NASHVILLE — Tennessee's political situation is beginning to imitate that of the country at large. Just as in Washington the newly inaugurated Trump administration is attempting to lay out its step-by-step program of radical change against a responding backdrop of massive and vocally critical citizen turnouts, so did the reconvening of state government in Nashville this week involve the presence of two parallel parliaments in the State Capitol.
One was an assembly of House and Senate members, state jurists, and other ranking officials, all of whom gathered in the Capitol's second-floor House chamber Monday night to hear Republican Governor Bill Haslam set forth his agenda for the 2017 session of the legislature. The other, a gathering of protesters shepherded by a grim phalanx of state troopers and Capitol police, took place in the adjoining second-floor lobby, filling it to capacity and matching the oratory of Haslam with their own vocal agenda.
Haslam, for his part, fervidly pitched a gasoline tax, which he clearly believed would let him go forward with a long-delayed program of road and infrastructure renovations, to modernize and expand Tennessee's broadband capability. The governor also proposed an ambitious educational program of near universal application to Tennessee citizens that he clearly hopes someday to claim as his major legacy.
Outside, in the boisterous but heavily policed hallway, a different agenda was showcased by protest signs and promulgated in a series of chants: The former bore messages ranging from the simple and obvious — "All Eyes Are on You," "History Is Also Watching," "You Work for Us" — to posters that elaborated anxieties on the subjects of the First Amendment, women's reproductive rights, school vouchers, and what-have-you.
The chants were either repetitions of the signs — "You Work for Us!" got several renditions — or redolent of the defiance so much in evidence elsewhere in the nation. "No Justice, No Peace!"
Given that the governor's remarks inside the heavily guarded House chamber were all expressed in Haslam's normal mild and reasonable diction, and were intermittently Panglossian in their good-natured hopefulness, and that the proposals he was making could fairly be characterized as moderate — especially for red-state Tennessee — the temper of the crowd held at bay outside the House door was not a perfect match.
The demonstrators had bones to pick with the legislators inside, to be sure, and concerns over such perennial subjects as ever-recurrent measures to render abortion more difficult or to stamp it out if possible, a resolution directed at the excesses of porn, and newly revived and energized bills to turn hunks of taxpayer money earmarked for public education into vouchers that could be used for private schools.
There was also rage over the apparent demise of Haslam's once-promising and oft-frustrated Insure Tennessee proposal, one that would have extended Medicare benefits under the now seemingly doomed Affordable Care Act, and uncertainties of other kinds, most of which could not be linked to Haslam, necessarily, nor even to the government-bashing Tea Party core, which, though somewhat attenuated, still looms large amid the Republican Super-Majority that governs both legislative chambers.
Much of the anger and insurgent energy of the Nashville demonstrations could be seen as a continuation of the protests that had been simmering and erupting in the nation at large ever since Donald Trump's presidential inauguration, scarcely more than a week earlier.
There had been the day-after-inauguration massive Women's Marches in Washington, D.C., and in every other American city of consequence, including both Nashville and Memphis. Hard upon that had come Trump's unexpected and drastic presidential order basically — and abruptly — banning not only immigration but essentially any further going back-and-forth of any kind by Muslims between America and seven Middle Eastern nations. And with that came a new wave of protest.
Although the demonstrations inside the Tennessee State Capitol had been organized by various ad hoc groups, there was an element of the spontaneous to them as well. A few pundits writing of the resurgence of mass protest in the nation had contrasted the phenomenon to the fecklessness that seemed to have settled into Democrats and their party after their unforeseen defeats in Congress and for the presidency in November.
"Let me tell you," said Memphis state Representative Joe Towns, attending Nashville Mayor Megan Barry's reception for legislators at the Grand Ole Opry in the aftermath of Haslam's State-of-the-State speech. "I'm glad to see these protests," he added. "They indicate that there's still force and authority among us. This is going to be good for Democrats. I don't think people expected this of the Democrats."
Towns attributed what he saw as a new mood to an assortment of different circumstances: "the ban on immigrants, some of the corrosive language of Trump's action, and the fear that health care is being taken away with Obamacare."
Towns was clear about one thing. "You wouldn't have seen anything like this just for the governor speaking. No, it has to do with the big picture, with what Trump is doing."
State Representative Larry Miller, another Memphian, agreed that Democrats as such were getting a rise out of whatever movement might be shaping up to counter Trump. But he saw it as taking on larger dimensions: "This is bipartisan," he said. "This has to do with people all over the country."
Nearby was first-term Republican state Representative Mark Lovell of Collierville, newly sworn in. His attitude toward the demonstrators was pitched differently: "Just more bullcrap! I don't pay attention to those people. I wonder how any of them have got jobs. I get up early in the morning. I work all day. I put in 15 hours a day, and those demonstrators, if they'd work as hard as I do, or even half as hard, I'd give them a high five. If they don't, they could kiss me where the sun don't shine!"
There it was, the divide — that basic primal stand-off on core issues that in recent years has been reflected in the paralyzing government gridlock of Washington, D.C., and would seem to nullify the very idea of collaborative relationships between people of different parties.
Yet there was, at least in Nashville, and perhaps in Washington as well, a sense that there has to be some common-sense meeting of the minds beyond ideology, some working together toward a common end.
There was more to Lovell's thinking Monday night than a negative reaction to the evening's protesters. He'd been impressed by parts of Haslam's address and specifically the program to which the governor had given the name Tennessee Reconnect — a proposed initiative on the part of state government to incentivize a return to post-secondary education by adult citizens who, for one reason or another, had forgone completion of their education.
And Miller and Towns had found much to agree upon in Haslam's prescriptions for the future in his address.
One point of sympathy was with Haslam's plea to legislators to consider a 7-cent sales tax to finance overdue work on Tennessee's roads and infrastructure. The state had accumulated a surplus of sorts, and opponents, some in the GOP's legislative leadership, were insisting that the state should tap these funds for its infrastructure work.
Haslam felt otherwise, and these words from his speech are worth quoting on the point:
"I know some of you think we should transfer surplus money to the Highway Fund for transportation. We are — to the tune of $277 million in last year's and this year's budget combined. There are four real reasons why that's not a long-term solution. First, while we do have a surplus, we do not have a pile of money without a claim to it.
"Second, I have never thought that it was a good plan to pay for a long-term need like $10.5 billion in approved and needed road projects with a short-term surplus. Third, and the most fundamental, in my proposal, an estimated half or more of the increased revenue would come from non-Tennesseans and trucking companies.
"I don't know why we would take General Fund dollars, which are mostly collected from Tennesseans for Tennesseans, and use that to subsidize our roads, which are paid for by a broad mix of in-state and out-of-state users. Finally, paying money out of our surplus would continue to leave our cities and counties with an inadequate source of revenue for taking care of our neighborhood and local roads."
It's the kind of thinking that has animated various improvement projects on the part of Tennessee's local governments — Shelby County's in particular— where incremental raises in the hotel and motel tax, paid for by passers-through, have financed any number of local projects.
And the governor has sweetened the pot for the gas tax by proposing a balancing tax cut elsewhere. Some of these are frankly concessions to wealthy Tennesseans, like Haslam's proposed acceleration of what was already a staged elimination of the Hall Tax on income from interest and dividends. But one of his proposed tax remedies calls for the reduction, or even the elimination of the sales tax on groceries — something clearly of benefit to working-class Tennesseans.
Haslam also called for significant increases in teachers' salaries, another godsend of sorts, for public education. But friends of public education are unlikely, after years in which the governor discouraged proposals for school vouchers that clearly overreached, to welcome what is shaping up as a bill to that end that he can accept.
And the governor is proposing to spend state money on expanding broadband to remote parts of Tennessee, where previously it was inaccessible. Given the tempestuous rancor coming out of Washington, a few good intentions of that sort could go a long way to calming the storm in Tennessee.