Unemployment has now reached 9.1% in Tennessee, with Perry County topping the list at 27%. Tax collections and state revenues are down, just as the need for government assistance and public services is skyrocketing. The number of people on food stamps, along with those losing their health insurance increases exponentially, while manufacturers and retailers from Memphis to Kingsport shut down their businesses – wiping out relatively good-paying jobs and whole regional economies.
Enter the Tennessee Republican Party, who declared victory upon taking the reins of leadership in the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction. The TNGOP, who barely eked out a win here in November, moved quickly to announce an agenda that would show all Tennesseans that the Republican Party was ready to handle the economic crisis.
On November 10, 2008, just days after their election win, Republican leaders announced their agenda in the Memphis Commercial Appeal would include “allowing people with gun carry permits to take their firearms into places that serve alcohol“, “limits on… malpractice and other liability lawsuits”, “giving legislative leaders more control in the appointment of members of the judicial nominating commission”, “taxpayer funds for new [charter] schools, rather than [for] local school boards”, and their unflinching support for SJR-127, an anti-abortion bill that even its supporters admit does absolutely nothing to reduce the number of abortions in Tennessee.
But wait, there’s more. On February 23, 2009, TNGOP leaders announced a revised agenda for their legislative goals. Could it be that the Republicans decided that due to the economic crisis that they would focus more on checkbook issues? Or jobs? Not a chance. Instead, the Republicans added even more irrelevant, if not downright dangerous bills to their docket. More NRA bills, including ones to “reduce public and government access to gun owner information” a law that “would remove a requirement for gun dealers to thumbprint buyers,” and another that “would make handgun permit application information confidential”. Now, even state election laws are in the sights of Tennessee Republicans (who now happen to control every single county election commission in the state). For example, the “Voter Confidence Act” a bipartisan bill which passed last year and guaranteed an auditable paper trail for all voting machines, is in serious danger of being modified or killed. And there’s another Republican favorite – requiring a photo ID to vote – that they believe will stop hordes of illegal immigrants from voting, even though it is practically impossible for illegal immigrants to actually receive a voting card and there is zero evidence that this is actually happening. And lest we forget, the party of “family values” has decided that only straight, married people are fit to be parents, despite the fact that Tennessee sits at the top or near the top of the list among all states in divorce rate, domestic abuse, child abuse, and violent crime.
So there you have it. In the midst of one of the worst financial crises our state has seen since the Great Depression, the new Republican majority offers us Big Government on choice, adoption, and a living wage (by overturning the will of Memphis citizens who voted in favor of a living wage ordinance), the liberalization of our state gun laws, “judicial selection” (read: court-stacking) and “election reform” (read: voter suppression). Oh, and did I mention that about half of the Republican delegation actually believes that the President is not an American citizen?
In contrast, the Tennessee Democrats – by no means a poster child for liberalism – are nonetheless pushing a relevant agenda that is rooted in real-world solutions to real-world problems that affect nearly everyone in the state. According to a press release by the House Democratic Caucus, their agenda includes “providing quality education for all… increasing jobs and economic opportunities… promoting fiscal responsibility… providing affordable healthcare… supporting Tennessee’s ‘golden generation’… promoting equality and diversity… protecting Tennessee’s most vulnerable… improving safety and reducing crime… honoring patriotic service… investing in energy efficiency and protecting the environment”.
And despite now being the minority party that has a limited ability to move legislation, there are real bills by the Democrats that back up their agenda – bills that are struggling to get out of the Republican-controlled committee structure. Just a few worth mentioning include the “Pay Equity in the Workplace Act” which seeks equal pay for women doing the same work as men, “Helping Heroes” legislation that would expand education grant programs and funds to include current members of a reserve or National Guard unit, and “Crooks with Guns” legislation supported by district attorneys and law enforcement associations which would put tougher penalties on gun criminals. Democrats are also proposing a series of unexpectedly progressive environmental bills like HB2318, which among other things requires that statewide building construction safety standards include provisions for energy efficiency. And to his credit, Governor Phil Bredesen seems intent on closing a tax loophole that out-of-state businesses have been exploiting for years.
Time will tell whether Tennessee Democrats stand behind their new populist agenda. There is a long history in this state of Democrat appeasers who would rather just go along to get along then stand for something (the main reason the Democrats lost the election, by the way) and breaking that pattern entirely will take a long time. But when it comes to the issues, for those of you who still think that there’s little difference between the Democrats and Republicans in Tennessee, compare these two statements. Mike Turner (D-Old Hickory): “working families in Tennessee are hurting and desperately needing legislators to put them first.” And Tony Shipley (R-Kingsport): “they can do whatever they want out in California, with gays passing babies around, and violating God’s law, but when God drops California off into the sea, they will have to deal with the consequences of their actions.” With priorities like these, the Tennessee Republican Party won’t enjoy their majority status for very long.