Local lawmakers share opinions on Nathan Bedford Forrest bust in capitol building

State legislators hope for special session to finish COVID-19 business

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Tennessee Legislators

Tennessee legislators discussed the adjournment of the legislative session last week and the possibility of a special session to address unfinished business.

Correction: A former version of this article stated that state Rep. Sam Whitson wanted to replace the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust in the capitol with a bust of Frank Andrews. The story has been corrected to say that Whitson would like a bust of Andrews and Forrest's great-grandson created and placed alongside the Forrest bust in the military branch of the Tennessee State Museum.

The Tennessee General Assembly adjourned its legislative session last week with two bills related to COVID-19 left unresolved. During Williamson, Inc.’s Policy Talks event Friday, state Sen. Jack Johnson, District 61 state Rep. Brandon Ogles, District 63 state Rep. Glen Casada and District 65 state Rep. Sam Whitson discussed the quarrels between the state House and Senate concerning a telemedicine bill and COVID-19 business liability bill before later discussing the controversial Nathan Bedford Forrest bust that rests in the Tennessee State Capitol.

The telemedicine bill (House Bill 2350/Senate Bill 2312) would allow for an expanded use of telehealth services even after the special provisions made by Gov. Bill Lee during the COVID-19 pandemic expired. Johnson said, while many in the Senate believe doctors should be reimbursed by insurance companies the same amount for telehealth sessions as they would for an in-person session, they do not believe the state should mandate that. Many in the House wanted to require that parity. The Senate drafted a compromise to require parity for 18 months, but the bill still has yet to pass.

The liability bill (House Bill 2623/Senate Bill 2381) would provide businesses, including sole proprietors and nonprofits, certain protections against lawsuits pertaining to COVID-19 as long as businesses are following health and safety guidelines from state and local authorities as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If you’re in flagrant violation of that, you should be sued, and we’re not going to do anything about that,” Johnson said. “But if you’re making every effort to be substantially compliant with the guidelines, then you should be protected from frivolous lawsuits.”

However, the Senate wanted this bill to apply retroactively to a date in March, and Ogles, who voted against the Senate version of the bill, said some in the House were concerned about the constitutionality of that notion.

Whitson said he believed that if the nine House members who were absent had voted, the bill likely would’ve passed. Johnson said he thinks a special session will be called to vote on this bill and possibly the telemedicine bill as well.

“I’ve received numerous emails and letters and calls from the business community or nonprofits, HOAs, saying this (bill) is critical for them going forward, and I just felt like we needed to do this, and if we do need a special session to correct it, I think we can come back and do it,” Whitson said.

The four also discussed the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust in the state capitol building. Recently, the state House Naming, Designating, & Private Acts Committee barely passed a bill to remove Nathan Bedford Forrest Day on July 13 as a day of special observance, a preliminary step in the process. However, the same committee did not pass a resolution to remove the bust of Forrest in the capitol.

Whitson said he would like to see the busts of all military members from the capitol to the military branch of the Tennessee State Museum. He shared that he'd like to see busts of Frank Andrews, a former lieutenant general from Tennessee after whom Joint Base Andrews in Washington D.C. is named, and Nathan Bedford Forrest III, a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, placed alongside the Forrest bust from the capitol.

However, he said the “rule of law is very important,” noting there is “the right way to do it, and then there’s the mob way to do it.” Johnson seconded Whitson’s expression about the rule of law.

Ogles shared that he is “ready to address this situation and move onto the next thing that’ll make our state better.” He added he doesn’t see the state capitol as the most appropriate place to honor and share history, saying he’d be open to moving every bust in there to the state museum.

“In the present form, how we have them presented, they’re up on a pedestal with a little sign that’s, you know, four inches by six inches,” he said. “You don’t learn any history by reading a plaque to what somebody’s name was. So, if we want to honor history and tell a story, I think it should be done in a setting that’s appropriate, and that would be the state museum.”

Casada, who is on the House Naming, Designating, & Private Acts Committee and voted for the removal of Nathan Bedford Forrest Day and for the removal of the bust, said he doesn’t believe that moving statues will fix important issues at hand.

“I think we need to realize that these are symbols. They will not improve once they’re taken down, once they’re moved, and maybe they should be,” he said. “But once they are, that’s not the problem. The problem is children not getting education, poor performing schools, no fathers in the home. If we want to change a way of life, if we want to make things better for people, that’s what we have to improve.”

For more information on Williamson, Inc. and its upcoming events, visit williamsonchamber.com.

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