It started just a few days into the new year when Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly filed a bill to slash the size of Nashville’s Metro Council.
The legislation was the opening salvo in a months-long session often defined by a Republican supermajority eager to mete out retribution across the aisle and in the capital city where their body sits.
It was an eagerness that led Republicans to dramatically remake existing Nashville boards at the airport and sports authorities, giving themselves appointing power to the two important agencies.
That same eagerness motivated House lawmakers to pursue unprecedented expulsion procedures, a move that ultimately blew back in the ruling party’s face. The expelled Democrats quickly regained their seats, and GOP lawmakers rushed to leave the Capitol amid weeks of emotionally charged gun reform protests in the wake of the deadly Covenant School shooting.
On Friday evening, the 113th Tennessee General Assembly officially ended its 2023 legislative session.
Less than two hours later, Gov. Bill Lee said he planned to call for a special session, likely bringing lawmakers back to Nashville within weeks to consider an extreme risk gun proposal. Lee said in a Friday statement he’d issue an official call and date in the coming days.
Lee threw his weight behind proposed language for an order of protection proposal on Tuesday, telling lawmakers Tennesseans deserve a vote this week on the issue. But Lee didn’t have the votes, and Republicans quickly shot down the suggestion.
It’s likely GOP heavyweights, particularly in the House, would move to dial back the proposed language, hesitant to sign on to legislation vehemently opposed by gun rights advocates.
Republican leadership said Friday they think additional input from “stakeholders” is needed ahead of a special session.
“There are things we have done to help secure and protect kids who are at school. There are other things we had hoped we could have gotten done on a couple of different issues,” House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said. “Hopefully, we’ll get another opportunity in the special session. But, I also think it’s important to have these conversations outside of the Capitol with the public, and let them have input on exactly how we should move forward.”
In recent weeks, thousands descended on the Capitol to lobby lawmakers, while families connected to Covenant have sat in committee meetings and in the chamber galleries calling for gun reform measures.
“We should be ashamed as a society that we live in a place and time when part of the grieving process for these moms is to come here and ask us to do what we’re elected to do,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville.
Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, expressed “extreme disappointment” that lawmakers expedited the end of session without passing any gun measures. Akbari said Tennesseans of all political stripes and social background have “asked us to do something.”
“At the end of the day we had the opportunity, we had the time, and we were all willing and wanted to stay here to work on something,” Akbari said. “Instead, we have adjourned”
Expulsions, scandal dominate final days of session
Legislative developments in recent weeks were overshadowed by the partisan expulsions of freshman Democratic Reps. Justin Pearson of Memphis and Justin Jones of Nashville on April 6, after the two broke chamber decorum rules to protest for gun reform on the House floor in the wake of the March 27 Covenant shooting
Republicans pursued the expulsions amid national outcry and, in retrospect, shortly after one of their own caucus was found to have violated the General Assembly’s harassment policy in alleged inappropriate communications with an intern.
Meanwhile, leaked audio showed the expulsion proceedings internally roiled the Republican caucus after it failed to whip the necessary votes to expel Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville.
In the end, Pearson and Jones quickly returned to the House, while Rep. Scotty Campbell left the chamber for lunch on Thursday and never returned, resigning in the wake of the allegations. The two Democrats — both young, Black lawmakers eager to openly challenge Republican colleagues — continued to make waves into the final hours of session, continually challenging debate and procedural issues on the House floor while the Republican caucus used an official caucus Twitter account to jab Pearson and Jones and criticize their votes through the week.
It was a jarring session for leadership in both chambers, after Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, weathered an unexpected social media scandal over his frequent posts on a string of risqué Instagram photos posted by a young man, who later said McNally had initially befriended him on social media when he was a minor. McNally survived a no-confidence vote in the caucus.
Weeks later, amid national backlash to the House GOP’s expulsion actions, House Speaker Cameron Sexton R-Crossville, came under increased scrutiny for maintaining a residence in his House district while living in a larger home in Nashville with his family.
The abrupt nature of Campbell’s resignation cast a pall over the end of the House session on Friday, as Sexton fielded questions when he knew of Campbell’s harassment violation and whether the caucus took any internal disciplinary action prior to the news becoming public.
Sexton gaveled down Jones and Johnson on Friday night after Johnson tried to ask how much money had been spent in the fall-out of the Campbell situation, and Jones asked about the process of calling for a no-confidence vote in Sexton.
In a press conference following adjournment, Sexton said the ethics complaint process in the General Assembly was designed to protect a victim and shield details of the anonymous complaint within the bipartisan subcommittee. Sexton indicated the subcommittee had recommended some corrective action, which he couldn’t reveal, but no public action was take against Campbell.
Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, said the process was designed to take corrective action out of any speaker’s hands, and Sexton said he had been informed of a complaint and a violation but wasn’t made aware of the details.
“We knew it was a violation, we knew no details of the violation,” Sexton said.
Tennessee taxpayers will now fund two special elections in Nashville and Memphis, while state lawyers fight lawsuits on at least three laws passed in recent months. A federal judge has temporarily blocked a controversial bill limiting some drag performances, calling it unconstitutionally vague in an early ruling, while a three-judge state panel blocked Tennessee from immediately enforcing the Nashville Metro Council law until at least the next election cycle in 2027.
A separate lawsuit challenging a bill to block transgender children from accessing certain medical treatments, set to go into effect on June 1, was filed this week.
Push for school security in wake of Covenant
In the wake of the Covenant shooting, Lee successfully pushed $140 million for school resource officers for public schools, with an aim to fund a full-time armed SRO in each public school, in addition to $7 million for a grant program for SROs in private schools. Another $8 million will go toward behavioral health offerings.
In less controversial matters, lawmakers funded a $3.3 billion Lee-backed plan roads plan, funneling $750 million between the Department of Transportation’s four regions of the state — in addition to pursuing privately managed, toll-lane options in congested areas. The Lee administration calls these choice lanes.
“We have made historic investments in school safety. The hardening of security in our schools is of paramount importance and I am grateful we were in the financial position to do it,” McNally said following adjournment. “In the area of education and infrastructure, we have also made down payments which will ensure success in the future.”
In total, Tennessee lawmakers approved a $56.2 billion state operating budget for the 2024 fiscal year on a largely bipartisan vote, with some Democrats in opposition critical of permanent business tax cuts. The legislature approved $45.8 million in business tax cuts, and a three-month grocery sales tax holiday expected to save families about $100 in sales per month and cost the state $288 million in sales tax revenue.
The General Assembly approved $125 million in teacher pay raises, with a plan to raise statewide teacher pay to a minimum of $50,000 by 2027. Some Democrats opposed the bill after the legislation included a measure to prohibit teachers’ association dues from being automatically deducted from paychecks, a “poison pill” even some Republicans opposed.
Lawmakers funded Lee’s nearly $1-billion request for six new Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology campuses and capital improvements at existing TCAT sites.
“These schools are vitally important in developing a strong workforce in our communities and state,” Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ken Yager, R-Kingston, said. f
Before balking at Lee’s call for an extreme risk gun law, the Republican supermajority punted a variety of gun measures, including a measure that could arm teachers and an assault weapons ban Democrats tried to bring in a last-minute effort.
Republicans did pass a bill offering liability protection to gun manufacturers and dealers in the state.
As the sun set on the Capitol on Friday evening, the halls and chamber galleries were largely quiet as lawmakers departed. Above the House chamber, a handful of people remained in the gallery until the end. One held two hand-drawn signs over the gallery ledge.
“PLEASE. Protect kids not guns.”