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VOL. 40 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 8, 2016

Tennessee lawmakers lure us in with momentary sanity, and then ...

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Just when it appears the Tennessee Senate is made up of sensible people – as evidenced by the killing of de-annexation legislation – the body is changing course with a Bible-thumping measure.

Despite opposition from the attorney general, governor and lieutenant governor, the Senate is on the verge of making the Holy Bible the state book, sending a bill to Gov. Bill Haslam’s office as 19 members approved it.

If it’s signed into law, God’s Word could rest right beside the Barrett .50-caliber, which became the official state rifle in this session of the General Assembly. After all, God, guns and guts made America great.

Too bad some legislators show the most backbone when beating up on gay people or trying to tell Tennesseans which restroom they can use.

In a remarkable turnaround, though, the Senate State and Local Government Committee recently sent a municipal de-annexation bill to a summer study committee, meaning it is dead for the year but could resurface in 2017 when it would have to start from scratch, which is probably what it needs to do.

The House previously passed a much different version.

During Senate committee testimony, victims of alleged “egregious” annexation pleaded with senators to give them freedom from forced city life, some claiming they got nothing from living inside the city limits except a garbage can or a handful of signs – and, of course, a big tax bill.

Residents from Chattanooga and Memphis contended they were brought into the city limits mainly to boost city revenues.

“Please do us right by the will of the people,” Hamilton County Commissioner Sabrena Turner-Smedley told the panel.

Their argument is that until the Legislature adopted a new law in 2014 giving people a vote on annexation, residents could be brought into city limits without a voice. They couldn’t go to city council members who didn’t represent them yet, and they couldn’t seek help from county commissioners who had no say on annexation votes.

Annexation moves swept across Tennessee after previous legislation set up a method for local governments to draw urban growth boundaries and then to annex areas as part of an orderly expansion plan. Residents in many areas balked, though, filing lawsuits that spent years in the courts.

The aggrieved residents make a strong point as victims of taxation without representation.

Sen. Mark Green of Clarksville went as far as to compare these examples of forced annexation to Communist Russia invading Poland.

But as the old saw goes, two wrongs don’t make a right. And comparing Tennessee cities to the Soviet Union, and ostensibly city mayors to Josef Stalin, well, that’s a little harsh.

The main problem with this session’s bill, besides creating the potential for financial instability for cities such as Memphis, was this: It was confusing and unworkable.

For instance, if residents in annexed areas were to vote to secede from their city, they would still have to pay their share of the debt the city incurred during their time as city residents. Figuring out just how much they might owe could be difficult – a possible task for the state Comptroller’s Office or a boon for financial consultants.

Sen. Jack Johnson, a Franklin Republican who wound up voting to send the bill to the Senate floor, pointed out many annexations involve property where nothing but a pasture previously existed. Under the bill senators were considering, Johnson explained, a 200-home neighborhood could be developed and, after a few years, people could vote to de-annex.

The bill also would have allowed cities to keep commercial and industrial properties inside their limits but allow residential properties to leave, creating a situation in which they would provide fire and police protection to businesses but not to residents.

Even more nonsensical, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bo Watson of Hixson, pointed out the beauty of the bill was that people who didn’t want out of a de-annexing area could call city hall the day after the vote and tell municipal leaders they wanted to stay in.

Imagine that scenario in the case of 911 calls. Dispatchers and emergency responders could be put in the quandary of asking people if they live in the new part of the old city limits or the old part of new old city limits. Good grief.

This measure, which would have affected only a handful of cities in the House version but the entire state under the Senate version, clearly needs more study – and a long, hot summer at that.

Just a few days after the Senate committee stiffed the de-annexation bill, the full Senate decided to make the Holy Bible Tennessee’s official state book, taking up a resolution that passed the House in 2015 but failed in the Upper Chamber.

Even with the Attorney General Herb Slatery warning legislators such a measure raises constitutional questions, Sen. Steve Southerland, a Morristown Republican, contends it should be Tennessee’s official book because of the historical significance it holds for the state.

Never mind the fact state leaders such as Gov. Bill Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey believe the Bible belongs anywhere but in the Tennessee Blue Book beside the state animal and the state flower. Senate Speaker Mark Norris even calls this move sacrilege.

“I understand it’s hard to vote against the Bible,” says Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro, of Nashville, during floor debate. But he points out, while state lawmakers may put their hand on the Bible while taking the oath of office, they swear to uphold the constitutions of Tennessee and the United States.

His argument did little to sway folks such as Republican Sen. Kerry Roberts, of Springfield, who argued that since George Washington and some of the founders went to church during his inauguration, then Tennessee should make the Bible its state book.

Southerland appeared ready to break into tears as he defended his bill, saying, “Should we recognize something all we can, or should be not recognize it at all.”

Ah, but as the session begins to draw to a close in late April and Friday’s election qualifying deadline approached, legislators might need a little ammunition to take back home to the voters to demonstrate just how spiritual they are when they climb up on Capitol Hill.

Potty problems

In a reversal of good news for students with sexual uncertainty, a House Education committee recently killed the so-called “bathroom bill,” but another panel may dredge it back up.

The legislation, which would require students to use restrooms and locker rooms based on their birth gender, faces opposition from Haslam, who is concerned about losing millions of dollars in federal education funds if the state is discriminates against students.

Initially, the committee found it unnecessary to create a problem where none exists. But one of its members asked to revive the bill.

Here’s the question they must answer: Why do any of our legislators – Rep. Susan Lynn of Mt. Juliet sponsored the bill – feel the need to pass a law, to put it into Tennessee Code Annotated, telling young people where they can go pass water? Is that what our General Assembly has become? After all, sometimes when nature calls, you’ve gotta go wherever you are no matter what sex you are.

Sending a message

If Nashville philanthropist Martha Ingram and House Speaker Beth Harwell squared off in a fight, who would win? Early on, it looks as if Harwell is dodging punches, though it’s hard to say Ingram is trying to knock her out.

Ingram, who declined to be interviewed by The Ledger, recently joined a group of Tennesseans in backing Citizens for Insure Tennessee with a billboard campaign essentially calling out Harwell and urging her to bring the governor’s 2015 insurance proposal to a House floor vote. It stalled in the Senate last year and never received House debate until two related measures failed to gain traction in House committees this year.

When the citizens group announced its billboard messaging in March, Ingram, one of the state’s wealthiest women, said she was “very disappointed” in the Legislature’s failure to support Haslam’s plan to “bring relief to the working poor.”

The governor’s plan calls for using Affordable Care Act funds paid through Tennessee taxes to pay for market-based insurance for some 280,000 people caught in a coverage gap.

“To turn their backs on these federal dollars that are already collected from Tennesseans, almost $2 billion per year, to have their backs turned on this, these legislators who already have their own insurance are really not fulfilling their responsibilities to other Tennesseans,” Ingram says in a conference call with reporters.

“That’s why they were hired. That’s why they were elected – to help look after those who could not look after themselves. And I honestly don’t really know how they sleep at night. Now Speaker Beth Harwell could lead the way and I think that she has the will to lead the way with our encouragement.”

It’s hard to say where Harwell stands, since she hasn’t supported or opposed Insure Tennessee. As a result, Democrat Sydney Rogers is prepared to run against her in November, according to reports.

Asked if she’s concerned about Ingram and Citizens for Insure Tennessee putting pressure on her, Harwell says she always welcomes opinions from Tennesseans but contends Gov. Haslam decided early this year not to pursue Insure Tennessee.

“As Speaker, I cannot unilaterally bring it to a vote. All bills go through the committee process, and this has failed to receive the support needed to advance,” Harwell says in a statement.

“At the end of session last year, I began to have discussions with members of the House and the (Haslam) administration on creative elements that could garner widespread support. These elements reflect not only a desire to assist, but also to enhance, the effectiveness of our current TennCare program. I’m confident we will reach a solution and have an announcement by mid-April.”

If Harwell were to propose a TennCare expansion to catch those in the coverage gap, she could be seen as responding to the group’s demands. But whether it could stand up in a committee during an election year is unpredictable.

Mary Falls, co-founder of Citizens for Insure Tennessee, says the group isn’t calling for Harwell to say, “Hey, we’re gonna have a full vote.”

“It means Beth Harwell says this is good legislation. She gets off the fence and gets behind it and engages on it, because the minute she does that, the representatives who are for it will stick their necks out and say so,” Falls says.

Ingram is among a number of business people who played host to Insure Tennessee education forums in April 2015, and they point out the initiative has bipartisan support across Tennessee, including the music, hospitality and health-care industries.

They also note a sixth Tennessee hospital, McNairy Regional, is set to close in May, and in doing so, cites the Legislature’s failure to pass Insure Tennessee and to deal with uncompensated care.

Hospital closings cause a domino effect on surrounding health-care facilities, which must take up the slack for indigent and uncompensated care, putting a greater strain on local governments and hindering economic recruiting, they point out.

Several key legislators say they want to wait and see the outcome of the presidential election this fall before taking action on Insure Tennessee or any type of Medicaid expansion.

If Hillary Clinton wins, Obamacare will survive. But if Donald Trump or Ted Cruz win, God knows what will happen.

Then again, by that time we could have the Holy Bible on display as the official state book. And if they bothered to read it, at least the New Testament, they might find the answers.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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