To the Editor:
Again this year, Tennessee Republicans are deluding themselves, or more likely trying to delude the rest of us, that they are attending to the people’s business in the recently opened legislative session rather than just fooling around. The House of Representatives’ column last week, written or at least graced with a photograph of our own Mary Littleton, was topped by a headline hailing the kickoff of a “jobs-focused legislative session,” but in the first two-plus weeks it has been anything but that. About the only non-frivolous bill that has advanced in anything like an orderly manner has been last year’s wine-in-supermarkets proposal, addressing an issue that is of measurable significance to almost no one.
It has already been predicted (by Moody’s Analytics) that Tennessee may have one of the lowest job creation rates in the Nation in 2014, likely ranking 44th overall and last in the Southeast region. With a 71-to-27 majority in the House and a 26-7 advantage in the Senate, Republicans could have their way on job creation—or on setting a minimum wage for Tennessee. But instead, as in previous years, they have been distracted by shiny baubles like guns-in-trunks, guns-in-parks, etc., or by the opportunity they think they should have to micro-manage (but not properly fund) the public school system.
On economic issues, middle and low-income Tennesseans are caught between the short attention span of their Republican legislators and governor, on the one hand, and the let-them-eat-cake attitude of Republicans in Congress on the other. The Republican/Tea Party contingent in Washington (and yes, a few Democrats) were determined to slash funding for the food stamp program at a time of increasing inequality and widespread hunger, and they have dragged their feet on extending emergency unemployment benefits for some 1.6 million recipients (79,000 in Tennessee) that expired on December 28. Even the Federal home-energy assistance program has been cut by 35% since 2010.
Yet Republicans continue to hold huge majorities in the Tennessee legislature, a comfortable margin in the U.S. House, and enough seats to stifle most substantive proposals in the U.S. Senate. It seems that some voters must be captivated by the legislative side-shows and have lost track of where their true interests lie. In Tennessee, the fun house opened early this year as Republican legislators almost immediately resumed their playing of the gun card, with bills to remove all local restrictions on taking handguns into public parks, eliminate any city or county authority over firearms and ammunition, and even prohibit enforcement of Federal gun laws anywhere in the State (the last from Senator Mae Beavers, of course). Sentiment also seems to be building for a law saying businesses cannot keep their employees from bringing guns to work, if not a total abandonment of firearm regulation.
Some of these measures are unlikely to be accepted, though it would be foolhardy to bet against them all, but it is certain that they and their ilk will waste huge chunks of time that might be spent addressing the real needs and interests of Tennessee citizens. And it is worth remembering that all this gun love may be enacted into law in the state which already has the highest rate of violent crime in the country (FBI 2012 statistics).
Another sure attention-getter with endless possibilities for diversion is uninformed intervention into the details of public school operations, about which the average legislator knows little beyond what he or she has heard from a lobbyist or someone with a score to settle. Thus the educational issues that have come to the fore in this year’s session include vouchers for private schools; “authorizers” to approve establishment of charter schools whether a school district wants them or not; resistance to the “common core” curriculum standards that have been adopted by almost every state; and ensuring that proposed textbooks are free from “bias” and reflective of Tennessee “values” (as determined by whom is not made clear).
While innovations like vouchers and charter schools undoubtedly have their place, they are not panaceas, are not for everyone, and they tend to result in racial and socioeconomic segregation and to serve the ends and desires of affluent white families more than any others. They are also based on the school district’s money “following the child,” which can leave the district holding the bag for savings that do not occur, thus degrading the experience of those more needy students (or those with less savvy parents) who remain in the regular schools. And the vision of Republican legislators’ rewriting curricula and textbooks to reflect their particular values, especially the history textbooks, is enough to make one fear for the broadmindedness and civility of future generations.
So instead of micro-managing the schools, many factors suggest the legislature and the governor could more profitably focus their attention on providing the resources necessary for a decent system of public education. Rather than bashing teachers indiscriminately and destroying their unions, the State should do something about the fact that our teachers are among the lowest-paid in the Southeast (and therefore the Nation). Governor Haslam has promised to upgrade salaries to nationally respectable levels, but has never indicated how such an increase would be paid for. Even a starting pay level of $40,000 seems unattainable across the board.
Similarly, there is wide agreement that many children in Tennessee, particularly those in difficult circumstances, would benefit from the opportunity to attend pre-kindergarten classes before age 5, in order to be more prepared for elementary school and have a better chance of keeping up with their peers. Yet pre-K education is still treated as an exotic experiment by the governor and the legislature and is funded as such, despite a documented need and demand for more. (Metro Nashville, for example, has a pre-school waiting list of 1,000.) That is unlikely to change this year, in large part because Republicans are unwilling to put up the 10% match that would bring in $64.3 million in Federal funds and put some 8,000 more children in pre-kindergarten classes. It is on this sort of issue that the legislature is competent to act, but it shows no inclination to do so.
As with the rejected pre-kindergarten funding, of course, Tennessee also continues to refuse literally billions of dollars on offer from the Federal government for expansion of the TennCare/Medicaid program to accommodate a broader category of individuals with incomes slightly higher than those in the current program. To serve what might be 300,000 additional beneficiaries, the State would receive 100% Federal reimbursement for the first three years and no less than 90% after that. In fear of the legislature’s reaction, Governor Haslam has declined to expand the program—but he has disingenuously claimed that he is working on a plan for equivalent expansion that the State and the Federal government could live with. His recent statements, however, have made it plain that no such plan exists, or if it does, it has not been submitted to anyone.
Opponents of the plan continue to argue that the TennCare expansion would be a “job-killer,” a term that is now applied to anything the Republicans do not approve of, when in actuality it has been estimated that some 20,000 new jobs would be created in order to provide services and support to the additional healthcare consumers. As it is, without the expansion it is likely that at least that many jobs will be lost, as large hospitals downsize and small or rural facilities go out of business for lack of funds to pay for the care that could have been provided. This inexcusably cruel and stupid position taken by the State, to the detriment of all its citizens, is just the kind of issue the legislature ought to address.
Instead, so far we have another facially unconstitutional bill submitted by Senator Beavers that would effectively prohibit operation of the Federal health insurance exchange in Tennessee, and might actually penalize someone, even though eligible, from attempting to purchase a policy via that route. Probably this bill will not be taken seriously, though you never can tell, but at the same time, the Department of Human Services is now requiring applicants for the existing TennCare program to apply online through the very same Federal insurance website. Whether this newly mandated process will work in any event is very much an open question, as is whether anyone cares.
Finally, the legislature ought to address, but probably will not, the implosion of one of the largest State departments—Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities—which has recently been severely criticized by the State Comptroller, the Federal court-created Quality Review Panel, and a four-part expose in The Tennessean newspaper. (Last week, the legislature and the governor were hit with another highly critical report from the State Comptroller, regarding the Department of Children’s Services.) Among the many shortcomings noted at DIDD were a failure to provide services for 7,100 persons with mental retardation who have been on the agency’s waiting list for up to 20 years; lack of any services at all to another group of individuals with similar disabilities—no one even knows the number—for whom the Department is responsible; and unauthorized reversal of certain findings of neglect in the cases of persons who died while in the care of State-funded community homes. The primary explanation offered by DIDD for most of the problems identified was lack of funds; but shortly after these findings began to emerge, the governor held his regular annual budget meeting with the agency and calmly requested an additional 5% budget cut for the upcoming fiscal year.
Here again, the legislature’s proper oversight and funding role ought to be apparent, but again it seems unlikely that anything much will be done. It really defies logic to think you can maintain a given level of State spending and even eliminate sources of additional revenue (e.g., taxes on gifts, inheritances, and dividends and interest) when the population is growing (slowly), the demand for services is increasing, and available funding is demonstrably inadequate to meet or even approach the current level of need.
As it happens, Representative Littleton’s, or someone’s, column on the opening of the legislative session offers an opening into the feckless behavior of our Republican-dominated State government. “With regard to the state budget, officials say revenues have come in below expectations, meaning there will have to be some trimming to how much the state can spend this year.” But not to worry: “ … Republicans have committed themselves to once again crafting a fiscally responsible, balanced budget that does not raise taxes.” What fun! It is all so easy, and the voters don’t complain (that we can hear), because we let them take their guns almost everywhere and promise not to tax them on the money they don’t have. And they needn’t worry about filling out those endless forms for health insurance, either, because we won’t let them.
A more introspective participant might have added, in the words of Garry Wills in The New York Review of Books, “On issue after issue—reasonable gun control, women’s rights to contraceptives or elective abortion, marriage equality, easier voter access—a majority of Americans disagree with Republicans, who cannot admit this without losing their fanatical core. … They cannot [adopt] any gun restrictions without bringing down the wrath of the NRA. … They cannot loosen their voting restrictions or votes on welfare without alienating their Confederate avengers. Yet in all of this they are protected by their untouchable backers, the rich who can never, never ever pay more taxes.”
And that’s the way it is, as Walter Cronkite used to say—until enough people decide to change it.
MICHAEL S. LOTTMAN