State lawmakers struggle to stay focused on "mission critical" bills ahead of adjournment

Mar 17, 2020

Credit capitol.tn.gov

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers acknowledged they were shirking federal health recommendations on the coronavirus by sitting in close quarters as they conducted business Tuesday.

They also drew questions about whether they were staying focused on only the most necessary legislation, as promised, during sprint toward a recess by the end of the week.

“Wash your hands regularly. Do the best you can to social distance. I know we are currently, we’re not necessarily right now, well we’re not following the recommendations,” Republican Sen. Bo Watson told members of his Finance Committee.

The Republican leadership has said it's focusing on “mission critical” legislation, including constitutionally required budget duties, so lawmakers disperse amid global closures to stem the virus' spread, and come back as soon as June 1 to finish approving other legislative issues.

A Senate committee, meanwhile, became tied up in election-related bills and other legislation, including proposed changes to try to rework voter registration restrictions that passed last year and have since been blocked by a federal court. They will likely remain blocked through the November election due to the February 2021 trial date. That bill's debate will continue in committee Wednesday.

“I think it goes against the spirit of the way that we are gathered here this week — to focus on that which is mission critical, to focus on that which is not partisan and contentious — to raise this issue in this setting today,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro.

In response, GOP bill sponsor Sen. Ed Jackson said the issue was urgent "because we need to do this for our next election and make that things are done properly.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

Tennessee had 52 confirmed cases as of Monday.

As lawmakers race to recess this week, state officials have been scrambling to get federal approval to help those affected by the virus.

The Tennessee Department of Education is seeking a one-year waiver from the federal government to “exclude assessments” for the 2019-2020 school year, according to the waiver provided by the agency.

The waiver also includes requests to ease rules surrounding “chronic absenteeism”

The department's request, submitted Monday, was submitted just hours after Gov. Bill Lee asked all schools in Tennessee to close for at least the end of the month. While Lee's request is not a statewide mandate, state officials expect all schools to comply.

The education agency argues that the waiver is needed not only because of the increasing number of COVID-19 cases being confirmed throughout Tennessee, but also pointed to the recent deadly tornadoes that killed 25 people earlier this month and destroyed thousands of buildings, including school structures.

“Last week alone, schools serving over 50% of the state's 973,659 students have suspended classes,” wrote Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn in her letter to the U.S. Department of Education.

As of Tuesday, the state education agency was still waiting on a response from the federal government.

“School and district leaders currently have to balance decisions regarding the safety and education of their students," Schwinn wrote. “This balance may be impacted by leaders' fear repercussions in accountability, assessment and funding.”

Along with federal permission, however, Schwinn has warned lawmakers she will also need legislative approval to waive testing requirements.

“The department is actively working with Gov. Bill Lee and his team to develop a series of waiver options for immediate consideration by the legislature,” Schwinn wrote in a separate letter to lawmakers Monday.

Other departments include the Department of Health and Human Services, where Commissioner Danielle Barnes has asked the federal government for permission to provide cash assistance using block grant federal funds.

Meanwhile, a Department of Labor and Workforce spokesman says the agency has asked the federal government how to proceed with “possible special rules” that would allow unemployment insurance claims filed by Tennesseans who are sick or quarantined with coronavirus — as well as other workers whose jobs have been impacted by the outbreak.

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