Gov. Bill Lee, House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally jointly announced an “unprecedented” plan Monday to expedite the legislature’s business in order to recess as coronavirus continues its spread in Tennessee and around the world.
The trio “jointly decided to limit all remaining legislative business to fulfilling our constitutional requirement of passing a balanced budget, and any associated actions that will ensure Tennessee can keep its doors open,” according to a release.
Here’s the full statement from the Republican leaders:
“Over the last week, we have remained in close contact with the state’s health leaders, and we have continued to carefully monitor the complex and aggressive COVID-19 virus in Tennessee. The latest guidance from both the CDC and Department of Health requires us to take unprecedented action. In the best interests of public health, we have jointly decided to limit all remaining legislative business to fulfilling our constitutional requirement of passing a balanced budget, and any associated actions that will ensure Tennessee can keep its doors open. This is a serious time for our state and country, and we all must make adjustments in response to this threat. Our approach will take into account the unique public health challenges this complex virus presents, as well as the economic disruption likely to occur as a result of its spread. Passing an amended budget now and recessing will allow the General Assembly to focus on an immediate plan of action, while still determining needs down the road. This pathway forward should only be reserved for extraordinary circumstances. We will continue operating out of an abundance of caution and take additional action if it becomes necessary.”
Precautions at the legislature advanced rapidly since last week, when some House leaders downplayed the need for significant action.
But by Friday, Gov. Bill Lee had ordered the Capitol closed to visitors and House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally followed suit, shutting legislative offices to everyone but members, media and staff. Those decisions raised the eyebrows of transparency advocates — who questioned the constitutionality of limiting public access to the legislature — as well as public health advocates, who worried about the gathering of more than 100 lawmakers, many of whom are old enough to be considered vulnerable.
Legislators were already expediting business Monday, with some committee meetings canceled and the Senate Education Committee dispensing with its long list of bills to consider in order to pass the Education Department’s budget on to the Finance Committee, which it did after no debate. The quiet halls and meeting rooms, absent the typical throngs of visitors, drew a sharp contrast with last week, when advocacy groups and school athletic teams — including one from a school closed due to coronavirus — crowded the Capitol and legislative buildings.
The action followed decisions by the legislatures in several other states, including Georgia, Maryland and Colorado, to end or temporarily suspend their sessions.