccination mandate announced by President Joe Biden. They said conflicting mandates could "subject employers to potentially crippling litigation costs."

The bill carries additional wide-ranging implications, including an assurance that those fired for resisting a COVID-19 vaccine mandate can receive unemployment benefits. The Senate's Republican majority leader, Jack Johnson, clarified that the legislation would allow businesses like entertainment venues to require either proof of a COVID-19 vaccine or a negative COVID-19 test.

Johnson acknowledged some of the limits on business are "contrary to some of the tenets that we hold very sacred," but that he views the legislation as "a roadmap for getting us into the future, to get this terrible chapter of our lives behind us."

They also moved forward bills aimed at changing how school boards are elected, addressing how district attorneys decide what to prosecute, and limiting the power six large independent county health departments have to make their own preventative health orders during a pandemic.

The handful of bills that advanced are backed by the General Assembly's top Republican leaders, signaling they might be positioning themselves to adjourn their special session by Friday, after gaveling in Wednesday.

The main bill would prohibit requiring proof of vaccination at businesses and government agencies, though lawmakers have previously largely barred the practice from public entities. Medicaid and Medicare providers, including hospitals, for example, could still have vaccine and mask requirements.

The legislation would set strict limits on when government entities, including public K-12 and higher education schools, or certain businesses can require wearing masks. They would need to have a county infection rate of 1,000 new infections of COVID-19 for every 100,000 residents over 14 days, which no county currently has. Religious and medical exemptions would be required. There's still disagreement over whether the limitations would apply to all businesses or just those receiving state funding.

Earlier Thursday, about 30 prominent business entities ranging from the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry to the Tennessee Trucking Association said they oppose legislation that would "outright remove the ability of an employer to determine their own vaccination and mask policies," calling it an "unnecessary government intrusion."

One proposal that gained traction Thursday targets elected district attorneys who publicly decline to enforce certain policies. If approved, the Attorney General's office could petition a court to replace district attorneys who "peremptorily and categorically" refuse to prosecute certain laws.

It's an issue that has sparked national tension as more progressive prosecutors have declined to enforce policies handed down by conservative lawmakers.

Particularly in Tennessee, Republicans have pointed to Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk, who publicly stated he won't prosecute multiple hot-button policies that target abortion rights, transgender people, mask requirements in schools and small marijuana possession cases.

It's unknown how much of a difference lawmakers might make. Tennessee's Constitution already says that when a district attorney "fails or refuses to attend and prosecute according to law, the court shall have power to appoint an attorney pro tempore." Yet backers of the bill argue that the new measure sets up a process for what the state's Constitution already states.

A separate proposal would allow school board candidates to become partisan by declaring their political party affiliation while running for office. However, as of Thursday, the House and Senate versions differed slightly on exactly the requirements for making such change.

The topic has alarmed education advocates who argue the current system — where school board races are nonpartisan — prevents divisive political rhetoric from bleeding into key local positions.

Republican lawmakers counter that school boards have been at the forefront of the country's most heated topics for the past year, pointing to explosive debates over mask mandates and how race and extremism are taught in schools.