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Tennessee special session on public safety comes to an end after House and Senate Republicans reach deal

The session ended after the Senate agreed to pass an appropriations measure that would give some extra funding to mental health resources and school safety.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Special Session on public safety has ended after Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate reached a deal Tuesday to break a days-long impasse. Onlookers and protesters at the Capitol made it known after the final gavel they were not pleased with the outcome of what lawmakers had accomplished. 

Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) told 10News the House was able to reach a deal with the Senate to end the special session on Tuesday, saying it would "end shortly."

The two chambers had been deadlocked for roughly five work days over the scope of what each chamber wanted to accomplish. Dozens of bills were introduced between both chambers. The House wanted to pass more than 20 bills during the session, however, the Senate sought to keep the scope narrowly tailored to just a few pieces of legislation.

The session ended after the Senate agreed to pass one final piece of legislation from the House: an appropriations measure that would give some extra funding to mental health resources and school safety.

As the Senate adjourned, the House met Tuesday to drop all remaining legislation it had on its calendar, prompting criticism on the floor from House Democrats for rushing to end the session without hearing all pieces of legislation.

"We came here for a special session to address gun violence in this state. As you all have seen and witnessed, it's been a complete waste of time, it's been a waste of money on the taxpayers, it's been disrespectful to the Covenant families, it's been disrespectful to the public at large and, in fact, our members," House Minority Leader Karen Camper (D-Memphis) said. "And I think the people wanted more, expected more."

As the House adjourned, people could be heard yelling loudly, chanting and jeering lawmakers. As lawmakers were leaving, Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Cosby) and Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) got into a brief physical incident, with both accusing each other of shoving. 

Pearson and Rep. Justin Jones (D-Nashville) were seen holding up signs and walking near Sexton as he was trying to leave the chamber. Sexton appeared to move toward Pearson to avoid a photographer when the two made contact.

Nashville-based Associated Press reporter Kimberlee Kruesi captured video of the incident from the side.

Other than the appropriations measure, the House and Senate passed three other pieces of legislation that will head to Gov. Bill Lee's desk.

  • SB 7088: Requires the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to submit a report on child and human trafficking crimes and trends in the state by Dec. 1, 2023, and each Dec. 1 thereafter.
  • SB 7086: Requires clerks of circuit or general sessions courts to notify the TBI of the final disposition of criminal proceedings within 72 hours, instead of 30 days.
  • SB 7085: Directs the Department of Safety to provide free firearm locks to Tennessee residents if they ask for them, and requires handgun safety courses to contain instruction on safe gun storage.

Governor Bill Lee said the legislature also passed SB 7089, which sets aside $10 million for school safety grants. It also sets aside $1.1 million to create a public safety campaign dedicated to safe gun storage. Around $12.1 million would be set aside for providing sign-on and retention bonuses for behavioral health professionals.

Around $3 million would also be set aside for providing a behavioral health scholarship program. It also sets $4 million for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services for a "Behavioral Health Safety Net Program." Another $30 million was also set aside for school safety grants.

Around $50 million was set aside for community mental health agency grants, supporting their work with people experiencing mental health issues.

The bills tabled during the session will not be heard until January at the earliest, according to Sen. Heidi Campbell (D-Nashville). 

"I think it's pretty clear we're living in a totalitarian state," said Campbell. "We are not actually allowing the people of Tennessee to have their voices be heard."

Gov. Bill Lee called for the special session after a deadly school shooting in Nashville at The Covenant School. Lee said he called it so lawmakers could pass bills focused on public safety. 

Before the session, Gov. Lee mounted a campaign in support of “temporary mental health orders of protection” to keep guns out of the hands of certain people who could harm themselves or others, but maintained that it was not a so-called red flag law, which he has described as a “toxic political label.” He said his office received thousands of public comments largely in support of passing some sort of gun control legislation.

GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate have firmly rejected any proposals relating to gun control. 

Lee faced criticism during and after the session for remaining largely silent as frustrations mounted. After the session ended, Democrats called for accountability. 

"No one has seen him!" Camper said. "I remember saying to somebody, 'Well, boy, if that was Ned Ray McWherter, them two -- the lieutenant governor and the speaker -- he would sit them down and get something done. This governor failed to do that. So he has a responsibility to the people, too, and we cannot let him off the hook. We have to hold him accountable. This was his call. He didn't even usher in the things he wanted to accomplish. What does that say about the governor? We cannot let him off the hook like that."

Lee spoke publicly on Tuesday afternoon after the session ended, praising lawmakers for "moving the ball forward" and passing extra funding for mental health and school safety, saying the "conversations on public safety" would not end with the session. When asked about the input he had during the session, Lee said he did not engage with legislative leaders on their "particular process."

Last Friday, Lee issued a statement calling it an "important week for Tennessee," saying he had been talking with legislators from both chambers and following developments closely. 

"While the legislative process continues, I’m confident that both chambers can work together and make meaningful progress in this special session on public safety. Additionally, I want to thank the Covenant families for engaging and sharing their story, which brings hope in the midst of great tragedy. As our efforts continue, I am hopeful and remain committed to making Tennessee a safer place,” he said.

Hundreds of people were at the State Capitol during the session to protest inaction from Republican lawmakers and to call for gun reform in the wake of the Covenant School shooting.

On the first day of the special session, the state House of Representatives passed new rules that allow members who the Speaker considers to be causing a "material disruption" to be punished. Those members could face not being recognized during the House's debates or during remarks for days at a time. On the third offense, they may not be recognized for the rest of the legislative session. 

That new rule was used Monday against one of the Tennessee Three, Rep. Justin Jones (D-Nashville). He was discussing statistics surrounding the impact of school resource officers on minority students and students with disabilities. Speaker Sexton ruled that he was out of order, and the House moved to take a vote on whether to bar him from being recognized during debate or remarks for the rest of the day.

Jones had said earlier in the day he intended to call for a no-confidence vote against Sexton. The session ended Tuesday before he could formally introduce it. 

According to a statement from House Minority Leader Karen Camper, several people were also ejected from the House Civil Justice Subcommittee last Tuesday. That statement is available below.

“I am appalled by what occurred today in a committee room at the State Capitol during the extraordinary session. Citizens were removed from the room for sitting quietly, and then the entire room was cleared because some people clapped during the meeting. This is outrageous. I cannot believe how petty this was. When the Covenant shooting occurred in March, members of this body poured out their hearts to the community and said they cared. Thousands of Tennesseans came to their house—the People’s House—to urge us to do something about senseless gun tragedies. They literally shouted for us to do something. Now, months later, we are supposedly here to finally do something to protect our children in this state. And what happens? People are removed from the building that they own as they sit quietly and then clap softly for agreeing with a statement. For a committee chairperson to use their position to banish grieving Tennesseans from the committee room is beyond the pale. This needs to be explained as to why people were removed and the room was cleared after citizens took to the time and effort to be present in their government. This is embarrassing. What are we doing?”

The people were ejected from the subcommittee after Rep. Jody Barrett (R-Dickson) spoke about HB 7043, saying he wanted to roll the bill to the next calendar to allow more time to build it. It would allow people with enhanced handgun carry permits to carry guns on school grounds.

Audience members of the subcommittee clapped when he said he wanted to delay the bill and also clapped when Chairman Lowell Russell (R-Vonore) banged the gavel allowing it to be delayed.

"Are we going to quiet down and listen, or are we going to sit there and clap?" he asked people at the subcommittee.

He then told troopers to clear the room. A member of the subcommittee asked to only clear "the half that was causing the trouble." Russell said it could not be determined who would be ejected, so he decided to clear everyone from the room.

A statement from him is available in full below.

“After requests for those in attendance to not disrupt the committee failed, I had the audience view the committee from the hallway. People were allowed to re-enter the committee room to testify during the committee meeting. It’s unfortunate a simple request to keep the noise down was repeatedly ignored.”

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