Leadership from the Tennessee Faith and Freedom Coalition and the GOP present Senate Bill 7088, which addresses human trafficking, to the press. Credit: Connor Daryani/Nashville Banner

Only three bills have a pathway to passage from the Tennessee General Assembly’s special session.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which most bills have to pass through in order to reach the Senate floor, gaveled in a little after 2 p.m. on Tuesday. The Committee, with Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) as its chairman, had 55 bills on its agenda. But after moving the first two bills on the agenda to the end of the calendar, both sponsored by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the committee quickly passed three bills and then adjourned for the session, effectively killing any other bills chances of passing this week. 

A number of bills are still making their way through House committees, but without their companion in the Senate, the bills can’t actually get signed into law until 2024. These are the three that could still hit the Senate floor tomorrow, which all came from the governor and are sponsored by Majority Leader Jack Johnson in the Senate and Majority Leader William Lamberth in the House. :

  • Senate Bill 7085 – This bill directs the Tennessee Department of Safety to provide free firearm locks to Tennessee residents upon request. It also requires the provision of more materials surrounding firearm safety and education. The bill passed with bipartisan support. 
  • Senate Bill 7086 – This bill codifies an executive order Gov. Bill Lee made in April, changing the requirement for how long a clerk has to notify TBI of the final dispositions of criminal proceedings against a person to within three business days after the final disposition of their proceedings. The bill passed with bipartisan support. 
  • Senate Bill 7088 – This is the bill that the Republican Supermajority is rallying behind for the special session. The bill would require the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to file a report on child and human trafficking numbers within the state by Dec. 1 of each year. A spokesperson for TBI testified that these are numbers the bureau already collects.

Following the committee’s adjournment, Gardenhire confirmed to reporters that after these three bills make it through the calendar and finance committees, they will be the only three bills heard this session. None of the other bills that have been taken up in a chaotic sprint of House committee sessions will be heard.

“The House is the House and the Senate is the Senate,” said Gardenhire. “And if they want to take them up that’s fine but we’re not taking them up in the Senate.”

More than 100 bills were filed in each chamber. But Gardenhire said that there simply was not enough time for the legislators to consider them during the special session.

“We have to give each one of these proper hearings. We have to vet them. These bills are very complicated and complex. Some of us didn’t get to see the bills until two days ago,” said Gardenhire. “Historically, the Senate, when a governor calls for a special session… we only took up what the governor asked us to take, not all these other bills. It was beginning to look like a Christmas tree.”

Some of the other bills that were up for debate concerned mental health, school security and juvenile justice, the latter of which drew concerns from activists. When asked by reporters what the point of holding a special session was if there wasn’t enough time to get to any of the bills, Gardenhire’s response was simple:

“You’d need to take that up with the governor,” he said. 

Floor sessions take no action

Both chambers’ floor sessions went by relatively quickly with little fanfare on Tuesday morning. 

Largely procedural, the House and Senate both scheduled what will likely be the rest of their committee meetings for the session. Notably, Rep. Justin Jones (D-Nashville), who was removed from his committee assignments by Speaker Cameron Sexton back in April, has been reassigned to committees. Sexton made it clear that the committee assignments were only for the special session and did not apply to the upcoming session in the spring. 

Rep. Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) was also assigned to committees. Because he was first elected to his seat through a special election earlier this year shortly before he was expelled, he had never received any committee assignments. 

Like Monday evening’s session, only half the gallery was open to the public. And while rules adopted by the House banned the use of signs in the gallery, a few protestors ignored the rule, while others chose to get creative, writing messages on their arms, shirts and phones, calling for legislators to address gun violence. 

Meanwhile, on the floor, the biggest point of contention came over maintenance issues.

A rumor went around on Monday, when protests carried on throughout the day despite temperatures reaching 94 degrees, that the water fountains in the capitol had been shut off. Pearson addressed this on the floor during unfinished business, asking Sexton if the fountains would be turned back on. Sexton responded that they had never actually been turned off in the first place. The fountains were confirmed to be on as of Tuesday morning. 

But Rep. Joe Towns, Jr. (D-Memphis) had another maintenance concern.

“I know Tennessee is not broke,” said Towns. “We got plenty of money. Why is it so hot in this joint?”

GOP leadership spotlights human trafficking

While guns may not be addressed during the special session, Republican leadership is making sure that human trafficking does. 

At a press conference held in the old supreme court chambers of the capitol, leaders of the Tennessee Faith and Freedom Coalition, Majority Leaders William Lamberth and Jack Johnson, Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston) and Congressman Andy Ogles spoke in support of Senate Bill 7088, which was one of the three bills that would later pass through the Senate Judiciary Committee. Throughout the conference, “The Sound of Freedom” was referenced, an independent film that conservatives have heralded as “telling the truth” about human trafficking. 

“It should be noted, we have a legal obligation to take action,” said Ogles. “We have a moral and ethical obligation to take action, but we have a biblical obligation to take actions.”

Following the press conference, Ogles addressed a group of reporters. 

“When it comes to the issue of child trafficking, trafficking in general… we should all want to stand up and fight against this scourge,” said Ogles. “It’s recently become front of mind because of the movie.”

The Covenant School shooting happened in Ogles’ congressional district. Soon after it, he received criticism for a Christmas card of him and his family posing with large guns. And while many of his constituents and parents from Covenant have loudly voiced support for gun restrictions, Ogles felt otherwise. 

“I think the thing that we need to take away from the Covenant shooting is the crisis that is mental health in our country. And that needs to be in focus as we move forward,” said Ogles, arguing that guns are not the issue and referencing Cain killing Abel with a rock in the bible. 

When asked if there was any common ground he would be open to when it comes to gun safety, he referenced the TEACH Act, a bill he proposed which would allow teachers to carry guns in the classroom. 

Also in attendance at the press conference was at least one of the three Dorr brothers, who run a consulting firm pushing far-right issues. 

Covenant families shut out

A house committee room was cleared of everyone except for members and staff after protesters were reprimanded for holding up signs. 

The action took place during a House Civil Justice Subcommittee meeting. Parents of children who went to the Covenant school where a shooting took place in March were in the crowd waiting to testify on one of the bills. They were also cleared out and not allowed back into the room for the remainder of the committee meeting. 

This comes after a contentious House floor session on Monday, where the Republican supermajority voted to adopt rules for the special session. One of those rules banned flags, signs and banners from the House gallery, as well as the committee chambers. Of course only half of the gallery was open to the public, while the other half was reserved for lobbyists and media, a move by leadership that the Capitol Hill Press Corps objected to.

“The Tennessee Capitol Hill Press Corps firmly believes that reporters are vital in providing information about the General Assembly to the public,” reads the letter. “But this does not have to come at the sacrifice of keeping interested constituents from seeing their government in action.”

The letter points out that reporters have been able to successfully join packed galleries in the past, without that gallery being closed to the public, and encouraged leadership to consider a different option for how to organize the galleries. 

“We believe that the press should have unobstructed and fair access to observe and report on legislative proceedings. However, we do not endorse using the media as an excuse to prevent the public from watching their representatives at work,” read the letter.

The full letter can be found here.

The end is nigh?

Word around the Capitol is that both chambers could be adjourned for the week as early as Thursday, which is when the House meets next, wrapping up the special session. The Senate is on track to wrap up its business during its floor session at 2 p.m. on Wednesday.