On August 21, the 113th General Assembly convened for its first extraordinary or “special” session called by Governor Bill Lee to address public safety concerns. A host of security modifications had been made to the capitol and legislative offices in anticipation of a large volume of visitors, organized protest efforts, and media events. From opening respective floor sessions, it was clear the House and Senate had different approaches to the rules that govern the chambers.
While the Senate rules were nearly identical to those of regular session, the House made significant adjustments to matters such as the speaking time allotted to each member as well as the conduct of onlookers. For example, the House rules banned, from both committee rooms and chamber galleries, all signs that were previously allowed. (The sign prohibition was nullified on August 23 by a temporary restraining order issued by Davidson County Chancellor Anne Martin. After a full hearing on August 28, Chancellor Martin upheld the order.) As a result, while the Senate’s opening session lasted less than an hour, the House floor debate went well beyond and emotions ran high.
Prior to the August 18 filing deadline, House members had submitted a total of 114 bills. Prior to the Senate’s August 21 deadline, many lacked the procedurally necessary Senate sponsor. When Senate sponsors were added, it resulted in odd sponsor pairings, which often signal a body’s hesitance toward the measure and grim chances of success.
Committee work began on Tuesday, August 22, and the tension between the House and Senate grew. The House’s morning subcommittees met for a considerable amount of time to discuss a spectrum of proposals, but observers were stunned when the Senate Judiciary Committee passed three bills, summarily tabled 52, and adjourned. The Senate reasoned that only the governor’s bills should be considered because he called the session. Though frustrated, House committees continued to meet until 7:00 p.m. Wednesday, August 23, and brought more of the same. House committees met, listened to testimony, and voted. Senate committees gaveled in, moved entire calendars to the table, and adjourned.
The three bills advanced by Governor Lee’s administration are detailed below:
Firearm Safety Devices, Public Safety Campaign, & Firearm Safety Courses
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) filed a bill (SB7085/HB7012) that, as amended, exempts all sales of firearm safes and firearm safety devices from state and local sales tax beginning November 1, 2023. It also requires the Department of Safety (Safety), upon request, to provide free firearm locks to Tennessee residents. Safety must also, in conjunction with other state agencies, create a public safety campaign dedicated to safe firearm storage. Lastly, it requires firearm safety courses to include instruction on the safe storage of firearms.
Senate Majority Leader Johnson and House Majority Leader Lamberth filed a bill (SB7086/HB7013) that, as amended, bolsters the statewide prospective gun buyer background check systems by shortening the timeframe that information is submitted, such as conviction of a felony, an adjudication of mental defectiveness, or involuntary commitment, from 30 days to 72 hours. The bill codifies essentially what was put in place by Governor Lee’s Executive Order 100.
Human Trafficking Report
Senate Majority Leader Johnson and House Majority Leader Lamberth filed a bill (SB7088/HB7041) that requires the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to submit an annual report on child and human trafficking crimes and trends in the state.
Other Special Session Details
Negotiations between the House and Senate leadership to determine if other bills would be taken up began in the late afternoon on Wednesday, August 23, and ended without a clear path forward. The abbreviated talks on Thursday were fruitless, and as a result, the House continued committee and floor discussions and the Senate adjourned until Monday, August 28, which is the longest adjournment period allowable without the consent of the other chamber.
After little commentary from Governor Lee during the first week of special session, on August 28, House members suggested that the governor would back 12 bills, but Senate leadership stated the governor had not relayed that message of support to their chamber. After Governor Lee attempted to broker a deal later that afternoon, the chambers remained in a stalemate.
Before the start of the Senate floor session the next morning, word of a deal began to spread. Senator Watson (R-Chattanooga), Chairman of Senate Finance, Ways & Means, detailed funding adjustments that the Senate agreed to in exchange for not considering any bills outside the three detailed above. Adjustments included:
- $1.1 million in funding for a gun safety advertisement campaign.
- A reduction from $16 million to $12 million for mental health professional bonuses.
- Using the gained $4 million to increase behavioral health safety net grants.
- Diverting TennCare reversions by $50 million non-recurring to agencies that contract with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
- $30 million non-recurring for safety upgrades for institutions of higher education, e.g., door hardware, security cameras, ballistic window film, fences, signage, etc.
With those items formally agreed to, the Senate passed SJR7150 to adjourn sine die. The House followed suit shortly thereafter, but not without protest in the gallery and chaos on the floor. The Bass, Berry & Sims government relations team looks forward to working with clients to prepare for the second regular session of the 113th General Assembly set to begin at noon on January 9, 2024.