NASHVILLE, Tennessee – Tuesday, January 14 marked the first day of the second session of the 111th Tennessee General Assembly and included a House Republican caucus meeting, a new Speaker at the House dais, the swearing in of the newest member to the House of Representatives and the passage of a religious freedom bill by the Senate.
Prior to the start of session at 12 noon, the House Republican caucus held a meeting at 10 a.m. in House Hearing Room III, lead by Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) who was just elected to the position in August. He announced that, while it hadn’t been done in the nine years he has served in the House, the Caucus Chair can appoint a parliamentarian. Faison chose to appoint Representative Jerome Moon (R-Maryville).
Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) said a few words, first acknowledging Faison “who has worked his butt off,” which was met with an enthusiastic round of applause.
Lamberth reminded that it was the last day of fund raising for members and the House Republican Caucus, which currently has $600,000 on hand. A caucus campaign committee is in place and will determine 2020 election races to focus on, according to Lamberth.
The fund raising, said Lamberth, shows strength and will be used to support the members who have a liberal Democrat going against them.
“The state is in the best shape it’s been in my lifetime,” said Lamberth.
He attributed that to Republican leadership and added that they stand together, contrasting to Democrats who he said “don’t back each other up like we do.”
Faison, in then introducing the new Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville), said he had recently asked the Speaker for his vision of adjourning sine die successfully. Faison relayed that Speaker Sexton went on for six minutes, not about himself, but his vision for making Tennessee successful.
When Speaker Sexton came to the front of the room, it was to a warm round of applause.
He first expressed appreciation for the leadership of Lamberth and Faison and their fundraising, saying it sends a strong message to the other side.
After addressing some personnel and procedural changes, Speaker Sexton advised that there would be a meeting with committee chairs this week.
Speaker Sexton said that the committee and subcommittee chairs are not there to gavel bills in and out, but rather to ensure great policy. He told all members that they should vote their district and so that they can sleep at night.
Speaker Sexton set a vision of making tomorrow better than today for future generations. He reminded that all of them know people who made the state great and gave them, as Republicans, the majority. “We need to take that seriously and do our job to move the state forward,” Speaker Sexton concluded.
Faison then introduced the newest State Representative Rusty Grills (R-Newbern), who won the special general election to replace former Representative Bill Sanderson who resigned last year, by 85 percent and the support of those who were against him in the primary.
There was then a brief presentation of new tools accessible to Republican House members via Google Docs, including pictures that can be used for members’ social media to communicate to their districts what they are doing; talking points on several topics such as the TennCare block grant and criminal justice reform; handouts; and various graphics.
Faison reminded that the bill filing deadline is February 5, giving members about three weeks to file their bills, which are limited in number to 15 per House member excluding private acts.
Ending on a call for unity, Faison said that he’s heard of caucus members getting mad at their colleagues for their votes, and that members are only responsible to God, themselves and their constituents for their votes and not to each other. He called for being kinder to each other this year.
At noon, the Senate and House simultaneously went into session.
After the House roll call, Speaker Sexton called Representative Grills forward to be sworn in by Judge Jeffrey Bivins, Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court.
After his swearing in, surrounded by his wife, two daughters, mother and father, Representative Grills was recognized by Speaker Sexton for remarks.
Back last year, before I decided to run – in a corn field and soybean field, riding a tractor – to the Tennessee General Assembly, only in America, could I guy like myself, with no pedigree, with no name recognition have the opportunity to serve the State of Tennessee as a State Representative. And I am humbled by the folks of District 77 who put their confidence in me to represent them.
When he talked about his family, the emotion in Grills’ voice was evident.
I’m thankful for a good family. I’m thankful for a good mom, a good dad and a wonderful wife and I’m just thankful for the good Lord showing favor upon me.
Thank you and God bless you all.
After a standing ovation, Speaker Sexton made his remarks with his young daughter by his side.
“Members, good afternoon and welcome back to Nashville,” which was met with a few chuckles. With a big smile, Speaker Sexton continued.
Everybody looks refreshed, which is a good thing.
The 2020 legislative session is here and I believe we’re all poised for a very successful year in the Tennessee House of Representatives.
Over the last four months, I’ve enjoyed visiting with you and your communities and I’m reminded every single day how diverse and unique all three grand divisions are in our state and how fortunate we are to call Tennessee our home. I admire your dedication and your willingness to answer the call to serve others. Additionally, I appreciate our shared desire to build upon the solid foundation left behind by those who previously served.
And, we’ve had many great leaders over our years and now is the time to accept the task that lies before us: The task to propel our state and our communities to new heights together. Our job is to represent, serving as the voice for all Tennesseans from middle to west to east to urban to rural. Each and every voice is distinctive and while we may not always agree on every issue, let’s remain respectful to one another and remember each one of us represents 65,000 Tennesseans. We have a tremendous opportunity to ensure Tennessee continues to grow and that our state prospers.
Thank you for your continued service. I appreciate your partnership. I am honored to serve as your Speaker. I am very eager to begin and to continue working along aside you for the betterment of all Tennessee.
While Speaker Sexton called for the House clerk to move to the next order of business, it took a short delay as the House members rose in a standing ovation.
Meanwhile, the Senate had one bill on their agenda, which was carried over from 2019.
HB0836, which was substituted for SB1304, prohibits a private licensed child-placing agency from being required to perform, assist, consent to, refer, or participate in any child placement for foster care or adoption that would violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions.
The bill passed the House on April 1, 2019, by a vote of Ayes 67, 22 Nays, and 3 Present Not Voting.
In the Senate, the bill was sponsored by Senator Paul Rose (R-Tipton and part of Shelby County). It passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with a 6 to 2 vote, but was later put on the first calendar for 2020.
There was robust debate on the Senate floor under Speaker Pro Tem Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), after Lt. Governor and Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) handed over the gavel.
In an usual move, McNally spoke from the Senate floor, not as Speaker but as a Senator, he qualified. McNally rose in opposition to Senator Rose’s bill, saying that a broader Freedom of Religion Act passed about 10 years prior addressed such matters.
After about 40 minutes, the bill passed with a vote of 20 Ayes, 6 Noes and 5 Present and Not Voting. Senator Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville) was the only Republican to vote No and all 5 Present and Not Voting were Republicans including Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) who voted for the bill in Judiciary Committee, and Speaker McNally.
The afternoon went on to a schedule of Senate and House committee meetings.
The video of the January 14, 2020, Senate floor session can be watched here.
The video of the January 14, 2020, House floor session can be watched here.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.