"The Tennessee General Assembly has adjourned for the year.
"What a relief to write that sentence."
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey posted those words on his Facebook page last week, and, whatever you may think of the state's second-in-command, it's hard to disagree that it is a relief indeed that the 2011 legislative session is over, weeks earlier than usual.
It is a relief indeed because, as Ramsey points out, the sooner the Legislature ends, the more money taxpayers save. (And hey, if you then blow those savings on raises for your own staff members, who's to complain?)
But the end of the 2011 Session of the 107th Tennessee General Assembly—shortly after the Rapture didn't occur on Saturday, May 21—should be a relief to the citizens of the state for more than just fiscal reasons. It is a relief because now, for a few months, Tennessee can stop being in the national media spotlight for all the wrong reasons. (At least until football season starts.)
Whatever you think of Ramsey, whatever you think of our new Republican overlords in the House and the Senate and the Governor's mansion, the fact of the matter is this: Never in recent memory has the Tennessee Legislature generated so much national press. And unless you think Sen. Stacey Campfield's appearance on Fox News was a win, none of it made our state look good.
Film critic and cultural icon Roger Ebert denounced Rep. Bill Dunn's bill that would open the doors to the teaching of intelligent design. George Takei—Lt. Sulu, for you Trekkies—lampooned Campfield's "Don't Say Gay" bill in a viral video that spawned a flood of follow-up clips. Campfield also, inevitably, made The Daily Show.
Then there was Campfield's push to allow guns on college campuses. Sen. Bill Ketron's overarching bill that would have banned Sharia law—and, by default, made it illegal to practice Islam. Ketron and Rep. Rick Womick's birther bill.
But behind all the drama, behind all the comedy, the Republicans took advantage of their new power, successfully passing a lot of pro-business, pro-life, anti-teacher, anti-civil rights legislation that will have real, lasting effects. Tort reform. Teaching "reform." Voter ID.
On his blog, Campfield compared the session to the GOP's 1994 Contract with America. In a press release, the Tennessee Tea Party called the session a "job well done." Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said that having the GOP in control had reaffirmed that "real leadership matters." The only conservative group seemingly unhappy with the Legislature is the gun lobby; the Tennessee Firearms Association called the Republicans "spineless." (Judges carrying guns is not enough?)
"Ramsey wins. He got most of what he wanted, to the detriment of the state," Democratic caucus leader Mike Turner of Nashville told the Memphis Flyer.
And so it is with relief, yes, but also some exasperation and not a little despair, that we present to you our yearbook of 2011's legislative session. We would like to believe that maybe this year's class will grow up a little on their summer vacations, see the world, be exposed to new and interesting people and ideas. But we're not counting on it. As Ramsey promised on his Facebook page, "This year was just an appetizer. Next year, and in the years to come, you will see the main course."
Freaks and Geeks
In 2010, the Tennessee Legislature passed education reform bills that set new standards for K-12 and college instruction, brought in new evaluations and merit pay programs for teachers, and established aggressive benchmarks for graduation rates. As a result, the state won $500 million in federal funding under the Obama administration's Race to the Top program.
In 2011, the Tennessee Legislature fought for a long time over whether to repeal a 33-year-old labor law, eliminated a cap on charter schools even though the state is nowhere near reaching the number allowed under the old limit, added a couple of years to teacher tenure requirements, and ... not a whole lot else. Its efforts were not hailed in Washington, D.C., or much of anywhere.
"The situation in 2011 is like 180 degrees from where we were in 2010," says Jerry Winters, director of government relations for the Tennessee Education Association, which spent most of the session on the defensive against an array of Republican proposals. It lost the biggest of those fights, against the dilution of the 1978 law that allowed collective bargaining for teachers (now reduced to something called "collaborative conferencing," in which teachers will have no say over how their evaluations are conducted or used).
TEA was less concerned about the extension of the term for earning tenure from three to five years, though Winters says he is skeptical that it will have much effect on the quality of classroom instruction. Claims that the collective bargaining changes will save school systems money seem similarly suspect: None of the states surrounding Tennessee has mandatory collective bargaining, and several of them have higher average teacher salaries. As Winters says, the measure seems mostly like political payback for the TEA's long history of backing Democratic legislators and legislation.
As for curriculum matters, there was Bill Dunn's back-door effort to undermine the teaching of evolution, climate change, and other subjects that conservative Republicans deem "controversial." That one didn't go far, but it did generate a handful of national news stories that made the inevitable Scopes Trial references. And of course there was Stacey Campfield's widely ridiculed and decried "Don't Say Gay" bill, which finally passed the Senate in a watered-down form. It will await House action next year.
Legislation on the higher-ed front was even harder to find. Last year, Gov. Phil Bredesen pushed through the Complete College Act, a "master plan" that restructured state funding formulas and set new benchmarks for college completion. This year, the highest-profile bill was Campfield's proposal to allow guns on school campuses. (It failed.) Such was the state of education discussion in 2011.
Stacey Watch: 2011
When Stacey Campfield was elected to the state Senate last fall, there was some glimmer of an idea that he might grow into the job. That maybe his gonzo days in the House were a bit of youthful experimentation, the legislative equivalent of six years at a party school. Well. That was a silly notion.
No, the Senate version of Stacey is, if anything, more brazenly provocative than before. He now has a bigger megaphone—there are only 33 senators, compared to 99 House members—and he is part of a solid ruling majority, which means his bills are less likely to sink without a trace in committee. (Even if a lot of his party leadership might prefer it.) So there he was again with all his old favorites, from "Don't Say Gay" to guns-on-campus, lapping up the attention they generated with national TV appearances, while simultaneously positioning himself as a victim of an unfriendly media. He told one News Sentinel reporter that he would take questions only in writing and would post the answers on his blog. He also, oddly, complained about being "misquoted" in a satirical column by News Sentinel humorist Scott McNutt. The level of exposure via cable news, The Daily Show, and assorted viral videos was such that many Knoxvillians heard from friends and relatives elsewhere asking, "What's the deal with this Stacey Campfield guy?" If only we had an answer.
The Stacey drama continued even after the session ended, with the flap over who exactly had inserted (or reinserted, or undeleted) a section of the budget voiding Stacey's efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. What does it say about you when your own party is sneaking around behind your back, trying to clean up your messes?
Really, it's hard to come up with much new to say about Stacey. He is who he is, he shows every intention of staying that way, and he has been elected over and over. With the departure of Jamie Woodson, he is now the county's most senior senator—arguably our most powerful representative in Nashville. Look in the mirror, Knoxville: That's Stacey's face you see grinning back.
Jobs. That's what the last election was about. Everyone said so. Jobs jobs jobs. And if there's one thing Republicans know about, according to them, it's jobs: how to attract them; how to retain them; how to make job-creating job-retaining job people feel so loved and respected that they will just keep right on making jobs that will never, ever go away.
So how's that working out? Well, so heartened was the job market by the job-creating potential of the job-focused Legislature that the state's unemployment rate actually rose during the session, from 9.4 percent in December to 9.6 percent in April. The national rate fell by 4/10ths of a point during the same period, to 9 percent. As blogger R. Neal noted on KnoxViews, even as Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey was congratulating himself and his colleagues for their legislative accomplishments, a large employer in Ramsey's own district was pulling up stakes. Touchstone Wireless is relocating from Bristol to Texas, laying off 382 full-time workers in Tennessee.
Really, the only jobs-related achievements anyone in the Legislature is even claiming are of the indirect sort, mostly revolving around loosening restrictions and making life easier for business owners—although not all business owners. Look at the most prominent efforts: "tort reform," shorthand for limiting the amount any corporation has to pay in punitive damages no matter how badly they screw their customers; the Equal Access to Interstate Commerce Act, which makes it illegal for cities or counties to protect gays and lesbians from employer discrimination (and repeals an existing Nashville ordinance); and the move, led by Haslam's office, to block an attempt to make Amazon collect the same sales taxes that every other Tennessee business has to charge its customers. What kind of businesses are we trying to attract, exactly? Homophobic tax dodgers likely to lose wrongful death suits?
The Legislature did belatedly approve a measure to extend unemployment benefits for 28,000 out-of-work Tennesseans. It's a good deal for the state, leveraging about $3 million in state and local funding for more than $50 million in federal funding. But a lot of Republicans resisted, on the grounds that people who can't find jobs in the worst recession in 80 years are, apparently, a bunch of slackers. "I would contend the answer to that is it's up to individuals to help their family and their friends and neighbors who don't have a job," said Rep. Glen Casada, the former House Republican Caucus chairman. Even Gov. Bill Haslam was reportedly lukewarm on the idea at first, before coming around and lobbying the Legislature to approve the measure.
Based on the track record of this General Assembly, there's a pretty good chance the next election will be about jobs, too.
The Rainbow Menace
There are signs that in many parts of the United States, the potency of rhetorical gay-bashing as an effective political rallying tool is starting to wane. Gay marriage is making slow, if unsteady, progress, with a Gallup poll last month showing 53 percent of Americans now support the idea. But you sure wouldn't know it from the Tennessee Legislature.
Two of the highest-profile bills to come out of this General Assembly took explicit aim at equal rights for and general decency toward gays and lesbians. There was, of course, Stacey Campfield's "Don't Say Gay" bill, restricting teachers in grades K-8 from any mention of homosexuality. (As one video response from a gay rights group noted, this could keep a middle-school teacher from so much as discussing the latest episode of Glee with her students.) It ultimately passed the Senate, albeit in a watered-down version that limits instruction to "age-appropriate natural human reproduction science." (We're not sure if Campfield realizes that an awful lot of gays and lesbians do actually reproduce. We would offer to introduce him to some of their children, except that we're not sure what the appropriate age is for exposure to Stacey Campfield.)
Then there was Rep. Glen Casada's HB 600, aimed at repealing a recent Metro Nashville ordinance protecting gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination and making sure no other city or county could pass one either. In signing the bill, Gov. Bill Haslam offered the rationalization that Nashville's law goes further than federal protections. (Of course, respect for federal law is a relative thing. This is the same governor who two months earlier signed another bill refusing to implement the federal health-care reform act.) Jonathan Cole, chairman of the board of the LGBT advocacy group Tennessee Equality Project, says national publicity about the law is already having adverse effects on companies doing business in Tennessee. That's why major employers like Alcoa, FedEx, and UnitedHealthcare made a last-minute push against the bill, and the state Chamber of Commerce withdrew its support—all "too little, too late," in Cole's view.
All the legislative gay-bashing may play well in certain districts, but Cole thinks it puts the state at a national economic disadvantage. "Tennessee does run the risk of not being able to retain and attract talented and creative workers and professionals," he says. "There may be businesses that may be looking to Tennessee that are going to say, ‘We have a lot of employees that we're not going to be able to bring with us because they won't want to move there.'"
Heading into the session in January, it was hard not to think that this was going to be a year of debate about immigration. Sen. Bill Ketron had been making the press rounds for a month prior talking about his Arizona-style immigration bill; immigrants rights groups were already on the defensive.
And in the first few weeks of the session, a slew of anti-immigrant (and just plain racist) bills were indeed introduced: bills to prevent non-citizens from attending state universities, bills to prevent driver's license exams from being issued in any language other than English, bills to prevent children born in Tennessee from becoming citizens if their parents were not.
But something happened over the course of the session, and immigration issues got pushed to the back burner. We don't know if all the valentines the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition sent Sen. Stacey Campfield swayed his heart, or if Ketron got so overwhelmed trying to keep up with all 200 of his bills that he forgot about some others, but the only major immigration legislation to pass this session was the "E-Verify" bill, HB 1378, which requires employers with over five employees to use the federal system to verify that those employees are in the country legally.
Some of the proposed legislation is dead in the water, but most of it is still out there. TIRRC's Remziya Suleyman says she suspects most of the legislation will return next year, an election year, in which scary Hispanic boogie monsters might drive voters to the polls. We suspect even legal immigrants might want to study abroad next spring semester.