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Legislature opens new House gallery policy restricting access

This story was republished from Tennessee Lookout under a Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

The House of Representatives is operating with new access rules that restrict the public’s entrance into upstairs galleries as the Legislature opens the 2024 session, even as it is set to take up several critical bills such as the governor’s private school voucher “scholarships” plan.

The House did not consider a proposed set of rules Tuesday designed to limit debate but argued over new policies that will govern access to the upstairs galleries. The new rules are supposed to be considered Wednesday.

Under House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s new guidelines, House members will be issued tickets they can give out to 99 people who want to sit in the upstairs gallery, in addition to lobbyists. According to reports, several people were turned back from the gallery area Tuesday.

The rules appear to be a reaction to an anti-gun rally last spring and repeated disruptions from the public in the gallery area.

Sexton ordered state troopers to remove one man Tuesday for interrupting a moment of silence. He also cleared the gallery last spring when the House voted to expel Democratic Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville for his role in leading a floor rally in favor of gun restrictions days after the Covenant School shooting.

During discussion Tuesday, Jones questioned the origin of the ticketing rules for access to the balcony. House Assistant Clerk Daniel Hicks told Jones the tickets are part of a new policy set by Speaker Sexton, not House rules.

Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, showing off one of the tickets now required for members of the public to access the House of Representatives gallery. Jones responded that the House “is still a democratic body. We don’t have kings or queens here.” Hicks noted, though, that House rules allow the speaker to set guidelines for decorum. He also said the fire marshal established limits for the number of people allowed in the building.

Ninety-nine tickets are being given out, but the east side of the gallery holds 120 people and the west side 128, according to Hicks.

Rep. Justin J. Pearson also challenged the policy, saying the move to “limit the amount of people in the public to participate in our democracy is wrong.”

Republican Rep. Scott Cepicky of Culleoka contended the speaker is elected in a democratic process by the House and, thus, should be able to set policies.

Meanwhile, Sen. Art Swann, R-Maryville, announced Tuesday he won’t seek re-election later this year, marking the departure of one of the chamber’s more moderate senators.

A House member for eight years and senator for seven years, Swann told colleagues he is leaving the chamber at the end of the 113th General Assembly. He was likely to face a primary opponent and an avalanche of dark money if he decided to run again, especially after telling the Tennessee Lookout last fall he believes the Legislature should put restrictions on military-type weapons such as AK-47s. Swann made the statement shortly before the Legislature held a special session to address public safety, months after the Covenant School shooting in which six people were killed at the private Nashville Christian campus.

Lawmakers and Gov. Bill Lee declined to take up any gun-related bills in that session despite calls from several groups for more controls on heavy firepower.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said, “Art deserves the honor and affection of not just his constituents but everyone who treasures this institution.”

The Senate opened the session without Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who is staying home for the first weeks of the General Assembly after undergoing a second ankle surgery.

Speaker Pro Tem Ferrell Haile is handling the gavel primarily in his absence as the body prepares to take up critical bills such as the governor’s plan to offer $7,000 private school vouchers statewide.

In the plan’s first year, “scholarships” would be offered to students who meet income requirements, and in the second year, the funds could go to anyone eligible to attend a K-12 school.

Haile, a Gallatin Republican who supports the concept, said Tuesday he plans to talk to McNally daily and is confident the lieutenant governor will help steer the Senate while out of commission.

“Early in the session, I think we’re fine. But we’ll miss him and look forward to him coming back, and he’ll be in touch,” said Haile.

A spate of safety-related bills are to be considered, and Haile is planning to sponsor legislation requiring medical providers to tell law enforcement about people considered a risk to themselves and others. He did not bring the measure last August.

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: info@tennesseelookout.com. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.