An Open Letter to Rep. Jimmy Duncan

Congressman Duncan,

I grew up in Jefferson City; a friend in high-school band was Freddy Duncan, a drummer, who I believe is a relative of yours. We had very little, as we were in the 94th county in education support out of 96 counties in Tennessee. Even more appalling, I believe Tennessee was somewhere around 48th in the nation in educational spending. There's not much further to the splinters of the barrel's bottom.

My father and mother taught at Carson-Newman College for decades, mostly training musicians to serve in churches and schools. Growing up in the 1960s, I was aware of the symphony orchestra, but after traveling a little bit, realized at that time Knoxville didn't have a museum or any of the artistic displays that other cities had; cities of the same size as Knoxville, but built out of very different components. These components included a higher percentage of educated people, public art, great public transportation, many museums and shops, and a synergistic camaraderie of the people and their city. That is not to say Knoxville didn't have a bit of these, but maybe only two bits.

When I played in the band with Freddy, the county actually supported the band. Now my son plays trumpet at South-Doyle High and there's little support at all except paying the teacher, as far as I know. All of the money comes from parents and band-boosters. Each parent has to pay hundreds of dollars so their child can play in the band. Freddy and I would have not stood a chance to play in today's school bands.

Our county and country isn't just made up of football and hot dogs; it's made of a vast melting pot of Americans from myriad backgrounds, some of whom love football and hot dogs. We are the greatest country in the world but we are headed downhill. Each pundit has a theory of the slope's angle and causality.

I prayed that you would be strong enough to resist the extreme ranges of the Republican Party and guide your fellow committee members, and chairman, to vote differently for HR.7, as you previously did by voting against the Iraq War so long ago, for which I still brag on you as the only person with sense enough to stand up for principle.

Most recently, I narrated a documentary on John Sevier which will be aired nationally on PBS later this year. It was filmed at Marble Springs, Sevier's home, a prime example of historical preservation. I begged you to not remove support for the arts and historic preservation contained within HR.7, as you are on the committee that is responsible for changes to this bill.

Knoxville has had many public art sculptures installed around the city, and now when you walk on Gay Street or many other areas around town, it feels as if you were in a bigger, smarter city than ever before. Many people have invested considerable personal funds in buildings, renovations, art, and more, including Jim Clayton. As your constituent, I urged you to reject efforts to weaken the dedicated funding that has been in place since 1992 for the Transportation Enhancement program, which serves our district as well as the entire U.S.A. It is through this "TE" section of the Transportation bill that some public art is supported, but that's hardly the end of it.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was set on Feb. 2 to consider legislation that threatened dedicated support for public art and museum projects by limiting the flexibility of states to determine how best to use federal dollars to serve their communities.

These transportation projects often include significant design components—ranging from public art to historic preservation, even safe routes to schools. Integrating arts and artists into the American landscape both increases access to our nation's talents and brings added economic and cultural value to every American's quality of life. And who would vote against continued advancement of safe paths to schools? Indeed. Who?

I urged you to support the eligibility of transportation museums and public-art programs, just two of the activities that can receive funds under the TE program.

However, in the committee, the minimum 10 percent to fund these Transportation-Enhancement programs was set aside. Even a fellow Republican proposed an amendment that would have preserved this tiny appropriation that benefits all citizens. I know: All those tiny appropriations add up. So do people when they get upset.

The committee rejected an amendment by Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) that would have preserved an annual set-aside for transportation enhancements (at the FY 2009 level) and preserved the eligibility of abandoned railways to bike paths, scenic preservation, and safe routes to schools as eligible uses of TE funds. The amendment failed narrowly by a vote of 27-29.

How did you vote, sir? It's in the public record: Congressman Duncan, and the subcommittee Chairman John Mica, voted against this amendment, which failed 27-29.  If both had voted for it, then it would have passed 29-27. As I understand it, this transportation-enhancement area offers other benefits to metropolitan areas, including Safe Routes to Schools, the Safety Incentive Grants for the use of Seat Belts, the National Scenic Byways Program (including Blue Ridge, Natchez Trace, Cherohala, East Tennessee Crossing). This is a failure of leadership; this is definitely not supporting our communities.

I'm tired of my Tennessee Republicans voting together in a single bloc like a group of twigs bound together to be stronger (as in the Latin: fascis). This includes both Tennessee senators and our Tennessee congressmen, and even more sadly, those who serve on committees. It seems that the goal is simply to be a contrarian, to block anything proposed, even if it originated with Republican ideas (such as the Affordable Care Act).  I'm sure a carefully worded reply to my complaint can be generated, but in my book, if you vote against Safe Routes to Schools, that's enough to tell me the measure of a man.

Governing is difficult and complex, but piece by piece, chip by chip, the America that has been built by Republicans and Democrats is being dissolved, and directly due to a lack of will and determination to protect our very heritage embodied in some of our most basic resources. This letter covers one tiny detail in one bill with an immense number of amendments, and it will affect our community. The devil is indeed in the details.

Seva David Ball