Lee Sexton McNally

Gov. Bill Lee, flanked by House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally, addresses the media after a January special legislative session

I was reading Melissa Brown’s story in The Tennessean about Gov. Bill Lee’s various responses to the bills passed during the COVID special session when I hit something that stopped me cold:

After signing an omnibus bill rolling back many COVID-19 mitigation efforts, Lee returned the county health department legislation to the General Assembly without his signature.

In a letter to Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House of Representatives Speaker Cameron Sexton, Lee indicated there is a "joint commitment" to pursue "necessary updates" to the bill in the upcoming January session.

“I have spoken with Lt. Gov. McNally and Speaker Sexton and am not signing this bill as it requires significant updates to account for the non-pandemic functions of public health departments,” Lee said in a statement. “We are committed to working together to address these changes during the regular session.”

Forget the substance of the bill. It doesn’t matter which bill he’s talking about. The state legislature passed a bill. The governor received the bill and decided that it needed more work. In fact, it requires “significant updates.” He did not sign the bill.

He seems to think that he sent the law back to the legislature for revisions. Like him not signing it gives it some kind of provisional status?

But that’s not a thing.

When a bill is put forward for the governor to sign into law, he has three options. He can sign it, and it becomes a law with his approval. He can decide it needs more work and can’t be a law as is written right now, and so he can veto it and send it back to the legislature for them to fix it before he’ll sign it (and this comes with the risk that they could override his veto). Or he can let it pass into law without his signature.

The governor’s only mechanism for sending a bill back for revisions is to veto it. Putting out a statement that you don’t like the bill as it’s written and the legislature has promised (I assume with a pinky swear?) to fix it in January doesn’t actually mean anything. The bill is now a law.

If Gov. Lee were to avail himself of the resources of the state, he could find the laws of the state written down in various places. He would be able to see that there is no designation next to a law that indicates whether it was passed with the governor’s signature or not. The absence or presence of the governor’s signature has no bearing on the legitimacy of a law. So this bill, which he knows is deeply flawed, is going to become a law because Gov. Lee has chosen not to veto it, even though that’s the one mechanism available to him at this point to prevent a flawed bill from becoming a law.

This is exceedingly stupid.

But it’s not the most stupid basic misunderstanding of what his job is that is contained in this statement. That must be reserved for his belief that he can force the state legislature to change laws. Sir, how? What is the mechanism by which you, Gov. Lee, think you can force House Speaker Sexton and Lt. Governor McNally to revise laws?

What are you going to do? Veto every bill they put before you until and unless it has to do with making the fixes to this law that you think are necessary? You wouldn’t even veto this bill. No one believes you’re suddenly going to start vetoing other bills.

So then what? Just let all the bills they put before you pass into law without your signature? Oooh, I’m sure Sexton and McNally are quaking in their boots, since that literally has no effect on the lawy-ness of said laws.

You, sir, are not the legislative branch. You cannot pass bills. You would need legislators to sponsor your bills, and if Sexton and McNally don’t want them to go anywhere, they won’t. It’s very unlikely that you would find sponsors for bills that House and Senate leadership don’t want passed.

Think of it this way. Say you live next door to Sexton and McNally. They own a dog. You do not. They put their dog poop in bags and fling it into your yard. Your three options for dealing with the bags of dog poop sailing over your fence are: 1. Pick them up and throw them away; 2. leave them in your yard; 3. throw them back into McNally and Sexton’s yard. You don’t choose the bags the poop goes in. But if McNally and Sexton decide to skimp on the quality of their bags, you’re the one who has to deal with the consequences. If they throw a bag at you and it’s flimsy and torn open and you can tell that leaving it where it is or throwing it away is just going to cause a bigger mess on your side of the fence, what do their promises of getting you a better bag months from now matter? If you don’t put the poop back in their yard, they don’t have any reason to get better bags, because they don’t have to deal with the mess.

The more I think about this, the more I think that I should take my dog for a walk. No wait, I mean the more I think about this, the more I’m convinced that Gov. Lee does not fully understand how government works, which is alarming since he’s the governor.

It does make me a little envious of Sexton and McNally, though. I don’t think that I could get my editor here at the Scene to accept that editing me meant he was only allowed to make a series of public frowny faces at whatever I write, no matter how stupid, confusing or wrong it is. But McNally and Sexton have the guy who could edit their bills convinced that all he can actually do is nothing. Lucky them.

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