NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — It’s official: the special session of the Tennessee General Assembly is happening later this month.
Earlier this year, just after the deadly Covenant School shooting that claimed the lives of six people, including three children, Gov. Bill Lee announced he would call a special session of the legislature addressing public safety. At that time, there wasn’t a firm date for the session, nor a specific subject for it, and the governor faced public opposition from his own party if he attempted to pass any red-flag laws.
Republicans in the legislature have even gone as far as to publicly call for Lee to cancel the planned session. Rep. Bryan Richey (R—Maryville) posted an open letter on X (formerly Twitter) that was signed by other Republican lawmakers asking the governor to abandon the planned special session, calling it in part an “expensive, disruptive, futile, and counter-productive publicity stunt” and “a solution in search of a problem.”
Richey isn’t the only one to openly defy the governor’s call for an emergency relief protection order (ERPO). Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R—Franklin) took a stance against it.
“From a philosophical standpoint, I have always opposed what is commonly referred to as a red flag, order of protection bill, again, because I deem them to be ineffective,” he said. “Certainly in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, known as the Bruen decision, I think they are constitutionally suspect at best, blatantly unconstitutional at worst.”
Johnson went on to talk about the lack of support behind Lee’s proposed ERPO. “I do not anticipate that passing, and I do not support it,” he said.
Typically, the Senate and House Majority Leaders (Johnson and Rep. William Lamberth [R-Portland], respectively) carry the governor’s legislation when it’s filed.
In this instance, Johnson said he wouldn’t be doing that.
The move comes after Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) also alluded to the fact it wouldn’t pass.
“As far as the enhanced orders of protection, red flag laws, yeah, you’re not going to see us go down that road,” he said.
Instead, Johnson said the focus would be more on mental health.
Regardless of his own party’s opposition, Lee announced Tuesday the special session will begin on Aug. 21 at 4 p.m.
“A lot of the conversation is centered around mental health and access to mental health,” he said. “So, I think you’ll see some legislation that will fit the call relative to reimbursement rates for our TennCare program, which is our Medicaid waiver program, relative to reimbursement rates for mental health providers.”
The Tennessee Constitution grants the governor the power to call for an “extraordinary” session, colloquially called a special session, by proclamation. The business conducted by the legislature during a special session can only be related to the subject for which it is called, as well.
“As our nation faces evolving public safety threats, Tennessee remains vigilant and is taking continued action to protect communities while preserving the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” the governor said in a press release on the subject. “In the months leading up to the public safety special session, we have listened to Tennesseans and worked with members of the General Assembly to identify thoughtful, practical measures to strengthen public safety across our state, including steps to support law enforcement, address mental health, prevent violent crime and stop human trafficking. I thank the General Assembly for its continued partnership and look forward to achieving meaningful results for Tennesseans.”
According to Lee’s office, the legislative and budget priorities focus on codifying quicker reporting requirements to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, allowing waivers to federal funding for mental health services through TennCare, addressing mental health challenges in schools and the workplace, strengthening DNA collection protocols for felony arrests and “promoting” safe storage of firearms, though there are no penalties allowed to be attached to the safe storage considerations.
According to the governor’s office, more than 20,000 Tennesseans have submitted public comments on strengthening public safety, and the online form will remain open throughout the entirety of the special session in order to allow more Tennesseans to continue to submit their own feedback. That form can be found HERE.
The entire proclamation can be viewed here: