NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — TENNESSEE HOUSE SPEAKER CAMERON SEXTON ON INSIDE POLITICS
The COVID-19 virus with its Delta variant continues to spike in numbers across the state of Tennessee with cases and hospitalizations as high now as they were six months ago during the winter surge.
The increase occurs as schools open for the fall semester. Many of the students, especially those under age 12, are not eligible to receive one of the vaccines that have been proven to provide protection from the disease.
So, should those students returning to classes be required to wear masks? What about teachers, staff and school visitors? What about wearing them on school buses?
Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton believes masks should not be required. In recent days, he has threatened to seek a special session of the General Assembly to ban local schools from imposing mask mandates. On Wednesday, Speaker Sexton and all 67 members of the Republican Super Majority in the State House signed a letter to Governor Bill Lee asking him to call the special session.
The Speaker has also threatened to pass a new school voucher law to allow parents to take their tax dollars out of any school with mask requirements and spend those funds on private education.
The Speaker is our guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week.
We thank him for joining us.
NOTE: Within hours before we spoke with the Speaker, there were news reports he is backing away from banning masks in schools but still says parents need options.
In response, the Speaker says he is not backing off banning masks. He also says he is not necessarily seeking to ban masks as long as parents have options.
We discuss all these developments and more, in depth, in our interview.
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I said in last week’s column that the CDC bringing back recommendations for masks in schools was going to reignite controversy.
But it has been much worse than that.
Look and watch at what happened this week in Williamson County after the school board voted to impose a mask mandate in elementary schools where students under 12 have no access to vaccines.
Making this response even more reprehensible is that many those being harassed and threatened by the mob in Franklin are health care workers who have been our heroes, helping provide care for those stricken by the disease, keeping all of us safe. Again, it is inexcusable behavior.
Late in the week, the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office says it is investigating the matter.
What happened at the Williamson County School Board meeting continues to reverberate even as the week ends. One school board member, Brad Fiscus, whose wife Dr. Michelle Fiscus was fired earlier this summer in a controversy over the state’s youth vaccination efforts, says he is resigning his post. They are selling their home and moving out of the state.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden took time on Thursday to praise the health care workers who were threatened during and after the Williamson County school board session. He also praised those education officials and others in states who are opposing governors who are banning the use of masks.
When the mask mandate actually began on Thursday in Williamson County, some teachers said they felt caught in the middle, so they staged a sick out. School officials say the number of faculty and staff absent was not out of the ordinary.
Next week on Tuesday night, the Nashville’s Metro Council will be asked to support the Metro Nashville Board of Education’s decision to increase the likelihood of schools remaining open by requiring the wearing of masks in school buildings and on school buses.
By the way, the calls for a special session of the General Assembly to stop mask mandates has support from more than just House Republicans. One of Governor Bill Lee’s possible primary opponents for re-election next year is GOP Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles. He says legislators should convene because Governor Bill Lee’s “abuses of power.”
Yes, that is how bizarre it is becoming. The Tennessee GOP is showing a split because some think Governor Lee is going too far in responding to the virus. What makes Mayor Ogles comments even more strange is that the easiest way to have a special session is for the governor to call it. Calling the state’s chief executive names (an abuser of power) wouldn’t seem to be the way to get the governor to do that. But in today’s politics, maybe it will blow life into a possible candidate’s would-be campaign?
Maybe Mayor Ogles has been reading all these strange and false conspiracy theories circulating about Governor Lee. Lawmakers should know better, but they have been warned by the governor’s office they are false.
The special session may be about more than masks. If you read the letter sent by Speaker Sexton and all the House Republicans, their language indicates they also want the special session to curb or strip the powers of the independent health boards in many of the urban counties in the state (including Nashville and Memphis). Those groups have moved on a somewhat different path in responding to COVID-19. The GOP Majority doesn’t like that and will seek to stop them.
The letter also seems to indicate the session may be a tool to stop private businesses from imposing mask or vaccine mandates. Again, look at how different this is from traditional Republican Party policy that government regulations on private enterprise should be at a minimum; that Tennessee should be a “pro-business state.” Republicans also used to say the government closest to the people should provide regulation. Now it seems if a business seems to oppose the Tennessee Republican Super Majority, in even matters of maintaining public health and safety they will stop you.
This effort could leave a number of nationally based companies here in the state in a lurch, as well as a growing number of Nashville music venues and others now requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter their establishments.
There are those counseling against a special session, including most importantly the leader of the State Senate, Republican Lt. Governor Randy McNally. Even after the House letter to Governor Lee, the Senate Speaker said on Thursday:
“Amid all the controversy regarding masks, vaccine passports and the like, we appear to have lost sight of the one thing that truly matters: keeping children in the classroom so they can learn. Education is of paramount importance. Nothing else. Test scores have proven that this pandemic has eroded our progress and threatens the very future of our children and grandchildren. I remain convinced that locally elected school boards and private school organizations know how best to manage operations during this pandemic so that students can remain healthy, learning and, most importantly, in the classroom. If a special session is called, I will work with Governor Lee, Speaker Sexton and all my colleagues to keep this our mission focus. Children learn best in a classroom. And they can only do that if they remain healthy, vibrant and safe.”
Underscoring the Lt. Governor’s remarks was the release this week of the latest school test scores in Nashville/ Davidson County. Much like the rest of the state, the learning loss for students during the pandemic has been profound with schools closed or classes conducted remotely over the last year and a half.
Randy McNally is right! Keeping children in the classroom is “what truly matters” if we want them to learn. Local elected school officials know best how to keep students “healthy, vibrant and safe.”
Democrats don’t support a special session either. While their numbers in the General Assembly remain very small, Senator Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) says:
“We cannot support a special session where the controlling party is only concerned with punishing private business owners and school districts for exercising medically appropriate precautions to keep people safe. This pandemic has claimed the lives of nearly 13,000 Tennesseans and we should all be fighting the virus—not playing politics.”
Good luck with that.
While arguments grow over masks and other COVID-19 issues, the hospital system here in Middle Tennessee seems stressed to its limits.
Finally, one more clear sign that we need to vaccinate the whole world as soon as possible to end this pandemic, was manifested this week, right here in Tennessee. The Nissan Plant in Smyrna will be shut down for the next two weeksbecause of a shortage of computer chips. And why are they short of these parts? Because the plant that produces them in Malaysia is closed due to coronavirus outbreak there. Just in time, not exactly.
DESPITE MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS THE BIDEN LEGISLATIVE AGENDA STILL FACES MAJOR HEADACHES
A couple of months, or even weeks ago, nobody would have believed it possible.
But this past week in the U.S. Senate, 19 GOP Senators crossed the aisle, to join all 50 Democrats, to vote in favor a $1.1 trillion infrastructure bill that is a key part of President Joe Biden’s legislative package. That’s almost 40% of the Senate Republican Caucus voting yes including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had once boasted he was spending 100% of his time to stop the Biden agenda.
Why? It seems a significant number of GOP lawmakers want to show voters they have voted for something positive, badly needed and popular. The infrastructure bill checks all those boxes, even if Tennessee’s first-term Senator Bill Hagerty, came off the back bench of the upper chamber to play Don Quixote to delay the measure for a couple of days (he couldn’t stop it) because it is too expensive and adds to the national deficit.
The Senate vote was also something of a GOP rebuke of former President Donald Trump. He had railed against the bill for days even apparently lobbying Senator Haggerty to speak out.
Haggerty is bragging about his efforts and likely will use it to raise campaign funds. But really all the Tennessee Junior Senator accomplished was just further delaying lawmakers from beginning an already delayed summer recess. It was an overall delay that even saw lawmakers working weekends to get the infrastructure deliberations done. So just how popular will Senator Haggerty be on the floor or in the cloak room when the Senate returns?
Democrats in the Senate this week also stuck together to get a budget resolution passed for an even larger $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” bill. They are moving ahead under Congress’ budget reconciliation rules that require only 51 votes (all the Senate Democrats and Vice President Carmala Harris). The rules also avoid any filibuster efforts. But despite these victories, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer knows he still has lots of work to do.
Over in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is resisting calls from her moderate members to use her narrow majority to vote as soon as possible on the $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Instead, she is sticking with her progressive members to have the Senate also pass the second larger infrastructure measure before the House acts on either one.
The goal here is not to thwart any GOP efforts to scuttle the bills. Its to keep all 50 Democratic Senators in the fold even though some are already expressing reservations about the larger bill.
The fight between progressive and moderate Democrats continues to escalate. Surely, Democrats now in the political catbird seat on these two infrastructure bills, won’t screw things up by failing into division, and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory?
The growing spat between House moderates and progressives escalated on Friday.
Senator Machin’s argument mirrors another issue likely to dominate lawmaker’ attention this fall. The nation is bumping up against its debt ceiling again and unless Congress increases the nation’s spending limit, we could be very soon defaulting on our debts.
To build opposition to the larger infrastructure bill, Republicans, including Minority Leader McConnell, say they won’t vote for any legislation increasing the debt ceiling. Democrats say they should since this matter involves existing debt, not the future. That past debt was incurred by both parties over the years and both parties should be involved to deal with it.
Fair enough, but nobody ever mentions when do we deal with our growing debt. I guess when pigs fly.
In the meantime, there is a dangerous game of political chicken shaping up.
The Democrats’ Senate legislative victories this week are big ones for President Biden. He has long believed, when many have not, that passing bi-partisan legislation in Congress is still possible. But nobody should believe that the “Era of Good Feelings” has returned like what existed during the administration of President James Madison (1817-1825).
President Biden has a number of storm clouds on his political horizon.
The growing instability in Afghanistan as U.S. forces leave after 20 years of war.
The continued record number of migrants, especially unaccompanied children, seeking asylum at the southern border.
And perhaps, most importantly, if you believe “it’s the economy, stupid” the continued significant rise in inflation.