In Gov. Bill Lee’s Tennessee, ‘choice’ means you have no choice

December 8, 2022 9:00 am
Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The word “choice” is doing a lot of work these days in Gov. Bill Lee’s government.

“Choice,” as defined by the Oxford English dictionary, can be used as a noun or an adverb. The former refers to “the act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two possibilities,” while the latter refers to an item of high quality — think choice beef — or to language that can be rude, as in “choice words.”

Let’s take apart Lee’s use of the commonplace word.

Last week, Butch Eley, Lee’s commissioner of the Department of Transportation rolled out a plan — Lee was nowhere to be found during the announcement — that includes “choice roads.” 

In case you are wondering what a “choice road” is, it’s not a particularly well-paved or notably wide one: A “choice road” is, in fact, a toll road. 

Twenty-eight states have toll roads so Tennessee isn’t breaking new ground, but as someone with family in Illinois and the need to travel to the Chicago area frequently, I’ll tell you about the choice you get with toll roads. You have the choice to pay the toll or to get fined if you don’t. If you are averse to forking out cash to drive on a public highway you already support through taxes, you have the choice to meander along rural back roads on out-of-the-way routes to your destination. 

Tennessee’s lawmakers believe in choice, alright: They choose when you can have a choice about your healthcare, your kids’ education and now, if they are successful, how and where you drive. 

Toll roads don’t actually give you much of a choice and TDOT’s use of the word to describe pay-to-drive highways reminds me of former President Bill Clinton’s parsing the meaning of the word “is’’ during his 1998 grand jury testimony — but surely some high-priced, outsourced marketing firm told Lee and Eley the word ‘‘choice’’ sells better than ‘‘toll roads.’’

“School choice,” ostensibly meant to refer to giving parents of school kids options on where to enroll their children, has become shorthand for “charter schools,’’ a passion of Lee’s. So his idea of “choice schools’’ may be the Hillsdale College-backed charter schools pushed by Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn, who opined earlier this year that teachers “come from the stupidest parts of the stupidest colleges.” 

You know an issue in which choice doesn’t apply in Tennessee? Reproductive health care. Tennessee’s “trigger law,’’ which took effect 30 days after the U.S. Supreme Court finalized its ruling overturning federal abortion protections in Roe v. Wade, bans abortion in the state, leaving women with unwanted pregnancies little choice but to carry a fetus to full term. 

And based on a story by ProPublica writer Kavitha Surana, published by the Lookout, lawmakers like Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, would like reproductive laws to be stricter, potentially limiting how fertilized eggs conceived through in vitro fertilization can be handled and banning use of the emergency contraceptive known as the ‘morning after’ pill — giving Tennessee women even less agency over their own healthcare.

Tennessee’s lawmakers believe in choice, alright: They choose when you can have a choice about your healthcare, your kids’ education and now, if they are successful, how and where you drive.  

Lee’s use of the word “choice’’ is nothing more than a linguistic method for turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse. 

I’d prefer lawmakers who would shoot straight about our options and lack of them, for you can best bet when you hear government officials rolling out a plan with the word “choice’’ in it, you will, in fact, have very little of it. 


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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.