The good, the bad and the ugly of 2020 legislative session

Friday, May 14, 2021, Vol. 45, No. 20

Legislators have again decamped, signaling halftime of the 112th General Assembly, so it’s time to assess the damage they did before leaving. And, sure, the good.

Which I’ll start with: The bill calling for a statue of David Crockett on the Capitol grounds passed and was signed by the governor. I suggested in a column last year that Crockett might well have been the greatest Tennessean ever, so: Go, Davy!

Yes, I know he preferred David. Congratulations to Rep. David (also not Davy) Hawk, who spearheaded the push for a statue. Now let’s see how long it takes for one to appear.

In other good news, a bill that would have allowed motorcycle drivers and passengers 26 and older to ride helmetless didn’t get any attention in committee. I can’t help thinking that people with the least brains to spare would be the ones putting theirs at risk had the bill become law.

A House Joint Resolution calling on Congress to make U.S. flag desecration illegal didn’t budge an inch. It shouldn’t.

You know what real flag desecration is? When people trying to show their patriotism leave a banner out in all kinds of weather until it’s a tattered, a sad remnant of what was once a proud symbol.

And a cockamamy bill by Sen. Janice Bowling to abolish early voting and do away with voting machines didn’t draw a House sponsor and was withdrawn. Let’s hope it doesn’t return.

You will note that three of the four good things I mentioned are in fact bad things that could have happened but didn’t. Those count, too.

In the good-thing-that-didn’t-happen category, Sen. Jeff Yarbro’s latest effort to establish an independent commission to draw the lines for congressional and legislative redistricting – a process adopted by about a dozen states – got zero traction. No surprise. The Republican legislative super-duper majority wants to protect its own.

On the bad-thing-that-did-happen side, I hereby present the Legislature’s Biggest Blockhead Award to Rep. Justin Lafferty. It’s a new honor, and one I had no intention of establishing, until Lafferty made it necessary by ... opening his mouth.

During debate in the House over banning the teaching of what has become known as critical race theory, he felt compelled to riff on the constitutional compromise that resulted in a slave’s being counted only as three-fifths of a person for representation and taxation purposes.

“By limiting the number of population in the count, they specifically limited the number of representatives who would be available in the slave-holding states, and they did it for the purpose of ending slavery,” Lafferty told House colleagues. “Well before Abraham Lincoln. Well before the Civil War.

“Do we talk about that? I don’t hear that anywhere in this conversation across the country.”

Actually, you do hear that take from time to time, brought to you by the same sort of folks who argue that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, not slavery.

But you shouldn’t hear it because it’s baloney. It’s nonsense. It’s – to tweak a favorite Republican catch phrase – fake history.

The compromise in fact cemented the power of slave-holding states.

Republican colleagues of Lafferty applauded his witless assertion. Proving they could all use some critical thinking skills.

Regarding some other legislation or topics I’ve mentioned before:

• A bill that would have exempted people older than 50 from having to show ID to buy alcohol went nowhere in the Senate and didn’t even attract a House sponsor. Maybe amend it to specify those over 60?

• Measures to prohibit corporal punishment in schools stalled basically at the start line. The definition of the punishment to be banned included “the use of chemical sprays, electroshock weapon or stun guns on a student’s body.” So I guess all that’s still acceptable.

• Measures to designate June as “African American Music Appreciation Month,” Sept. 14 of each year as “Star-Spangled Banner Day,” the first Friday in October of each year as “Tennessee Manufacturing Day” and June 19 as “Juneteenth,” in recognition of the day in 1865 when news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached Texas, all sailed through and became law.

• Owing to sensible opposition by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the effort to designate the Bible as the official state book would seem to be doomed, despite passage in the House. But without similar, principled opposition I fear that the Senate next year may concur with the House and render the ladder as the official state tool.

Meanwhile, “My Beloved Tennessee” became an official state poem (one of four) and “Amazing Grace,” as sung by Dolly Parton, became an official state song (one of 11). So I renew my call for designating an official state musical instrument, a glaring legislative oversight, which has so far failed to inspire action.

Where’s the banjo lobby when you need it?

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