TN special session live updates: House GOP, Dems show disappointment


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Jan 20, 2024

TN special session live updates: House GOP, Dems show disappointment

The Tennessee state Capitol was filled with drama again on Monday as lawmakers returned for a second week of work during the special session on public safety. In many respects, the week began like

The Tennessee state Capitol was filled with drama again on Monday as lawmakers returned for a second week of work during the special session on public safety.

In many respects, the week began like last week ended: The House plowing through legislation as the Senate quickly adjourned, set on sticking to the narrow slate of legislation it already passed.

Meanwhile, in the House, Democrats walked out of the chamber en masse after a 70-20 vote to silence Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville. House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, had ruled Jones out of order twice, setting up the vote under controversial new House rules.

By mid-morning, the House and Senate reached a deal to end their deadlock and both chambers adjourned before noon CT.

Follow along today for the latest updates.

In his first comments since the session adjourned, Gov. Bill Lee said he is hopeful and encouraged by the results of the special session, and related public engagement.

“We have made some headway this week, four of our bills passed,” Lee told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “Significant funding was focused on issues that matter to public safety. We improved the background check system, attacked human trafficking, made more access for safe storage. We funded mental health resources across the state. We made progress.”

Lawmakers adjourned having passed only four of Lee’s seven proposed bills. The governor declined to say whether he plans to continue to push forward with the others, or an extreme risk protection order proposal when the legislature returns in January.

“It’s good when we make progress of any kind, and we have made progress, and we will continue to make progress,” Lee said.

Lee also thanked Covenant families for engaging with the legislative process – while holding his news conference at the same time as one held by the Covenant families. Down the street, those families tearfully expressed frustration and resolute grief over the special session’s early adjournment.

“Their presence made a difference,” Lee said. “They also reminded Tennessee that there is hope in the midst of tragedy, and they brought that hope into this process.”

Of the stalemate between the House and Senate – which ultimately killed three of the governor’s bills – Lee said he saw his role to step back and let lawmakers hash out their differences. He acknowledged that he did not ask Senate leaders to reopen committees to consider his bills after they'd closed last Wednesday.

“I recognize that the job the governor has is to call this session to put forth his ideas, and the job of the legislature is to decide which bills to move forward,” he said.

Nevertheless, Lee said he was hard at work helping broker deals at the state Capitol – despite having traveled to West Tennessee on Monday. The only publicly known meeting that the governor brokered between the parties happened during breakfast time Tuesday morning.

“This week was important because I worked hard together with lawmakers to move the ball forward,” Lee said. “That was my effort all week long, every day at the Capitol, meeting with those lawmakers.”

Lee highlighted about $20 million in funding for various mental health programs and

Lee highlighted the new funding for mental health providers and some new money for school safety personnel funded in the appropriations bill.

But the governor did not acknowledge that many of the items in the bills he backed were already in place before the session, including a free gun lock program at the Department of Safety, data reported by the TBI on human trafficking, and a 72-hour deadline for entry of court records into the state’s background check database – which he instituted by executive order this spring.

“We have much work to do, but together the work that we did this week and that we will do in the future will make Tennessee a safer place,” Lee said.

– Vivian Jones, The Tennessean

“Let me remind you. My daughter was hunted at her school.”

Mary Joyce’s words fell on an eerily silent room, as journalists watched her contain her tears at a news conference following the end of the special session.

“She hid from a woman with a high-capacity rifle in her third grade classroom,” Joyce said. “She now understands what it feels like to be shot at. Since then, every single day she worries if it will be her last. Because it almost was.”

Joyce, alongside Sarah Shoop Neumann and David Teague — all parents of children at the Covenant School when the mass shooting occurred in March — spoke of the horror they felt watching the special session close with no gun legislation bills passed.

“Today, we will go home and we'll look at our children in the eyes — many of whom were sheltered from gunfire that tragic day on March 27,” she said. “They will ask what our leaders have done over the past week and a half to protect them. As a mother, I'm going to have to look at my nine year-old in the eye and tell her: nothing.”

Teague, a father of two children at the school, said through tears that he’d “hoped for more.”

“Today is a difficult day,” he said. “A tremendous opportunity to make our children safer and create brighter tomorrow’s has been missed. And I am saddened for all Tennesseans — I’d hoped for more.”

The bills passed by lawmakers were not enough, he said—but he wasn’t surprised.

“Today’s inaction by the legislature hurt — it pales in comparison to the pain of March 27th,” he said. “And the end of the day, though, this is only a little less than what we expected.”

The three parents each promised to continue their pressure on the legislature.

“We need legislators on both sides of the aisle to be able to have respectful, thoughtful debate regarding potential solutions to end gun violence,” Neumann said. “Those who are not of this mindset do not deserve a seat in the House or the Senate, and we will work towards ensuring every one of those seats is replaced by someone who has a true desire to listen to their constituents over firearm association lobbyists.

“We will be back in January.”

—Angele Latham, The Tennessean

House leaders expressed frustration that the the session is over.

“I’m very disappointed that we didn’t get more done in this special session,” said House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland. “In the House, we had a lot of bills that got left on the table that I hope will still be taken back up in January to help families in Tennessee be safer.”

Lamberth said he feels Tennesseans are “just a little bit safer,” due to the measures passed, “but not enough.”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said that the agreement to adjourn was reached after House and Senate leaders met with Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday.

“You can leave it for a week or you can take them at their word,” Sexton said, of the impasse between House and Senate chambers.

GOP leaders discussed a moment of physical confrontation after adjournment.

Sexton said GOP leaders were trying to come do a news conference from the House floor, which is common at the end of sessions.

“Unfortunately, a few members were trying to corral us in. As we're coming through, my understanding, and what I remember, and what the video shows from the top is my security, put their hand on the back which stopped me forward," Sexton said. "I think, I can't remember, there was a photographer, when you look at it, that was to my left – and so we moved right. "And then at that point, we keep walking and then you have Rep. Pearson that comes in and pops me from the right side.”

“I was standing right there,” Lamberth said. “Rep. Pearson became very irate and angry at that juncture, and circled around. And other members, and myself and others blocked those off – there’s no reason for any of that. There’s no doubt in my mind that he was very angry and aggressive towards the speaker specifically.”

House Republican leaders also criticized the Democratic caucus for not being able to keep their members within the bounds of decorum, with Lamberth calling them “a couple of bad apples trying to spoil the bunch.”

“It's unfortunate that it keeps getting there, but you know, it is what it is. I mean, y'all can judge for yourself,” Sexton said. “I'm not gonna throw stones at them, but that is problematic, especially when you see what happened at the end – again, when we shut down and a member going to the dais and slamming the gavel down and looking at the crowd. That’s never happened before.”

Several criticized Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, for climbing onto the speaker’s dais, noting several events that happened during the session “that have never happened before.”

Sexton hinted that the lower chamber may adopt the controversial House rules in January, making them permanent.

“We’ll have to vote on those as a body again,” Sexton said. “We may tweak them again as we need to,” he added, noting that Congress has rules prohibiting signs — and phones — in the galleries.

—Vivian Jones, The Tennessean

“Let me remind you. My daughter was hunted at her school,” Covenant mom Mary Joyce said. “She hid from a woman with a high capacity rifle in her third grade classroom. She now understands what it feels like to be shot at. Since then, every single day she worries if it will be her last Because it almost was.”

“Today we will go home and we'll look at our children in the eyes many of whom were sheltered from gunfire that tragic day on March 27," she said.

"They will ask what our leaders have done over the past week and a half to protect them. As a mother I'm going to have to look at my nine year old in the eye and tell her nothing.”

— Angele Latham, The Tennessean

Tennessee Democratic lawmakers met in Cordell Hull following the end of the special session, emphasizing the need to “keep fighting” for gun reform, despite the largely ineffective push for such legislation so far.

“It’s been a complete waste of time, it’s been a waste of taxpayer money,” said House Minority Leader Karen Camper. “People expected us to do something to make the public safer. We did nothing.”

Standing in front of a screen bearing photos of 28 children who died from gunshot wounds across the state this year, Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, lamented the outcome of the session.

“No one should leave this building today saying we made Tennessee safer” she said. “Because that is simply not true. We didn’t enact any new policies, we didn’t meet the needs of these parents, who are just crying out for us to do something.

“How long? How much longer will we allow ourselves to remain in this state?”

She promised that Democrats would continue pushing for legislation in the regular January session.

“We sure as hell better do something (in January),” she said.

Camper also commented on what she said was Gov. Bill Lee's absence during the session he called.

“He had an opportunity to actually get something done — but he didn’t do that,” Camper said. “No one has seen him! He is nowhere! This Governor failed to get something done — he has a responsibility to his people and we have to hold him accountable.”

— Angele Latham, The Tennessean

Moments after the House adjourned, the environment devolved into a physical scrum between lawmakers, including House Speaker Cameron Sexton, as Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, attempted to confront him with signs after gaveling out of the special session.

As a crowd formed at the bottom of the speaker dais, it appeared Sexton, R-Crossville, made physical contact with Pearson while pushing past him. Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, and Pearson then had a heated exchange before Republicans exited the chamber.

— Melissa Brown, The Tennessean

The Tennessee House ended its special session to angry cries from protestors, screaming "Vote them out" from the galleries as lawmakers quickly emptied into the halls. The Senate had ended early in the morning.

The House kicked off Tuesday morning with tempers already high after a contentious Monday afternoon session. House Republicans moved to quickly end the floor session, after House Republicans reached an agreement with the Senate to end the special session.

House Republicans had hoped to push through additional bills, which Senate Republicans largely refused to do.

"Unfortunately, we have no additional business to attend to in this particular body," Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, said. "By the way, I wish we did."

House business devolved into a back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats, as Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, attempted to bring a vote of no confidence against House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville. Jones was disciplined on Monday afternoon after Sexton ruled him twice out of order, under new House rules.

— Melissa Brown, The Tennessean

A mixture of reactions were present among protestors as legislators began walking into the House chambers.

Tears, shouts and jeers could be heard as demonstrators filled the gallery. Shouts of “Hello empty seats,” “You don’t represent us,” and “All this for what?” overlaid the quiet crying of a number of Covenant parents and activists, sitting cradled in the arms of friends and families.

Below, legislators didn’t look at the gathered citizens.

As legislators read the Pledge of Allegiance, demonstrators angrily shouted “For all! For all!”, repeating the final phrase of the pledge of allegiance that says “liberty and justice for all.”

— Angele Latham, The Tennessean

The Senate adjourned sine die, signaling an end to the special session. The House must still follow.

As the chamber completed procedural matters, a woman in the gallery protested that the chamber had done nothing to make the state safer or prevent gun violence. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, ordered her removed from the gallery.

Before adjourning, the Senate also concurred with a House amendment to a bill making a slight change to the deadline local courts are required to update records in the state’s background check database.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, noted that the committee had made the change after hearing feedback from local clerks on the 72 hour reporting requirement. Larger counties can do it, smaller counties “would love to” but can’t.

“They approached us in judiciary committee, saying ‘please change it to three days,’ so we did,” he said. “We’re really impressing a hardship on the clerks of these small counties.”

“Why in the world would the House send something back over that everybody was happy with? For a win?” Gardenhire said. “I would suggest that we refuse this.”

Johnson said that he did not disagree with Gardenhire’s point, but noted that there is no penalty if clerks fail to comply — implying that the deadline is unenforceable.

— Vivian Jones, The Tennessean

Rep. Justin J. Pearson climbed into the House gallery to encourage and thank demonstrators as they prepared for the announcement of the deal struck between the House and Senate.

“Thank you for showing up, thank you for making your voice heard,” he said, to the raucous approval of crowd.

— Angele Latham, The Tennessean

As word of the deal started to spread throughout the crowded Senate gallery, attendees began to hastily file into the halls, on their way to the House meeting.

Standing in the back of the gallery, Sarah Shoop Neumann, a mother of a Covenant School student, cried quietly.

— Angele Latham, The Tennessean

Carrying out an agreement reached between the House and Senate on Tuesday morning, the Senate concurred with several changes proposed by the House on bills that the upper chamber approved last week.

Last week, after committee testimony, the Senate had removed $1.1 million in funding for an ad campaign on gun safety that the Department of Safety would be required to undertake, after the department told Senators that it could pay for the campaign with existing funds.

The House later put the $1.1 million back in the bill. Senators unanimously concurred with the amendment to restore the $1.1 million on Tuesday.

In a funding bill to pay for the session, the Senate had previously allocated $16 million for sign-on bonuses and pay incentives for mental health workers in the state’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

The House reduced that to $12 million in bonuses, and allocated the remaining $4 million for behavioral health safety net grants.

— Vivian Jones, The Tennessean

Senate and House leadership have reached an agreement, according to a legislative aide familiar with the details of the deal.

During its session this morning, the Senate is in the process of concurring with changes made by the House to the four bills the upper chamber already passed. Changes include restoring funding the Senate previously removed for a public service ad campaign on gun safety, and reallocating some funding for behavioral health safety net grants.

No further House bills are expected to be considered, and Senate committees will remain closed.

The special session is expected to adjourn today.

— Vivian Jones, The Tennessean

During debate on a bill returned from the House to provide free gun locks and make permanent a sales tax holiday on gun safes, Senate democrats asked the legislature to consider more meaningful reforms to promote gun safety.

“This is just a band-aid solution to a bigger problem,” Sen. London Lamar, D-Memphis said. “I appreciate this program is a piece of the overall solution. But please don’t be confused that this is going to reduce gun violence in our community – because it’s not.”

Sen. Charlane Oliver, D-Nashville, agreed.

“We came here to work. We came here to actually put bills forward that would prevent violence in our community,” Oliver said. “This special session is, quite frankly, a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

“We’ll continue to keep kicking this can down the road in January, but we’re not doing the work that people elected us to do,” Oliver added.

— Vivian Jones, The Tennessean

Ahead of both chambers returning on Tuesday morning, Gov. Bill Lee held a meeting with House and Senate leaders at his office in the state Capitol to attempt to broker an agreement between the two chambers, currently in stalemate.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, both attended, along with other leadership.

“Governor Lee asked legislative leadership to meet this morning and encouraged them to work through differences and determine the best path forward,” Lee spokesperson Elizabeth Johnson told The Tennessean.

Despite the governor’s efforts, it appears that still no deal has been reached.

The Senate gaveled in for business just after 10 a.m., with a gallery full of spectators holding signs calling for better gun safety laws.

On the Senate’s agenda Tuesday are two previously-passed items that are now returned from the Senate: an appropriations bill, and a bill to provide free gun locks to Tennessee residents and make permanent a sales tax holiday on gun safes.

— Vivian Jones, The Tennessean

The early morning crowd of demonstrators filled the seats of the Senate gallery Tuesday, as the 10 a.m. session commenced.

Audible approval—done with snapping and flicking of paper signs—could be heard while the senate debated a bill to encourage safe storage of firearms.

“Please don’t think this is going to stop gun violence, because it’s not,” said Senator London Lamar, to a building wave of snaps. “This is just a bad solution to a bigger problem.”

— Angele Latham, The Tennessean