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VOL. 45 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 12, 2021

Remember when government intrusion was a bad thing?

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Tennessee legislators have shown they don’t need a monthslong session to commit mayhem. When they put their hive mind to it, they can muck things up in just three days.

Three days and change, actually, since the recent special session ran from Wednesday into the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro’s take on the wham-bam, thank-you-ma’am pace: “This is a reckless way to legislate.”

Rep. Jason Zachary saw things differently. “We just passed the COVID protection bill in the House and Senate,” he declared at the conclusion. “Huge win for the people of Tennessee.”

Calling the result a “COVID protection bill” is like calling open-carry a gun control measure. It is the precise opposite: a COVID unprotection bill.

The past two regular sessions have included a raft of efforts to hamstring vaccine, mask and other public-safety moves by local governments, schools and businesses. Many legislators bristled at any notion of public responsibility, spouting platitudes about personal liberty and various medical canards to support their reckless positions.

The special – “extraordinary,” in legislative speak – session allowed them to turn their attention to the issue pretty much full time. They were up, which is to say down, to the task.

The initial 80-plus bills filed were generously sprinkled with words like “prohibits” or “creates the offense of,” making clear the legislative intent to block – in some instances, criminalize – anything that hinted at good sense.

In the end, lawmakers produced a package of constraints designed to warm the hearts – and attract the votes – of the Don’t-Tread-on-Me crowd.

Business groups saw it all as meddling.

“We believe that any legislation of this kind is unnecessary government intrusion into the operation of our businesses,” they wrote in a letter to officials.

Twenty-four members of Nashville’s Metro Council posted a letter to Mayor John Cooper calling the new laws “unprecedented and dangerous” and asking for a report from the legal department on just how much Metro’s authority might be preempted by the state.

“We urge you to develop a comprehensive plan in response, including planning for any necessary legal action,” the letter concluded.

Though much of the time and hot air from the session was devoted to blocking COVID safeguards, two other measures that passed should not go without comment.

One allows for the appointment of a district attorney pro tem if the incumbent “peremptorily and categorically refuses to prosecute all instances of a criminal offense without regard to facts or circumstances.” The other provides that school board elections be made partisan.

The first is a not-even-thinly veiled slap at the Davidson County district attorney, Glenn Funk. Funk has said his office will not prosecute teachers or officials for requiring masks, will not enforce the law requiring businesses to post signs if they allow either sex to use a public restroom and will not prosecute people for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

Nothing peeves legislators more than when local officials thumb their noses at state-level silliness, which is precisely what Funk was and is doing. It will be interesting to see how the new law plays out.

Likewise for the school board mandate. Among the stated reasons for the change is that it would increase “transparency.” If supporters were truly interested in transparency, they’d say what they really mean: “We don’t want any stealth Democrats getting elected.”

I would call the notion that nonpartisan school board elections keep politics out of local school operations a polite fiction, but there’s nothing polite about some school board dealings these days. Witness the uproar in Williamson County over sensible COVID precautions.

In addition to all their other hubbub, lawmakers also managed to crank out the usual legislative huzzahs for people who have either died, lived long and prospered, retired, achieved success in school sporting endeavors, been honored by some other group for some reason, or operated a business to longtime commercial profit and public esteem.

Sometimes I wish that’s all they did.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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