Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) was grilled at a Tuesday evening meeting by a large conservative grassroots group in his district that wants the State Senate Speaker to call a special session to deal with Governor Bill Lee’s executive orders.
McNally said that “a special session is one of the options on the table” and that he wouldn’t rule it out.
On August 6, Lee issued the 21 Section Executive Order No. 83 to facilitate the continued response to COVID-19, which some warned threaten liberty.
Ten days later, the governor issued Executive Order No. 84, which allows parents to opt out of mask mandates imposed on K-12 students.
As the leader of the state Senate, McNally is also the state’s lieutenant governor. He was initially elected by the Senate as the 87th Lt. Governor in 2017 and stands in immediate succession to the governorship if such is necessary.
McNally was the guest speaker at the August 17 regular monthly meeting of Cross County Patriots, which had a large turnout of about 100 attendees. One attendee even came from as far as nearly two hours away in Fentress County during the inclement weather experienced in eastern Tennessee from Tropical Storm Fred to have an opportunity to share his thoughts with the veteran lawmaker.
The non-profit, non-partisan Cross County Patriots is comprised of grassroots citizens primarily from the West Knox and Loudon County community, which lies within McNally’s 5th State Senate District. The organization was founded in 2009 out of concern that the people’s government was shifting away from adherence to the Constitution.
McNally started with a slide presentation, which included an update on the state’s financial position as well as highlights of the legislative session, including:
- passing landmark constitutional carry
- banning Critical Race Theory
- right to work constitutional amendment
- protecting the unborn
- banned government vaccine passports
Meeting attendees listened respectfully and responded positively to much of what McNally briefly presented over a period of a little more than ten minutes.
For most of the next hour, though, attendees grilled him over primarily the COVID-19 pandemic response.
More than a dozen people addressed the lt. governor before running out of time during the question and answer portion of the meeting, most of whom expressed concerns with the governor’s executive orders or directly expressed the need for a special session to tackle them.
Cross County Patriots leader Wayne Schnell set the stage when he introduced McNally.
“Right now with all of the executive orders – I should say emergency orders – that have come out, we’re really getting concerned about whether the legislature’s in charge or whether the governor’s in charge.”
The first question by grassroots leader Kevin Desmond alluded to the most recent Executive Order No. 84 that gave parents the right to opt their children out of school district’s mask mandates, which he said seemed to make the governor think he did away with the need for a special session that House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) wanted to have.
Desmond referred to McNally’s Facebook post from earlier that day in which he said he was “appalled” and “alarmed” at the response to the governor’s executive order by Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools and declared that “the General Assembly cannot and will not allow lawful orders to be defied.”
Desmond asked McNally if he thinks that a special session is needed to address the mask issue.
McNally responded that he talked with the governor and they felt that by the end of the week or the first part of the next week, if the two school districts “didn’t see the light and do what the executive order says” by allowing parents to opt out of masking their kids, they would get with House Speaker Sexton and the Republican leadership of both chambers to see what else they can do.
“Special session may be one of the options on the table,” McNally said. “I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.”
Desmond reinforced to McNally that he spoke that day with several Tennesseans from around the state, and their sentiment is that the executive orders are arbitrary and that McNally would have a lot of support in holding a special session.
A woman asked McNally for his or the governor’s definition of a state of emergency.
McNally responded that he believes there are some different attorney general opinions about when a governor can enact emergency orders.
He explained that “it would be for things like disease outbreaks, massive rioting – probably the last time that I saw it called for that was when Martin Luther King was shot and there were riots right after that, and they actually closed a number of cities, Memphis and other cities that were having problems, and they had the National Guard come in.”
“If there was some type of massive disaster in Tennessee like an earthquake that went pretty much over half the state and killed a lot of people – It would be those type of things,” McNally further described.
“Based on what you just said, I conclude that Governor Lee does not have authority under a state of emergency, because there is no state of emergency,” the woman replied to applause of agreement.
McNally said it had to do with the number of ICU beds and ventilator capacity, and it was decided by attorneys general and court cases as to what constitutes a state of emergency.
Another attendee, who moved to Tennessee two years prior, had a hard copy of Executive Order No. 83 and specifically called out Section 14, which permits telephone assessments for involuntary commitment of a person with a mental illness or serious emotional disturbance, and Section 18, which allows hospitals to construct temporary quarantine and isolation facilities at the direction of the Commissioner of Health and Director of TEMA.
McNally was told that most attendees there would want Section 14 removed completely.
McNally said he thought Section 18 was put in for temporary hospital facilities like those in New York when the beds were all full.
A number of comments were shouted back, primarily along the theme that the beds and the U.S.N.S. Comfort then President Donald Trump sent to New York in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were never used.
Likewise, Tennessee’s own emergency hospitals established in Nashville and Memphis through a $51 million federal grant were decommissioned without treating a single patient, The Tennessee Star reported. TEMA’s announcement on July 19 that the two facilities were decommissioned was less than three weeks before the governor issued Emergency Order No. 83.
A two-and-a-half-year resident of Tennessee, who described himself as having escaped New York, was critical of the legislature leaving open the opportunity for businesses to require vaccine passports in light of New York City where, as of that day, he said, passports are required to be able to partake in nearly any indoor activity like a restaurant, sporting event, movie theatre, or concert.
He said that because of businesses, Tennessee will in effect have vaccine passports, even though they were banned in government buildings per legislation passed during the recently adjourned legislative session.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who “said no to passports,” was also mentioned before the attendee also called for a special session.
“Because we have all these executive orders and there are so many questions about so many executive orders, why don’t you just call a special session and get the legislature …” which was widely supported by attendees, if the cheers and applause that cut off the speaker were any indication.
McNally said, “That very well might happen” but said it depends a lot on what happens, before he was cut off. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, because it’s already happening in other states.”
When McNally said he doesn’t think it has happened in Tennessee, there was a general uproar from the group before the former New Yorker responded.
“You’re not hearing what I’m saying. You’re saying in the state facilities it’s not going to happen,” as he went on to explain that any business could implement a vaccine passport the next day and that the governor and McNally have allowed that, and “it’s just a matter of time.”
A 30-year nurse from Powell said that an issue that needs to be addressed is vaccine passports for businesses, such as health care, and higher education.
She, too, asked McNally to call a special session.
“These issues need to be dealt with now. We can’t wait until next year.”
In August and September 2020, members of a joint Ad Hoc Committee to Study Emergency Powers of the governor formed by the Speakers of both chambers met to hear expert testimony on Tennessee’s Emergency Powers Act as written in T.C.A. 58-2-107.
In December 2020, the ad hoc committee came back together to discuss its recommendations.
The House Co-Chair of the ad hoc committee Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) sponsored HB0869 that set up legislative oversight of public health emergency declarations by the governor and a legislative council in the event the Tennessee General Assembly is not in session at the time the governor declared an emergency.
The bill passed the House by a 70 to 18 vote, along party lines. The companion SB0859 sponsored by Sen. Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) was sent to summer study.
A transplant from Connecticut in the last 12 months said there is a “war going on” and that he has been engaged for 10 years.
He has had some negative dealings with his State Rep. Jason Zachary and Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), specifically related to the misleading “constitutional carry.”
“I am not an idiot and constituents are not idiots,” he said.
People are angry, and he thinks “Governor Lee and the Republicans in Nashville are really misreading us.”
Other topics of discussion included election integrity and the “constitutional carry” legislation, which is actually “permitless carry” and is in conflict with another part of the state statute.
An interesting exchange took place when, asked point-blank if Tennessee has E-Verify, McNally initially responded, “I believe we do.”
He was pushed further. “Believe we do, or we do?
“Well,” McNally trailed off.
“Yes or no,” the attendee pressed.
“I don’t know. I believe we do. I don’t know the absolute answer,” McNally admitted.
Rep. Lowell Russell (R-Vonore) had been standing in the front of the room so, McNally said, he could call on Russell to answer any really tough questions.
Russell responded that E-Verify was required for Tennessee companies with 50 or more employees, and with an attempt at lowering it to 5 failing last year, the new threshold is 25 or more employees.
Local conservative activist Andy Andrews questioned McNally on whether he would support in the second session of the 112th General Assembly SB0692 by Sen. Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains) that seeks to restore the Founders’ original intent for electing U.S. Senators in Tennessee.
Niceley also carried the bill in the 111th General Assembly, The Star reported, which would make U.S. Senators answerable to the state legislature as the founders originally intended by circumventing the 17th Amendment.
After Andrew offered some further explanation, McNally said he would keep an open mind on it in discussing it with Niceley, and that it seems the approach “sends a good message to our senators.”
The video of the August 17 Cross County Patriots monthly meeting featuring Lt. Governor Randy McNally can be viewed here.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Star News Network, where she covers stories for The Tennessee Star, The Georgia Star News, The Ohio Star, and The Arizona Sun Times.