KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Tennessee lawmakers are one step closer to taking authority away from local boards of health.
Some local legislators voted in its favor; others remain strongly against it.
In Knox County, throughout the pandemic, the Board of Health has put several regulations in place, including a mask mandate, social gathering limit, and the bar and restaurant curfew.
The sponsor and proponents of House Bill 7 want to strip the board of that policy-making power because they say its members are not elected. But opponents say the legislation is dangerous amid a pandemic.
“The House was the first step. It was a big lift, it was a tough lift, but I’m glad it passed for the sake of all the counties in our state, not just those who currently have health boards,” said Rep. Jason Zachary.
Zachary has spearheaded the legislative push to shift the state’s independent health boards – including Knox County’s – to only advisory roles.
“The final bill that passed the House simply says that during a health emergency, the health board becomes an advisory board to the mayor. It simply does not allow the health board to overrule our county executive that we elect to run our county,” Zachary said.
Some Knoxville lawmakers disagree.
“What does being unelected have to do with the health of a nation, the health of a county, the health of a community? It just seems to me that this is an un-needed law,” said Rep. Sam McKenzie on the house floor.
McKenzie voted ‘no’ alongside his Democratic colleague, Rep. Gloria Johnson.
“These people were appointed by the elected officials because they are experts. When I get sick, I go to a doctor. When I get sick, I don’t go to an electrician. Fabulous folks, but I want doctors, nurses, public health officials making these decisions in times of a pandemic,” Johnson said.
With sides drawn in the House, the bill now heads to the Senate, where Zachary says it will be heard in the Senate Health Committee next week.
A spokesperson for Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs’ office told us it would be premature to comment about the bill at this time.
The Knox County Health Department provided the following statement:
“While we will refrain from speaking on behalf of the Board of Health, the Knox County Health Department’s main priority continues to be protecting the health and safety of Knox County citizens. KCHD will continue to follow and abide by whatever legislation is passed.”Knox County Health Department
To see how each representative voted, click ‘votes’ under House Bill 7 on the Tennessee General Assembly’s website.