Protesters hold up signs in the House Civil Justice Committee on Wednesday, Aug. 23. Chancellor Anne Martin issued a temporary restraining order against the House's sign ban. Credit: Connor Daryani/Nashville Banner

Despite tensions between Republicans, the House and Senate will likely adjourn Thursday after passing four pieces of legislation during the Governor’s special session to address public safety. 

While the House attempted to get more bills passed, the Senate sprinted to the end of the session, advancing four bills during their floor session at 2 p.m. on Wednesday after tabling the rest of the filed legislation during Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee. And while the Tennessee Lookout reported on Wednesday the possibility of negotiations between the chambers to reopen the committee for more bills, as of Wednesday night, only four bills can pass from this special session. The House will consider the four during their floor session at noon on Thursday:

  • Senate Bill 7085 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 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 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. This is the bill that the Republican Supermajority is rallying behind for the special session.
  • Senate Bill 7089 is a $30 million spending bill that provides funding to various mental health and school safety initiatives. The biggest chunks are $16.3 million for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse and $10 million to provide more school safety officers. 

“As far as I know, we’ve taken up and passed the bills that we plan to consider,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson told reporters following the Senate’s floor session on Wednesday. “I’ve talked to Lamberth frequently about various things, and I’m sure the speakers have spoken, but to my knowledge, we’ve concluded our business.”

But Lt. Gov. Randy McNally did not sound so sure. In order for the special session to come to a close, both chambers must agree to adjourn. That could result in a back-and-forth until either the House gives up on passing more bills or the Senate concedes and reopens the Judiciary Committee. 

One bill specifically rumored to be in negotiations is a bill that would allow Juveniles ages 16 and older to be tried as adults for certain firearm-related offenses. House Speaker Cameron Sexton has loudly supported that bill, but it remains to be seen if the Judiciary Committee will actually reopen. 

The Senate has floor sessions scheduled for 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Wednesday, and Johnson indicated to the Senate that he expects to adjourn the special session during one of those sessions.

Covenant parents caught between the lines

Throughout the halls of the Tennessee State Legislature, Covenant School parents and Tennessee moms have been in and out of committee meetings and sessions, holding signs, advocating for a solution to gun violence and shedding more than a few tears.

“There are certainly some things I have found hurtful and disrespectful,” said Sarah Shoop Neumann, a mom from the Covenant School and the co-founder of Covenant Families for Brighter Tomorrows & Covenant Families Action Fund. “I think it’s also enlightening. We did not start this mission expecting to get what we wanted this week. We hope for something positive. And I hope specifically for the victim families that we can make that happen. I think it would be really upsetting if we didn’t do one thing for them.”

Shoop was at Tuesday’s House Civil Justice Committee meeting, where the entire room was cleared after multiple women were removed by Tennessee Highway Patrol officers for holding up signs. 

Meanwhile, House and Senate Republicans have been engaged in a back-and-forth involving passive-aggressive comments, more blatant call-outs and an ostrich egg.

While the House may still be trying to pass some bills through committee, the Senate continues to make it clear they want nothing to do with this special session. And caught between their feud are the Covenant parents. 

On one side of the chamber, the House has adopted a number of rules in an attempt to suppress dissenting voices. One rule, which banned signs from the galleries of the chamber and the committee rooms, was nullified Wednesday morning by a temporary restraining order signed by Chancellor Anne Martin. ACLU had filed suit against Cameron Sexton, House officials and the THP for the sign ban. 

The House continued to try to pass some legislation. Due to the nature of the governor’s call for a special session, none of the legislation addresses what advocates see as the underlying problem, but Shoop says there are still some pieces of legislation that they support. 

Meanwhile, on the other side, the Senate has refused to take up even those few bills. 

The committee room was fairly empty aside from staff, media and a group of around a dozen Covenant moms during the Senate Education Committee’s meeting at 8:30 a.m. While the agenda for the committee had 21 bills on it, due to the Senate Judiciary Committee taking up only three of 52 bills on its agenda on Tuesday before adjourning for the session, the fate of all 21 bills had already been sealed. 

Chairman Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) gaveled in the meeting, and following attendance immediately addressed the moms in the room who were holding signs. 

“To the audience in this chamber, you are welcome to hold signs,” said Lundberg, needling his House colleagues for banning them. 

After addressing the audience, Lundberg immediately passed the floor to Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. Gardenhire made a motion to table all of the bills on the committee’s calendar. The motion received a second and passed without objection. Lundberg then gaveled the committee out, ending its business for the special session. 

The committee meeting lasted a total of 46 seconds. 

An hour later, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, chaired by Sen. Rusty Crowe, followed a nearly identical script.

A similar situation went down an hour later during the Senate State and Local Government committee hearing, where a bill to bar child autopsies from the public record, which Shoop says the covenant parents support, was set to be heard. 

Return of the signs?

The House Civil Justice Committee met for a second time on Wednesday, this time for two hours. But this time, the audience remained packed for the entirety of the hearing. 

Tensions were high from the start. Not only were multiple people in the crowd holding up signs with various pro-gun legislation messages on them, but Rep. Justin Jones (D-Nashville) also held up a sign that read “protect kids not guns” while actually sitting on the committee. 

Following this morning’s ruling by Martin to uphold a restraining order against the House rule banning signs, Chairman Andrew Farmer did not attempt to have anyone removed for holding up their signs. There’s still a question as to whether or not Martin’s ruling is actually even valid, or if the issue should have been taken to a three-judge panel. But with all the negative attention  that came from Tuesday’s debacle in that same committee, Republican leadership seemed content to continue its sprint towards the finish without addressing signs. 

But even without pushback from Farmer against the signs, Rep. Jason Powell (D-Nashville) made sure his thoughts on Tuesday’s events were known. 

“Mr. Chairman, I think the chair of this civil justice subcommittee owes the public, and the people of Tennessee an apology for the way they were treated yesterday,” said Powell. “That has no place in this building, and to turn a school shooting tragedy into a travesty of democracy and the First Amendment is shameful.”

Farmer responded.

“I apologize to the folks who felt offended yesterday about what happened, but unfortunately it did and there’s nothing we can do about it, but we don’t want it to happen again,” Farmer said.

Republican Infighting

In a since-deleted tweet, the Tennessee House Republicans posted a photo of an Ostrich egg on a vase at Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s desk in the Senate Chamber on Tuesday evening.

“Congratulations @tnsenategop on receiving the 2023 Ostrich Egg! It must be egghausting sending so many bills to Gen Sub. instead of doing the work people sent us here to do,” read the tweet. 

Erik Schelzig of the Tennessee Journal confirmed Wednesday morning that Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) had placed the egg on the desk. Schelzig had also obtained an email from Faison to Senate Republicans that apologized.

“My only intention was to provide some levity while we are dealing with some very serious matters. It was not funny at all. I am deeply sorry and I humbly ask for your forgiveness.”

In a reply-all, Sen. Paul Bailey (R-Sparta) jabbed at House Republicans for their adopted rule over signs.

“You should be apologizing to the moms that were unjustly removed!” said Bailey.