As Tennessee lawmakers trickle back to the state Capitol Tuesday to resume their session, the primary order of business is grappling with a projected coronavirus-created state revenue shortfall that will dictate spending cuts in both the current budget and the new one taking effect July 1.
But that’s not all the 99 House members and 33 senators in the GOP-dominated General Assembly are wrestling with. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, are divided over the extent of personal health-safety protocols as well as allowing the public into the General Assembly’s home in the Cordell Hull Building and the state Capitol.
Sexton is letting the public and lobbyists come under set protocols. McNally is not, saying the public can keep up with what’s going on via the legislature’s video streaming site.
The result? The erection of barriers between House and Senate committee rooms in Cordell Hull and between House and Senate chambers in the Capitol. Visitors, who will be required to undergo temperature checks and wear state-issued masks, will be allowed on the House side but not on the Senate side.
“I think it’s going to be very awkward,” said Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, on how he sees the session proceeding. He noted that more than half the Senate members, including himself, are over 65 years old. “And some of them have some medical conditions,” added Gardenhire, who said he plans to sleep in his office instead of a hotel while in Nashville.
In a statement last week, Sexton said the House is “taking necessary precautions and safety measures to ensure the safety of our members and staff as best as we can. Our intent is for public interactions and participation in the building.”
Another area of major disagreement is what measures lawmakers should take up in the next two to three weeks after abruptly adjourning March 19 following passage of a no-increase, $39.9 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2020-21. That plan slashed Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s originally proposed spending plan by nearly $900 million in one-time and recurring expenditures.
Revenues were already falling as Tennesseans began curbing their activities even before Lee and local governments began implementing restrictions aimed at preventing further spread of the virus near the end of March and on April 2. While Lee has lifted most restrictions, Tennessee like other states has lost revenues and is projected to lose far more.
McNally wants to focus on the budget, with the state facing a potential revenue shortfall of $300 million to $500 million in its current budget ending June 30. There’s also a roughly projected $900 million to $1.2 billion collapse of revenue in the new budget going into effect July 1.
McNally wants senators to focus on Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s expected recommendations.
“The Senate is committed to focusing only on items that are time sensitive, budget related or deal with the ongoing global pandemic,” McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider said. “We are witnessing an unprecedented economic disruption due to the coronavirus. Our longstanding fiscal responsibility has left us in better shape than most states to weather this crisis.”
But the floodgates are open on legislation in the House, with some 100 or so bills and other measures awaiting action.
“The House will resume committee meetings [this] week to begin finishing up all legislative calendars,” Sexton said. “Our committees will operate in the same manner as is customary — with a focus on passing good public policy.”
The list of pending measures before the House includes a controversial bill that would effectively ban most abortions — the purpose is to allow Tennessee to join other GOP-led states challenging the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
There’s a National Rifle Association-backed permitless conceal-carry handgun bill that would allow Tennesseans to go armed without background checks and fees also on the table.
The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and allied groups, meanwhile, are seeking restrictions on Tennessee lawsuits arising from the coronavirus pandemic.
House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, downplayed prospects of a train wreck between the two chambers.
“This is not dissimilar from any other year where we’re at the end of the legislature,” Lamberth said, adding that the two chambers typically “go back and forth” over their differences and “it does not mean those bills may not be negotiated out.”
Asked by reporters about GOP leaders’ differences last week, Lee sought to downplay them.
“What I most agree with is the legislature really has the responsibility to set the agenda and they will do so. I’m talking with leadership in the legislature and with members,” Lee said. “As the time approaches I think those bodies will come together. We all know that the greatest importance in this agenda going forward is going to be the budget and how we address that budget, the economic downturn that’s been created.”