Commentary: Time to enter failing grades for the legislature

May 6, 2021 4:00 am
Speaker of the Tennessee House Cameron Sexton, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, and Gov. Bill Lee in the legislative library Wednesday. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Speaker of the Tennessee House Cameron Sexton, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, and Gov. Bill Lee in the legislative library Wednesday, May 5. (Photo: John Partipilo)

This is the time of the semester when I am busy entering final grades, but our state legislature, by its curious combination of ineptitude and mendacity, has forced me to enter grades for it as well.  Our state continues to flunk math by refusing to expand Medicaid, throwing away billions for health coverage of our working poor and exacerbating the closure of rural hospitals.

Lately, however, our legislators have shown their shortcomings in understanding history.  Oak Ridge Republican John Ragan got things rolling by pushing legislation that effectively would withhold funding from any public school that teaches about the historic reality of systemic racism, and the long shadow it casts over current conditions.  The text of Ragan’s change to House Bill 580 also has zingers prohibiting discussion of racial or gender privilege, or that a “meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex.”

A Tennessee State Trooper stands beside a bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. (Photo: John Partipilo)
A Tennessee State Trooper stands beside a bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. (Photo: John Partipilo)

All of which begs questions: Does Ragan live in a bubble where all traces of racism have been abolished?  Did he get this notion while standing near the bust of Confederate General and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest?  Does he really believe we live in a truly functioning meritocracy?  If so, can we count on him to introduce a bill banning legacy college admissions?

Not to be outdone, Knox County Republican Justin Lafferty made national news by bloviating a delusional claim about the historic three-fifths constitutional compromise.  As our U.S. Constitution was being written, Southern slave-holders wanted to play a cute trick.  They wanted to count their slaves as people but only for the purpose of allocating representatives in Congress, continuing to treat other humans under law as slaves and property.  Delegates partially caved to the adamant stand of racist slave holders, counting slaves as 3/5 of a person.   Lafferty regards this as a “bitter pill” that led to the end of slavery. Nope.  It codified and cemented the power of Southern whites and left our country trailing other nation-states in the abolition of slavery—only accomplished through the cost of roughly 700,000 lives in bloody war.

The humanities are too broad an area to assign legislative grades, but Tennessee’s legislature did fail several measures of basic humanity.  Members ignored calls for paid leave, made voting more difficult, targeted transgender youth for discriminatory treatment, and nearly passed a last-minute bill making it legally easier to run over protesters.  Tennessee legislators voted to cut unemployment benefits from 24 weeks to 12 weeks, keeping us firmly among the stingiest in the country.  Our legislators also gave a fuel tax cut to FedEx, conveniently ignoring they had raised taxes on Tennesseans at the pump three times since 2017.

Amazingly our state legislature also is failing basic civics.  The legislators indirectly recognized their penchant for passing unconstitutional legislation.  Instead of curtailing those actions, however, our legislators simply allocated much more money for defending themselves in court.  Our Republican supermajority also is toying with the idea of stacking the judicial deck, creating a whole new state court system for constitutional challenges rather than abide by the current judicial system for deciding such matters.  The idea of the governor picking new judges who, at least initially, will rule on the governor’s constitutionally-suspect actions seems doomed to further problems.

Topping off our legislature’s season of failure, the members rewarded themselves a pay raise, increasing both their per diem pay and office allowance compensation.  Satisfied with themselves, they are poised to wrap the session—leaving us with some of the most poorly funded schools in the country but a substantially larger rainy-day fund.  Soon Tennessee legislators will be out-of-session.  The GOP supermajority will be able to resume the re-election game of getting flush with campaign cash from lobbyists, corporate, and special interest donors.  It will be up to us as voters to deliver this report card through a series of surprise and stinging election upsets.

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Mark Harmon
Mark Harmon

Mark D. Harmon is a professor of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee, and a member of the Tennessee Democratic Party Executive Committee.