Tag Archives: commentary

Some holiday weekend reading suggestions for TN political junkies

Democratic dysfunction
Otis Sanford bemoans the squabble over financial troubles at the Shelby County Democratic Party, which last week put some local party leaders at odds with Tennessee Democratic Chair Mary Mancini. (ICYMI, post HERE.) His starting proposition:

The dysfunctional political family otherwise known as the Shelby County Democratic Party has managed itself into complete irrelevance. After resembling a circular firing squad for the past few years, local party leaders have finally turned the once highly effective and highly diverse group into a laughingstock.

The Tennessee Republican Party, which has had its share of dysfunctional episodes lately (most recently HERE), was naturally eager to offer commentary, too, HERE.
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Liberal Democrat critiques conservative legislator forum

Mark Harmon, an activist Democrat, recently attended a panel discussion by five Republican East Tennessee state legislators and has now written a column on his observations. It starts thusly:

“I believe in science. Sorry, I do,” said state Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, to the crowd at a recent legislative forum.

You can tell the conversation has gone in a strange direction when a medical doctor has to apologize for believing in science.

The event was an East Tennessee Legislative Panel in the Bearden Banquet Hall on Aug. 29. The online description indicated the sponsors were Americans for Prosperity (the extreme right-wing Koch brothers group), the Tennessee Liberty Alliance and the Republican Liberty Caucus of Tennessee.

The five state legislators, all Republican men, were backed by a banner with a GOP logo. At best this is a “whoops” that shows the lie of AFP’s non-partisan status; at worst it suggests a Federal Elections Commission violation. I videotaped all 100 minutes of the chat and put it online. (Note: YouTube video HERE)

The most outrageous statements came from state Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains. He blasted away that even some of those “worthless” federal Republicans would not vote for “Obamacare.” Then he passed along some speculation that doctors were getting trips to Hawaii for overprescribing dangerous drugs. The trifecta came when he asserted the lion’s share of vouchers in Florida were going to Muslim schools (for the record, not so).

UPDATE/NOTE: Tori Venable, spokeswoman for American for Prosperity-Tennessee, sends the following “for the record” email after this post:

Our sponsorship of the legislative forum hosted by the TN Liberty Alliance (also non-partisan) consisted of a booth to sign up activists – but that doesn’t fit with Mr. Harmon’s narrative. I’ve been told he and Gloria (Johnson, former Democratic state representative) tweeted false info the whole time.

Roundup of politician comments on Marine murders

President Obama, from the White House Press Office:
“I just received a briefing from FBI Director Comey, as well as my White House team, about the tragic shooting that took place in Chattanooga today. We don’t know yet all the details. We know that what appears to be a lone gunman carried out these attacks. We’ve identified a name. And at this point, a full investigation is taking place. The FBI will be in the lead, working closely with local law enforcement.

We’ve also been in contact with the Department of Defense to make sure that all our Defense facilities are properly attentive and vigilant as we sort through exactly what happened. And as details of the investigation proceed, we’ll make sure that the FBI, as well as local law enforcement are providing the public with all the information that’s involved.

My main message right now is, obviously, the deepest sympathies of the American people to the four Marines that have been killed. It is a heartbreaking circumstance for these individuals who have served our country with great valor to be killed in this fashion.
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Columnist: Tuition equality debate shows there are still a few GOP ‘compassionate conservatives’ in TN

The term “compassionate conservative,” once popular in GOP circles, has fallen into disfavor, says Otis Sanford, though it could still be applied to a few Republicans. Excerpt:

Yet, there remains a handful of Republicans — even in conservative stronghold Tennessee — who continue to embrace the concept as part of their political philosophy. Gov. Bill Haslam certainly does. At times, so does Mark Norris, the majority leader in the state Senate.

And as quiet as it’s kept, Republican state Rep. Mark White of Memphis has emerged as one of the precious few GOP voices in the House crying out for compassionate conservatism. White supported Haslam’s plan to expand Medicaid to some 280,000 working poor in Tennessee when most of his colleagues refused to even consider it because it would somehow link them to the Obama administration.

Now White again finds himself on the losing end of another issue that has compassion as part of its aim. The House last week rejected by a single vote a bill to allow undocumented immigrant high school students who have lived in Tennessee most of their lives to pay in-state tuition to attend state colleges and universities.

…White was the bill’s House sponsor and thought he had about 55 yes votes as late as Wednesday morning. “I guess some lost their nerves and that’s what hurts,” White told me later in the day.

Most of those who voted no couldn’t get past the illegal immigration issue. One potential yes voter told White that a spouse persuaded him to change his mind out of respect for a relative who came to this country legally. Another lawmaker even said that voting yes would tie him to Obama. But the bill had nothing to do with immigration rules or Obama, and everything to do with giving deserving youngsters a chance at an affordable education.

White said the bill applied only to students who are under 16 years old and were living in Tennessee before 2007. That means they were 8 or younger when they were brought here.

“This is about education. This isn’t about any kind of immigration reform,” White told his colleagues during an hour-long debate. But not enough of them agreed.

…“The sad thing is, we’re hurting our state moving forward because the best way to make our state better is with education.” White said.

It’s also sad that we have people representing us in Nashville who — as First Baptist Church-Broad pastor Keith Norman said — want to make the Bible the state book, but don’t want to do what the Bible says.

In other words, compassionate conservatism as a political ideal is now officially dead in the water. In Tennessee, it has already sunk to the bottom of the river.

Haslam and White aside, most of the conservatives who govern our state don’t give a hoot about people who are perceived as not being a part of their voting base. In this case, that means Hispanic voters.

It also means another step backward for Tennessee.

A biblical fable from Jack McElroy

Jack McElroy imagines Legislatorland as a gathering place for holy men and relates a biblical fable in accordance with his vision. Excerpt:

Some arrived on donkeys, but they were few. Their packs bore little gold, and they were ashamed. But many rode elephants. Their packs bulged with riches, and they were very proud.

Among them was a priest of the lower order from the Station of Bean. In the Great Hall he cried aloud: “Let us take our sacred Book and enshrine it here in this Hall so that all may know how we have loved and revered it.”

Hallelujahs and huzzahs greeted his suggestion.

“Yes, yes,” shouted a priest of the upper order from the Town of Morris. “But, hear thee, we must do this not because our Book is sacred — though all know it is so. Nay, we do this because of the Book’s place in our history and our culture — yea, even in our chugging economy.”

The multitude roared in approval. For was it not true that the passion flower had been enshrined in the Hall, and it was a symbol of the divine as well as a pretty flower? So, too, the Ladybug flew proudly in the Pantheon, a genuine miracle-worker for its eating of aphids as well as being cute as a bug.

Among the clerics, though, were certain prelates and a senior pastor. And the spirit moved them to not move so fast.

The high priest called Ramsey rose and called to the assemblage: “Know thee all that I love the Book above all things. But placing it here, amongst salamanders and bugs, is just creepy.”

His right-hand holy man, Norris, spoke, too: “Brothers and sisters. None love the Book more than I. I know that thou must care for thy flocks and they are eating this up. But for God’s sake …!”

…Another voice tried to be heard, then. But it seemed to come from a distant time and from far, far away.

“Whenever you pray,” the Voice said, “do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.”

And lo, a miracle occurred. Some priests of the higher order heard the Voice — and listened, at least for this session.

Columnist: ’55 Bible-thumpers’ in the House and ‘the least of these’

Columnist Sam Venable opines on the Legislature’s attempt at blessing the Holy Bible. An excerpt:

I can’t decide whether 55 Bible-thumpers in the Tennessee House are sincere but misguided people of faith, pandering hucksters or foot soldiers in the American Taliban. Maybe a bit of each.

Whatever the case, it’s obvious they aren’t fiscal conservatives. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be eager to waste money sending a flimsy law through the courts, knowing full well it’ll be declared unconstitutional.

Happily, Tennesseans have been spared this expense — not to mention the embarrassment of once again being portrayed as rubes with a Glock in one hand and Mamaw’s King James Version in the other.

For that, we can thank the state Senate.

…True, this is the same Senate that joined the cowardly House on another hot-button issue a couple of days earlier. Proving the entire lot are some of the most breathtaking hypocrites in the history of shame, members voted to keep guns out of their own chambers while welcoming anyone with a carry permit to city and state parks.

Not surprising, of course. It’s often the nature of politicians to distance themselves from pesky rules that apply to everyone else.

Nonetheless, you gotta give senators their due on the Bible bill. They knew a sham when they saw it and had the backbone to react.

Not so in the House. On Wednesday, members afraid of being labeled “anti-Christ” prevailed 55-38, denigrating the holiest text in all of Christendom to the same secular level as salamanders, catfish and other state symbols.

As a Christian who has served his church for decades as lay reader, that makes me see red. And I ain’t talkin’ the red-letter edition.

Surely the vast majority of House members consider themselves to be practicing Christians. Which is fine.

But not all Tennesseans do. Some have different religious faiths. Others profess no faith. Yet all are covered by the same constitution.

It’s not the job of politicians to proselytize — which was the de facto intent of this bill, no matter how much “historical, economic and cultural” sugarcoating was attached.

If lawmakers truly want to honor the Bible, they should attempt following its themes of love and compassion. Like the passage from Matthew 25:40 about caring for “the least of these.”

Health insurance for the working poor would be a great start.

Sunday column: Times for oratory and times for action in Legislature

Without doubt, the most entertaining debate of this year’s legislative session came in two days of impassioned House floor discourse on whether the Holy Bible should be Tennessee’s official state book – a striking contrast to the utter lack of discussion on most everything else considered.

The Tennessee General Assembly can be a wonderous law-making machine when all the wheels, cogs and gears are greased, as was the case last week with legislative leadership pushing to shut down the 2015 session ASAP.

Monday evening’s House session was a fine example. As always, there were various procedural things to deal with, the opening prayer to be delivered and “personal orders,” wherein legislators pay homage and give praise to constituents and each other.

Using times shown on the legislative website’s video, an hour and 56 minutes elapsed between House Speaker Beth Harwell slamming down the gavel to open that session and slamming down the gavel to end it. It took about 24 minutes to get through the opening personal orders and procedural stuff – including one minute, 29 seconds to approve a “consent calendar” of bills everyone agrees are OK without discussion with no need to vote upon them individually. Then began the actual “regular calendar” of bills awaiting final consideration and which, presumably, are subject to some debate. Nine minutes of more windup procedural stuff came before final gavel.

So about an hour and 23 minutes were devoted to considering enactment of serious laws of the land. In that time frame, the House dealt with 40 bills. The calculator indicates that’s an average of two minutes, 7.5 seconds per bill. And in a couple of cases, more time was spent in good-natured joshing with freshman legislators bringing up their first bill than on the bill itself.

Now, for of this legislation, there had been a lot of discussion before reaching the floor. An example is the measure (SB280) that decriminalizes cannabis oil in Tennessee. It took one minute, 43 seconds of floor time – not counting sponsor Rep. Jeremy Faison spending a minute “out of order” following passage to praise advocates in the balcony for “all the work they have done to see that much green (yes votes) on the board – and we didn’t even have to talk about it.”
A bill banning “powdered alcohol” was approved in one minute, 2 seconds.

Over in the Senate, by the way, cannabis oil sponsor Sen. Becky Massey had to spend more than 10 times as much time in ably defending the bill from critical questioning prior to passage on the same evening. As a vague and general observation, though, yours truly would suggest the Senate usually spends a lot less time debating things than the House.

In other cases, pre-floor discourse was maybe not so great. HB787, which would repeal all local government ordinances requiring sprinklers in multi-residence townhomes, was slightly delayed by Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, rising to question whether it was a “big mistake” to approve something that might endanger lives. A Republican quickly moved previous question – legislative lingo for “shut up and vote” – and the machine was moving again only a bit behind the two-minutes-per-bill schedule.

Most bills given instant approval are seemingly innocuous and/or so complicated and boring they inspire zero general interest – except maybe among lobbyists who know their import to a client.

Yet one can hear lobbyists these days complain they can’t get an appointment to talk with a legislator – at least not without a week’s notice or so, which may be too late with a fast-moving bill – because the lawmakers are too busy rushing to make all their meetings and get everything through committee to the floor for a fast vote.

We can hope that at least someone has a chance to advocate or oppose all that obscure and seemingly arcane stuff. But you have to wonder whether it’s reached the point of anything with a Republican sponsor and not obviously disconcerting is instantly approved while anything with a Democratic sponsor and not obviously inconsequential is instantly killed.

Ah, but bring up God or guns and, Lord, everybody wants to make a speech — so many on the House floor that, eventually, a rarely-used rule was invoked to limit each member’s remarks to two minutes – or about the average total floor time spent on the average bill.

At the end of the allotted two minutes, the speaker’s microphone would go dead, shutting him or her off in mid-sentence.

Enough said. Even in a debate of biblical proportions.

Note: This is the unedited version of a column written for the News Sentinel. The edited version is HERE.

Is demise of Bible bill ‘advancing secularism at the expense of religion’?

The bill designating the “Holy Bible” as Tennessee’s official state book may be dead until next year (previous post HERE), but former state Sen. David Fowler, now leading the Christian conservative group Family Action Council of Tennessee, makes clear in a post on the FACT blog that it is not forgotten.

An excerpt:

Regarding the constitutional debate, we need to begin with the acknowledgement there is nothing unconstitutional about having a state book. And as Rep. Matthew Hill said, if we’re going to have a state book, what other book could we name that has had the kind of historical, practical, and economic impact as that of the Bible? There is none.

But if the constitutional point is that no religious text can even be entered into the debate, then I submit that we are not being neutral on the issue of religion. Rather, we are advancing secularism at the expense of religion.

…The sooner we wake up to the myth of neutrality the better. Neutrality is the mantra of those who would use it until such time as they suppress the reigning orthodoxy of the views with which they disagree. When those people succeed, they abandon neutrality in order to maintain control of the new orthodoxy. If you don’t believe me, go ask the florists, bakers, and T-shirt makers who have run into the “neutrality” of those who advocate for same-sex “marriage” and homosexuality as a civil right.

… I would submit that the failure of many Christians to understand that history and their uninformed acquiescence to those who misrepresent that historical meaning have led to the suppression of religious liberty in the public square that today they lament. So, to me, just having the public debate over that history was worth the effort.

… But let me be even more clear about why the debate was important. Karl Marx once said, “A people without a heritage are easily persuaded.” Mr. Marx was merely reflecting what God knew was true about us. It is why He constantly urged His people to set up memorials; they needed to remember who they were.

Whether one was “right” or “wrong” before God in supporting or opposing the “Bible bill” I’ll leave for others to debate, but I am fully persuaded of this: there are many who would have us remove from our public life and the public square any recognition of our religious heritage. And perhaps they do so for the very reason given by Mr. Marx – it makes it easier for them to persuade us to do things that, in a different generation, knowing who we were, we would not do.

I’m not accusing anyone who opposed this bill as sharing such intentions, but I do hope that Christians, in their understandable desire not to demean the Bible by placing it alongside other reminders of who we are found in our official state poems and songs, do not unwittingly join them in their effort.

Comptroller Justin Wilson likens Memphis to a recovering alcoholic

State Comptroller Justin Wilson has penned an op-ed piece in the Commercial Appeal that compares governments to alcoholics – and pronounces Memphis on the road to recovery. An excerpt:

The individual knows he is drinking too much and the government recognizes that its finances are precarious, but hey, it’s not that serious, I’ll change tomorrow or next year. Besides, getting drunk makes me happy and providing services and benefits we don’t pay for today keeps the voters happy.

The downward spiral progresses until the individual or the government hits bottom. That happens with the realization that the pain caused by the substance abuse or the financial irresponsibility outweighs the pleasure derived from the behavior.

For the individual this might mean the loss of a job or jail. A government might lose control of its budget, or the state intercepts tax collections. What it takes to hit bottom varies widely. Each case is different. But in the end there’s an acknowledgment that life has become unmanageable.

At this point, the individual or government can make a decision to change. If this doesn’t happen, the spiral continues. The individual may lose his life. The government can no longer deliver essential services.

If the desire to change is real, and it often is not, the individual or government begins the long tricky road to recovery. Change ain’t easy. It will take what is commonly called tough love from those who care about the person affected. There will be setbacks. Perseverance and determination are required to recover.

I believe the city of Memphis is now in recovery.

…Most alcoholics still struggle with temptation, and there is always the danger of falling off the wagon. But if Memphis continues on its road to recovery, and continues to make good financial decisions, there is no reason to compare it to Detroit. Rather, Memphis will find its rightful place among the world’s most vibrant cities.

Sunday column: The killing of some bills has become an annual ritual

Scribblings from a notebook kept while wondering and wandering through Legislatorland, 2015:

Bundles of bills died last week as several House subcommittees shut down for the year and Senate committees waded through long agendas. In many cases, the bill killings involve something approaching an annual ritual of established legislative procedure for dealing with matters that involve lots of talk and media attention in out-of-session situations.

One category would be Democrat-sponsored bills that align, at least to some extent, with generic party position on an issue while opposed by the generic Republican Party position. Examples on last week’s legislation death list include establishment of a state minimum wage and wage equality between men and women.

There were actually two bills on a state minimum wage this year — one going to $10.10 an hour instantly, the other phasing that in level over a couple of years. House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada grumbled about wasting time when the second came up after the first was defeated on a party-line vote in the House Consumer and Human Resources Subcommittee. But the panel’s chair, Republican Rep. Susan Lynn of Mount Juliet, let sponsor Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, proceed with a debate while offering her own philosophical objection to the bill — basically that the federal minimum wage is already preventing some unskilled workers from getting any entry-level job and “my heart goes out” to such folks. Turner, naturally, disagreed, but thanked Lynn for the “compassion” shown in her commentary. Despite the civil discourse, that bill, too, was killed on a party-line vote.

The gender pay equity bill was discussed at some length and in generally civil fashion before being killed on a party-line vote by the same subcommittee. It’s just possible that such things indicate progress for the minority Democrats. In the past, similar bills often were simply ditched with virtually no discussion.

There was also some actual discussion last week before the party-line vote, in yet another subcommittee, killing Nashville Democratic Rep. Sherry Jones’ medical marijuana bill. Though things got a bit hostile on occasion, the GOP majority killed it in rather polite fashion — it was sent to “summer study” instead of voted down outright, as it was last session.

Some recurring bills are killed more or less regularly on a bipartisan basis, such as the annual crusade to repeal state law requiring motorcycle riders to wear a helmet. There have been many variations of the proposals over the years, with both Democrats and Republicans as sponsors, but the result has always been the same. This year, the crusade ended with a 4-4 tie vote — tie votes mean failure under legislative rules — in the Senate Transportation Committee. Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, the bill’s sponsor, neatly summarized the debate in a widely quoted comment: “I happen to think he’s stupid if he rides a motorcycle without a helmet, but that’s one of our sacred rights: to be stupid.”

It’s safe to predict that the effort will resume next year and it’s probable, though perhaps less safe to predict, that the same result will occur, stupid or otherwise.

In the first years of Republican control of Legislatorland, Democrats seemed somewhat bewildered about how to respond. Increasingly, they have adopted the same tactic used by GOP legislators during days of Democratic rule: Throwing out a floor amendment that puts the majority party members in an awkward position.

Last week’s best example was an amendment by House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh offered to a Haslam administration bill that reduces use of student test data in teacher evaluations. His amendment declared that teachers cannot be evaluated on the basis of testing students they did not teach, as they are now in some situations. It was killed, but a handful of Republicans strayed from the party line to vote with the Democrats. Yes, the GOP majority position makes some sense if you get into a long-winded explanation.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey recently declared that, in these days of the Republican supermajority, Democrats are “basically irrelevant to the process.” Maybe so, but sometimes they can make Republicans a little uneasy.