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VOL. 41 | NO. 11 | Friday, March 17, 2017

Singing along with tone-deaf legislators

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Often dull, but never boring. They might even make you break out into song. Halfway through the 2017 session, the General Assembly could be accused of lacking sharpness or sensibility, but what it lacks in luster it makes up for with lots of political song and dance.

So far, we’ve had one legislator run out of office, two legislators chased out of a meeting room, the governor sent scurrying for votes and enough maneuvering on the fuel-tax bill to leave seasoned onlookers scratching their heads.

Disgraced former Rep. Jeremy Durham is gone, now the subject of state and federal probe, but not forgotten. And while he might be the king of self-inflicted pain, this one was more a story of Johnny Rotten (Sex Pistols) as lawmakers shifted their attention to now-former Rep. Mark Lovell of Shelby County, who apparently followed in Durham’s footsteps with inappropriate activity toward women, based on an HR investigation.

Lovell resigned abruptly less than two weeks into the session, leaving House leaders scrambling to figure out what to do and how their new rules applied to sexual harassment.

The first-term rep was a much easier target than never-say-die Durham, and Lovell also opted to cut his losses – as well as Republican Party headaches – by submitting a letter of resignation on a Tuesday morning after being told he needed to leave if allegations were true.

He got the heck out of Dodge, since, clearly, it is “better to burn out than it is to rust.”

The quick dismissal of Lovell enabled ruling Republicans to claim victory with the new rules despite a good deal of handwringing by Democrats that another legislator remains in office despite firing a staff member who complained about Durham’s flirtations.

Short of a district attorney filing charges, though, and Neil Young’s claim that “rock and roll can never die,” this appears to be on life support, though as usual “there’s more to the picture than meets the eye.”

More sex issues

This could be political irony at its best.

Rep. Mark Pody and Sen. Mae Beavers were prepared to negotiate with LGBT advocates a few weeks ago in a press conference to discuss the “bathroom bill” restricting toilet use to a person’s sex at birth, in addition to the “Defense of Natural Marriage Act.”

But when protesters chased them out of the room, following them to legislative offices shouting slogans, their hearts hardened.

Not only were talks shut down, Beavers’ office, as well, as she closed shop one day when folks piled in to try to voice their complaints. Beavers, a Mt. Juliet Republican, told THP officers as she boarded an elevator with staff at the Legislative Plaza, “I’m going home until you all can keep them out of my office.”

Protesters promised to come back, but things have been fairly quiet at Beavers’ office the last two to three weeks.

The passive atmosphere probably has little to do with the security guards she brought in to follow her all over the place. Instead, it may have more to do with President Donald Trump, and his administration’s guidance order, which reversed an Obama Administration directive requiring schools to make allowances for students to use restrooms based on their sexual identity.

As a result, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally pointed out the Pody-Beavers bill on transgender use or restrooms was unneeded. And Education Commissioner Candice McQueen sent a letter to school systems notifying them of the Trump guidance showing preference for states and local districts to make decisions based on their interpretations of federal rules.

McQueen further noted “we believe decisions on these types of issues should continue to be made at the local level on a case-by-case basis considering the unique needs of all students and how to ensure their safety and protection.”

Yet another log on this funeral pyre came in the form of a Supreme Court decision to remand a transgender student’s case to the appeals court level, based on the Trump reversal.

Of course, Pody still says he believes boys should use boys bathrooms and girls should use girls bathrooms at schools across Tennessee. Most people agree. But at the same time, he says he wants to amend his legislation, he also says school systems should be allowed to handle “unique situations.” He doesn’t say exactly what those are, just unique situations “in general.”

With that, during a packed subcommittee meeting room, Pody took his bill off notice, saying things are changing so quickly he needs more time to amend the measure. Then, he walked out the back door.

But the question remains: What is there to change?

The Trump Administration has spoken, and so has the state Department of Education in regard to the potty patrol, one of those issues that causes Tennesseans from Memphis to Mountain City to wake up in a cold sweat singing, “Lo, Lo, Lo, Lola. …. When she squeezed me tight she nearly broke my spine.”

The long, winding road

Anyone who’s ever tried to sing this Beatles classic at a karaoke bar probably needed at least a six-pack under their belt and at least a 12-pack to think they sounded good. It ain’t “Love Me Do.”

The Legislature’s reaction to Gov. Bill Haslam’s IMPROVE Act is probably leaving him feeling: “Many times I’ve been alone and many times I’ve cried.”

Try as he might to make lawmakers understand the state should raise transportation money by increasing gas and diesel taxes, they don’t want to hear it.

Years in the making, the governor’s plan, though it incorporates cuts in business taxes, the Hall tax and the grocery tax (a small one), has been in trouble almost since the day he unveiled it. He might still be short of votes.

As a result, House members had to strip the governor’s tax plan out of the bill and install a competing funding measure using sales taxes just to move it out of a transportation subcommittee.

Then, they spent a good deal of time arguing about “smoke and mirrors” and legislative tricks in the House’s full transportation committee, where it stalled for at least a week.

Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who presented the bill in a committee overseen by Rep. Barry Doss is a Leoma Republican carrying the measure for House Majority Leader Glen Casada, who is the sponsor but would rather use surplus sales tax revenue than raise the gas tax (are you confused yet?).

Doss says, “I think we talked more about why aren’t we talking as opposed to actually talking about the bill and the particulars of it. I’m a bit frustrated because people have known since the Bredesen administration that we need to do something.

“So, the can is getting kicked down the road, and unfortunately, the road is crumbling, it’s full of potholes, and it’s bumper-to-bumper traffic. So, we need to quit kicking the can and adjust the fuel tax to keep up with inflation,’’ Doss adds.

While House Republicans are accusing each other of sending something through the Legislature that won’t remotely resemble what they vote on when it reaches the full chamber, the Senate claims to have its song and dance down.

In its first action on the governor’s act, a Senate Transportation Subcommittee voted unanimously for a shell of a bill containing nothing but 962 road projects costing $10.5 billion.

The funding mechanism and accompanying tax cuts are to be put on either in the full Senate Transportation Committee or Finance, Ways & Means, according to Sen. Jim Tracy.

“We just felt like this was the right time to move forward with the needs and this is a good discussion for the subcommittee, and we’re going to discuss ways to fund it,” explains Tracy, Senate speaker pro tem. “We’re still in the discussion phase of discussing how we’re gonna fund this.”

With all that discussion in progress, why bother?

Tracy acknowledges the Senate Republican Caucus met the previous night and everyone agreed “there’s a need.” So, they dealt with the need, the 962 road and bridge projects.

“Now we’ve got to determine how we fund that need,” Tracy says. “That was the discussion last night. Do we fund it with a dedicated tax and how we fund it and how much do we fund, where the tax cuts are and how much tax cuts do we get? So, that’s where we come down to where the rubber meets the road.”

Now that cans are getting kicked and rubber is meeting road, the kids are in the back seat crying, “When are we gonna get there?”

Asked about the legislative action or lack thereof, Haslam almost sounds a little like Paul McCartney, the guy who used to be a lead singer for The Beatles.

“Obviously, we would like to see more decided progress, but I’ve said all along this is a long road. Passing something like this in Tennessee is not easy. That’s why we haven’t done it in 30 years.

“And, the point I would like to make is everybody’s saying we have a problem. And we need to sit down and deal with what we want to build in terms of roads and bridges and then, second, how are we going to pay for it?”

Well, at least he remembered the “long road” part. He left out “winding.”

Credit must be given to the Senate Transportation Committee for passing an amended version of the fuel-tax bill with a bigger break in the grocery tax and a phased-in fuel increase over three years.

But there’s still about a month and a half left in this session to rewrite the lyrics, or at least to hum a new tune, one that lawmakers can sing along with, because dull should never be confused with boring.

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

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