A proposed state law began advancing through the state legislature Tuesday that would change which Metro entity has authority to issue health policies during a public health emergency.
House Bill 7 would remove the authority of Tennessee’s six boards of health to issue public health orders such as those requiring masking, business closures and gathering limit advisories. Authority to issue such orders would be limited exclusively to the mayor, moving the health board to an advisory role.
Sponsored by Knoxville Republican Jason Zachary, the bill is aimed at removing legislative authority from unelected officials.
“We have three branches of government; we do not have four,” Zachary told committee members Tuesday. “I don't see this as a partisan issue. ... This is a fundamental broken piece of code, which gives incredible power to unelected bodies.”
Members of the House health subcommittee advanced the bill without opposition in a midday meeting Tuesday. The bill now advances to the full House Health Committee.
Currently, Tennessee law gives the state's six public health boards authority to issue mandates in response to public health issues. Zachary said that over the last year, some health boards in the state have exercised “unlimited authority” to make and execute orders in their county that carry the power of law.
“(Current law) gives this health board unchecked power — unlimited power — they are accountable to no one,” Zachary said. “If our county mayor objects, there's no recourse for the county mayor because statute gives this unelected health board unlimited power.”
Zachary said elected officials should consult the advice of health experts to guide their decisions, but that ultimately, decisions should be made by officials who are accountable to the voters who elected them.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton shared his support for the legislation on Twitter on Tuesday.
“Appreciate @JasonZacharyTN for guiding pro-business legislation through the Health Subcommittee today that dials back the autonomy of our six independent health boards,” Sexton wrote. “Tough decisions during countywide health emergencies shouldn’t be made by unelected bureaucrats, and moving these boards to advisory roles will hold elected officials accountable to the voters they serve.”
Zachary’s bill applies only to the six Tennessee counties that have health boards, including Davidson County.
The Metro Public Health Department did not respond to a request for comment. A comment from Mayor John Cooper’s office was not received as of press time.