2023's Special Session Overview
August 25, 2023
This week, the General Assembly convened for a tumultuous special session. While many observers expected the session to conclude by the end of this week, we now know it will stretch until at least Monday. Significant disagreements have arisen between the House and Senate, with the two chambers moving in very different directions.
The session, called by Governor Lee in response to the Covenant School shooting in Nashville earlier this year, was authorized to take up a number of very specific topics focused on public safety. Over 100 different bills were filed in both the House and Senate.
The Senate took a very focused approach, taking up only three substantive bills and an appropriations bill to fund that legislation, provide some additional funding for school safety and behavioral health services, and cover the costs of the special session itself. Senate committees tabled all other bills on their calendars.
All four bills that came out of committee passed on the Senate floor on Wednesday. Senate-approved legislation included bills that:
- Provided gun locks to the public for free and exempted gun safes from sales tax;
- Called for the T.B.I. to produce a report on human trafficking;
- Reduced the time frame for court clerks to notify the T.B.I. of the final disposition of criminal cases; and
- Provided appropriations for these measures, plus additional funding to the Dept. of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to improve reimbursement rates for behavioral health providers and establish a scholarship to encourage people to enter that field and $10 million in funding for grants to public and charter schools to use to hire school safety officers.
The funding for school safety officers was included in recognition that some schools are having difficulty using all of the funding provided during the regular legislative session for school resource officers due to a lack of available qualified personnel.
Meanwhile, the House heard and debated many measures, with heated committee meetings sometimes lasting late into the evening. These measures included arming teachers, authorizing more individuals to be able to carry weapons on school property, closing autopsies of minor victims of homicide, transferring more juveniles into the adult criminal justice system, establishing more clear alarm systems within schools, the state taking on more responsibility for funding mental health evaluations and appropriating millions of dollars in funding for higher education security grants. As several of these measures passed on the floor Thursday evening, their ultimate outcome was uncertain, with most of the measures remaining in committee in the Senate with all committees closed.
Some of the legislation that passed the Senate was amended by the House, meaning the Senate would at least have to consider whether to agree to those changes. But midday on Thursday the Senate voted to adjourn for the weekend to return on Monday, rather than wait in Nashville to see what happened in the House. Chairs of multiple Senate committees made public statements that they were not inclined to reopen their committees to consider any additional legislation. House and Senate leadership attempted to reach an agreement on how to end the special session, but as of Thursday night, the two sides remained far apart.
County associations monitored the special session throughout the week. None of the bills that passed the Senate had any detrimental effect on county government and the additional, more flexible school security funding could be beneficial. Some of the measures moving in the House, such as the state assuming responsibility for paying for mental health evaluations, would help counties. Other measures like transferring more juveniles in the adult criminal justice system have the potential to strain the resources of county jails. Of the four measures that passed the Senate, the appropriations bill was significantly amended and passed in the House. The other bills are awaiting final action in the House.