After a year shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, Tennessee lawmakers will consider a variety of bills aimed at changing state government’s response to public health emergencies.
Legislators have filed a multitude of pandemic-related proposals, from bills that would make the state pay for COVID-19 victims’ burials to a slew of bills to limit powers of the executive branch during a state of emergency.
Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Chair Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, and Rep. Brandon Ogles, R-Franklin, have filed a bill that would prohibit government entities from designating any category of workers as “essential” or “nonessential.”
Nashville Sen. Heidi Campbell, the newest member of the Senate Democratic Caucus, has a bill that would require the state to provide pandemic bonuses for school employees.
“Our educators are working. They've worked their tails off in the schools this year, whether they were doing it virtually or teaching in class. And they've had to dedicate more time to their students than ever before,” Campbell told The Center Square.
Senate Bill 1358 would provide a $500 bonus for every part-time school district employee and $1,000 for every full-time employee. Campbell said she compared similar pandemic bonuses provided by other states to arrive at the amount.
“If we want to turn the tide on our teacher shortage crisis and show our educators the respect they deserve, I think a pandemic bonus is worth every penny,” Campbell said.
Meanwhile, for victims of the COVID-19 pandemic who are financially unable to pay for burial or cremation expenses, Memphis Democrat Rep. Barbara Cooper has proposed legislation that would require the state to foot the bill.
Hohenwald Republican Sen. Joey Hensley has introduced two bills prohibiting schools and employers from requiring students or employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Several members have filed bills to rein in powers of the executive branch during a state of emergency. Republican Rep. Tom Leatherwood of Arlington has introduced a bill that would remove the power of unelected public health officials to make and enforce public health orders, as has occurred in several Tennessee counties in response to the coronavirus.
“These decisions need to rest in the hands of an elected official who is accountable to the public,” Leatherwood told The Center Square.
Leatherwood’s House Bill 1327 would apply to only the six Tennessee counties that have their own public health departments: Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Shelby, Sullivan and Madison. Leatherwood said his bill does not intend to cut public health officials out of conversations about public health orders.
“(Health departments) need to be relied upon, they need to be maintained as advisers,” Leatherwood said. “But then the final decision on implementing whatever the policy may be, I believe, rests in the hands of an accountable elected official.”
Leatherwood’s bill is similar to a proposal by Knoxville Republican Rep. Jason Zachary, whose bill is scheduled for consideration in the House next week.
Zachary, who served last fall as co-chair of a committee on emergency executive powers, has introduced a bill that would enable the legislature to pass legislation ending a public health state of emergency declared by the governor.
State law does not include any check on executive branch power during a state of emergency, and there is no limit on the number of times a governor can extend the state’s emergency status. Tennessee is one of the only states that does not provide a legislative check on emergency executive powers.
Senate Bill 1169 by Lebanon Republican Sen. Mark Pody would create another check on emergency executive powers. The governor currently can declare a state of emergency for 65 days. Pody’s bill would limit a state of emergency to 40 days.
“This pandemic started about 10, almost 11 months ago,” Pody told The Center Square. “And we're still underneath executive orders. That just seems like an extremely long time.”
Pody said he does not object to Gov. Bill Lee’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, he said, his bill is aimed at ensuring legislative checks on executive power exist during future states of emergency.
“We want to make sure that there is something that's going to limit the time frame that any governor can do things to put away our constitutional rights without legislative approval and authority,” Pody said.
Pody may add to his bill, he said, depending on what other legislation on executive powers advances during the legislative session.
“I want to make sure that there's enough teeth in any bill that will give legislative authority over and protection for our citizens of Tennessee to protect their rights,” Pody said.
Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Nashville on Monday, Feb. 22, to resume the legislative session interrupted this week by severe winter weather.