When Rep. Susan Lynn (R-Mount Juliet) first introduced her “Bathroom Bill,” discriminating against transgendered Tennesseans, the collective groan could be heard all around Tennessee. We knew we were in for some embarrassment this legislative session, but had no idea how quickly we would have be the butt of jokes from the likes of Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon. Memories of Jay Leno’s “Meals Under Wheels” comedy routine a few years ago lampooning Tennessee after it passed a bill allowing residents to consume roadkill came rushing back.
As expected, the national headlines started rolling in and, without even trying too hard, Tennessee became synonymous with ass-backwards.
And it didn’t get much better. 2016 wasn’t a banner year for the General Assembly. It was downright abhorrent. Solutions to real problems, general respect for others, and competence are rare currencies at the State Capitol.
Maybe we deserve better; then again, we are the ones responsible for putting our elected officials behind those small wooden desks in leather swivel-chairs, their fingers given full access to buttons reading “Aye”, “Nay”, and “Abstain.” We hand them the power and they (mis)use it.
Here they are: some of the lowlights and a couple highlights from the past year in legislative sausage making.
The irony in a standardized test called TN Ready being delayed by a North Carolina company is almost poetic. The test came out of the remnants of the backlash against Common Core that swept the nation in 2014. It was supposed to be the key assessment for the state’s new take on education - Tennessee Standards. Ruthlessly hashed out in hours of meetings and a tedious online comment period, these standards were supposed to hold students to a higher level of excellence in learning and TN Ready would be the test to give the state plenty of data to make decisions on student performance.
That is until it all fell apart.
An opt-out bill was rushed through the General Assembly, parents were pulling their children from the test, and teachers sweated as they wondered if they would be rewarded or punished for the hard work they had done all year.
The worst part of the whole incident may not have been the actual test, or the reckless decision to print millions of test booklets to make up for technical mistakes, but the response from the Tennessee Department of Education itself. It wasn’t an apology or admission of fault; it was to point the finger at a vendor, behavior clearly reflective of a strong, prepared department.
And here we are. Schools are missing a full year of data, teachers and students wasted days preparing for nothing, and top leaders are passing the buck.
For all the decision makers pushing for strong reform, it might be time to build in some accountability measures for leaders at the top.
In 2015 Metro Nashville received $14.6 million in revenue from the Hall tax - a 6 percent tax on income from investment dividends that the General Assembly voted to repeal just before getting out of dodge for campaign season. Tack on Belle Meade ($2 million) and Forest Hills ($750k), and Nashville is looking at a $17 million annual budget gap. To put that into context, that’s about as much as it costs to educate the 1,550 students at Cane Ridge High School.
But it doesn’t stop there. Cities across Tennessee (and within Davidson County) are facing a relative crisis as to how to replace the significant amount of revenue they receive from the Hall Tax each year. Barring an additional tax or tax increase imposed by local elected officials, almost certain electoral suicide, these cities, the relics of a pre-Metro Nashville, are in trouble. The City of Oak Hill went so far as to hire on a consulting firm back in 2013 to help identify ways to collect the estimated $500,000 the Hall Tax brings into their city coffers each year. Their conclusion? Create a property tax or welcome commercial zoning.
In a odd twist, the conservative gadflies who have been goading the Hall tax repeal for years have finally succeeded. Too bad it might now cost the nice neighborhoods they live in.
In March, Congressman Jim Cooper made a special trip to the State Capitol to argue in favor of HB-2292, a bill designed to stop the construction of the proposed quarry adjacent to Old Hickory Dam. A personal trip was unusual, but by this point Metro Council had passed a bill to stop the quarry and most of Nashville’s delegation was publicly opposed to construction.
Cooper’s testimony was knowledgeable about surrounding dams, the specific shortcomings of this project, and he even brought along a blasting expert who was not only involved with upcoming blasting at the Capitol itself, but had hosted a fundraiser for Cooper’s perpetual GOP challenger just two years before. Rep. Bill Beck (D-Old Hickory) organized a room full of neighbors representing the collective disdain of the quarry. They eventually joined Cooper in watching their best shot at stopping the quarry next door evaporate 5-1 in subcommittee.
Five men from rural West Tennessee, citing irrelevant anecdotal experiences and soil classes from high school as sufficient evidence to doubt what the Rhodes-scholar Congressman was imploring them to understand, sided with the quarry owners in the interest of vested property rights. There was no attempt to understand the issue by these representatives and no attempt to hear from the people who will have to live adjacent to it for the next 50 years.
While ignoring the outright resistance of the people who live in the community is reason enough for Tennesseans to be disappointed, the bigger problem is that Nashvillians are now in real danger.
If you ask people who have lived here about Wolf Creek Dam or the Flood of 2010, they know exactly why. The efforts to clean up those disasters took the community months and millions of dollars. If the dam does fail, will those with vested property rights or the people of Nashville show up to clean up the mess? If it’s the latter, then maybe those in power should take a few minutes to hear what they have to say.
Tennesseans can rest easy knowing that their water is safer to drink thanks to Nashville’s own Rep. Jason Powell (D-Nashville) and HB-2212. The crisis in Flint, Mich., put the nation on high alert about contaminants in the water supply. Although Tennessee currently requires maintenance and monitoring of safe lead levels, utilities had up to 30 days to inform their customers about any hazardous issues. Now they have only three days.
Tennessee was one of the first states to pass legislation following the situation in Flint and a rapid, bipartisan response to a serious issue was refreshing. In a legislature severely divided by partisanship, this bill passed unanimously in both houses and was a total slam dunk for the citizens of Tennessee.
Finally! The bipartisan, unanimous passage of SB-1626, which establishes an online voter registration system, may end up being the most impactful piece of legislation passed this year. Nashville, and the state as a whole, is in dire need of more civic participation and moving the process online may actually spur some change.
About as many people voted in the 2015 Mayoral runoff (110,894) as the 1966 Mayoral runoff (101,223), despite the 200,000 people who have moved here over those 49 years. Additionally, in May 2014, only 11% of the 369,000 registered voters in Nashville showed up to the polls. This means that of the estimated 658,000 people that actually live in Davidson County only 5.9 percent of the population (less than 39,000) determined who our elected leaders would be.
“Purged” voter rolls (we had 7,000 fewer registered voters in 2015 than in 2008), voter ID laws, and no same-day registration still exist as significant barriers to voting in Tennessee. However, unanimous support for online voter registration is a significant first step in the right direction.