A special session of the Tennessee General Assembly concluded Wednesday after three days. During the session, lawmakers passed bills granting coronavirus-related liability protections to businesses, increasing penalties for vandalism and camping on state property related to recent Capitol protests and establishing a framework for the delivery of telehealth services.
Republican supporters of the protest bill took pains to argue that the measure did nothing to restrict the rights of peaceful protesters. But opponents — mostly Democrats — contended that the bill would have a chilling effect, particularly on the group who has been camped outside the legislature for more than 60 days.
“It sends a stifling message that we don’t value what you have to say,” Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) said on the Senate floor. “I think it’s unnecessary. I don’t like the spirit of it.”
The version of the bill passed by the House and Senate on Wednesday was softened from some earlier iterations that included a provision giving the Tennessee attorney general the authority to prosecute cases when local district attorneys decide not to. Though the Senate initially passed a version that would have kept the camping provision a misdemeanor, they acquiesced to the House version that makes it a felony.
“Those are really offenses against all of us,” Republican Sen. John Stevens said of the camping provision.
Stevens said the hypothetical loss of voting rights for someone convicted of the newly created felony of camping on state property was “an extreme and appropriate punishment.”
There was some confusion in recent days as the bill underwent several changes, and sponsors were at times unable to answer questions about the provisions included in it. At one point Wednesday, Senate Judiciary Chair Mike Bell said the bill “would appear to criminalize a family throwing a blanket down to have a picnic.”
Republican supporters highlighted the need to increase penalties for assaulting law enforcement officers and other first responders, another aspect of the bill.
“You can support our law enforcement officers or you can spit in their face by voting against this,” House Majority Leader William Lamberth said Tuesday, drawing rebuke from Democrats including Memphis Rep. Larry Miller.
The two chambers also reached an agreement on liability protections for businesses and other organizations. The bill would make it harder for plaintiffs to sue a business, school, church or other entity if they claim to have contracted COVID-19 on the premises. When House and Senate leaders joined with the business community in an attempt to establish such protections in June, they failed to reach an agreement because House members said it was unconstitutional to extend the protections back to the start of the pandemic, as the Senate version did.
But by August, House leaders — including Majority Leader Lamberth — had reversed their stance on retroactivity, and the compromise agreement would establish the protections dating back to Aug. 3, when Gov. Bill Lee called the special session.
When asked whether the nearly 10 days of retroactivity included in the new bill was constitutionally the same as the months of retroactivity that he forcefully opposed in June, Lamberth disagreed.
“I do not interpret it that way, and I don’t think the courts will either,” he said.
Pro-business groups have been pushing for the protections for months, arguing they are necessary to spur economic recovery.
“Liability protections are one of the most crucial things that can be done for businesses right now,” Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry President and CEO Bradley Jackson said. “Swift economic recovery cannot occur unless unfair legal exposure is mitigated and businesses have certainty that their efforts to safeguard their employees and customers is acknowledged by the General Assembly and the courts.”
Democrats made several unsuccessful efforts to amend or counter the liability bill, contending that it shouldn’t be retroactive and that the bill made suing “bad actors” in the business community too difficult. Democratic efforts to weaken the protest bill also floundered.
A third priority mentioned in Lee’s call to special session came to a simpler conclusion, as nearly every lawmaker supported a bill establishing a framework for telehealth services, in part necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.