Commentary: State legislature fails us

Tennessee House of Representatives Chambers (iStock Editorial/Getty Images)
Tennessee House of Representatives Chambers (iStock Editorial/Getty Images)

Now that our state legislature has finished its session, it’s time to tally the damage—not only from what Tennessee legislators did in our name, but also from what they failed to do.  Let’s start with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both the legislature and Governor Bill Lee were hell bent on ignoring expert-crafted health safety precautions, despite increasing case numbers, a growing death tally, inadequate testing and tracing, and the absence of a vaccine.  Most egregiously, Representative Jason Zachary tried to strip county health departments from imposing pandemic restrictions, giving that power to county mayors.

State Senator Richard Briggs, like Zachary a Republican from the western edge of Knox County, effectively blocked Zachary’s crazed notion.  Credit Briggs as well for his consistent support for expanded Medicaid in Tennessee.  Our legislature, however, once again failed to take that responsible step—effectively forfeiting $1.4 billion a year, to cover nearly 300,000 hard-working Tennesseans.

State Sen. Richard Briggs (Official photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Sen. Richard Briggs (Official photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Briggs, like nearly all his Republican colleagues, has an impossible-to-explain blind spot regarding Nathan Bedford Forrest, the racist Confederate General, slave owner, slave trader, first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and commander of the Fort Pillow Massacre of surrendering black soldiers.  Our legislature is still refusing to remove a bust of Forrest from the State Capitol.  The GOP supermajority also backed away from a plan to remove Nathan Bedford Forrest Day from a list of our state’s days of special observance, and only removed the obligation the governor to issue a proclamation about it.

One of the more bizarre moments of our state legislature was its slipshod incumbent protection scheme.  This came about when our Tennessee Democratic Party (TNDP) Executive Committee removed longtime Memphis incumbent John DeBerry from the party primary ballot.  State party executive committees have a legal right and duty to weigh formal complaints that filed candidates are not truly representative of their party.

I serve on TNDP’s Executive Committee and participated in both the original conference call meeting and DeBerry’s appeal.  He read a statement to us, but did not take questions—and we had a lot of concerns:  his donation of $1,500 to Republican Beth Harwell’s gubernatorial bid, his vote to elect Republican Glen Casada as House Speaker, his membership on the Koch Brothers’ American Legislative Exchange Council Education Committee, and his votes against Democratic positions on vouchers, human rights, Medicaid expansion, Confederate monuments, and gun safety,

Agree or disagree with our 41-18 vote, it was our publicly-elected role to vote on eligibility to run under our party banner.  DeBerry’s colleagues rushed to his defense, slapping together and passing a bill to allow incumbents tossed from the ballot to have an extra period to get back on the ballot as independents or in other parties.  Oops.  By crafting a rule to give extra ballot access to incumbents, an option not available to challengers or open-seat candidates, our legislators likely have run afoul of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Republicans also circled their wagons to protect State Representative David Byrd (R-Waynesboro).  For the second time, the GOP supermajority refused to take up Representative Gloria Johnson’s (D-Knoxville) effort to expel Byrd based on the statements of three women who claim Byrd sexually assaulted them years ago when they were in high school.  Byrd’s reply has been a vague combination of denial and apology.  Johnson declared, “So someone who is credibly accused, admittedly apologized for something, won’t answer what they are apologizing for… that’s too much of a cloud in our legislature.”

Our State Senate properly honored a 17-year-old girl murdered in April while in a car at a Nashville intersection.  Ashanti Nikole Posey was an African American athlete who worked two jobs, started a support group for LGBTQ students, and hoped to play basketball at Western Kentucky University. House Majority Leader William Lamberth led a group of Republicans who blocked the resolution based on unsubstantiated claims about a small sale of marijuana.

Our legislature also refused to expand absentee (mail-in) voting, just as the Lee Administration was doing its best to ignore a judge’s order to allow no-excuse-needed absentee applications.  As adjournment loomed, the State House and State Senate could not resolve which awful budget version to pass.  They eventually settled on a dystopian package of lowlights: no pay raises for teachers, lots of abortion restrictions, reduced pandemic-related budget assistance to local governments in Memphis and Nashville, and finishing the tax break for the wealthiest Tennesseans by ending the tax on interest and dividends.

We can’t expect better outcomes until we send better people there.