Nashville Hillbillies 

Sex, Guns, Gays, and “Monkey Business”: The Tennessee state legislature wraps up another year of social engineering.

Let us begin with a given: When the governor of Tennessee takes the media of his state to task for concentrating on "crazy" bills, as the usually imperturbable Bill Haslam did quite recently, the existence of such crazy bills is, by definition, not to be doubted.

Haslam appeared to be suggesting that focusing on such bills was a needless distraction and a waste of media attention, since in his thinking none of these bills was a serious threat to be passed, while numerous worthy pieces of legislation, including much of the governor's own agenda, ended up being ignored.

If so, Haslam belied himself only days later, when he found it necessary to publicly distance himself from one of the most controversial measures passed by the General Assembly, the so-called Creationist bill that was passed by overwhelming majorities in both the state House and state Senate. Alternately called "the monkey bill" by a national (and international) media which paid close and almost universally scornful attention to its passage, the bill ostensibly guaranteed "critical thinking" about prevailing scientific doctrines — specifying two matters by name, evolution and climate change — and was widely interpreted as promoting a concept of "Intelligent Design" and hearkening back to the days of the 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee.

That involved the famous case of a Tennessee schoolteacher who had violated an existing state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. Scopes was found guilty and fined after a clash between two titans — famed defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, who represented Scopes, and former presidential candidate and prominent fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan, who testified for the state. The issue was perceived throughout the world as one of modernity versus a backward kind of Bible-based traditionalism.

After a spell of foot-dragging, during which he acknowledged doubts concerning the current bill's negative effect on both the state's image and its educational base, Haslam withdrew into the middle (neutral) distance and issued the following statement:

"I have reviewed the final language of HB368/SB893 and assessed the legislation's impact. I have also evaluated the concerns that have been raised by the bill. I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum that is used by our teachers. However, I also don't believe that it accomplishes anything that isn't already acceptable in our schools.

"The bill received strong bipartisan support, passing the House and Senate by a three-to-one margin, but good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion. My concern is that this bill has not met this objective. For that reason, I will not sign the bill but will allow it to become law without my signature."

In short: According to Haslam, the bill would do no good but do no harm.

Observers elsewhere were less sanguine. Samples of news headlines around the world convey the general reaction: "Boos for Tennessee's monkey law"; "New Law May Turn the Clock Back in Tennessee"; "Climate in Tennessee is Ripe for More Monkey Business"; "Tennessee Republicans Throw a Wrench"; and this classic, accompanying a satirical photo spread of nonhuman primates on "Monkeys Question Tennessee Anti-Evolution Law."

Few question either the good faith or the good sense of Haslam, a well-intentioned and good-humored man whose views on most questions are the sort that once would have been considered to be in the moderate conservative mainstream. But, in Tennessee anyhow, that stream seems to have got itself diverted into some peculiar byways — from an overconcentration of tea bags or buckshot or whatever.

Consider: As this article goes to press, the legislature has entered into what is generally acknowledged to be its final week of the current session. And, though relatively tame by the standards of the two somewhat bizarre sessions which preceded it, the current General Assembly has done some extraordinary shark-jumping, passing or bringing to the brink of passage all of the following measures:

* Senate Bill 49/House Bill 229. This brainchild of state senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) and Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) is universally referred to as "Don't Say Gay," because, in essence, that command is what it lays down on the state's teachers in grades K through 8, proscribing "any classroom instruction, course materials, or other instructional materials ... that are not consistent with natural human reproduction ... as inappropriate for the student audience" and requiring that all school systems "file a written report of compliance with the commissioner of education."

Passed in the state Senate just before adjournment last year, the bill meandered through an assortment of House committees this spring, escaping the education committee by a single vote only last week. But by this week it had made its way to the House calendar and rules committee for a last vetting before possibly going to the floor for an up or down vote.

A dual passage would put Haslam, who hasn't vetoed anything at all yet, up against it again.

* SB3323/HB3808, the "Life Defense Act of 2012," began its own life as an instrument with star-chamber potential, requiring the open publication of the names of women receiving abortions and the doctors and institutions providing them. State representative Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough), a religious broadcaster who described pro-choicers as "irresponsible patrons of death" (as against "responsible patrons of death"?) and Senate co-sponsor Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) were somehow brought to limit the bill to the sole major requirement that doctors providing abortions own admitting privileges in the hospitals where they are performed.

In that form, the bill passed the House and entered this terminal week of the session on the Senate floor calendar.

* HB3621/SB3310 by state representative Jim Gotto (R-Hermitage) and state senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), the "Gateway Sex bill" that was the subject of a recent Flyer article by Hannah Sayle, went through several amending permutations as well, some of them softening its rigid prescriptions for a "family life education curriculum" into a form that a self-respecting libertine might tolerate (e.g., "'abstinence' means not participating in any activity that puts an individual at risk for pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease"), while other amendments attempted to restore the pure "thou-shalt-not" tone ("'Risk avoidance' means an approach that encourages the prevention of participation in risk behaviors as opposed to merely reducing the consequences of those risk behaviors"). Oh.

The scary part of the bill is that, however qualified and redefined, it still makes bold to prescribe state sex education or "family life education" as something rigid and essentially asexual and to mandate the curriculum for as early as fifth grade if a county's pregnancy rates should rise high enough.

The bill passed the Senate and, as of last week, was headed to the House calendar and rules committee, the "gateway," as it were, to the floor.

* HB3559/SB2992 and HB3560/SB3002 by state representative Eddie Bass (D-Prospect) and state senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill) are a pair of bills that entered the session's last week with disfavor from Governor Haslam and the Republican leadership but with a head of steam among the populist right (including many Republicans and Democrats, like Bass) fueled by the unrelenting lobbying force of the National Rifle Association.

The first of these bills prohibits employers from "employment discrimination" against "ownership, storage, transportation or possession of a firearm that is otherwise in accordance with state and federal law," while the second "prevents employers and landowners from prohibiting individuals licensed to carry from storing guns in locked, personal vehicles." Known collectively as "guns in parking lots" bills, the measures allow holders of gun permits or hunting licenses to store their weapons in locked cars and protect them from being fired from their jobs if their employers object.

But for the determination of the NRA, which is financially generous (or punitive) at election time and has batted close to 1.000 in baseball math these last few seasons, these bills would have been dead long ago, for they have been stoutly opposed as not conducive to safety in the workplace by the state's major business interests — FedEx in particular. (One NRA spokesperson was cheeky enough to suggest that FedEx could stand a little protection in the form of an armed workforce.)

The debate, in other words, has pitted one branch of the Republican majority against another, and with both measures headed to the calendar committees of either house this week, the bills had a chance of getting to the floor. Democratic Senate leader Jim Kyle of Memphis, perhaps mischievously, was insisting on Monday that both bills be permitted a floor vote this week, while the GOP leadership was still straining to prevent it.

* Meanwhile, the state's legal community was following with keen interest the fortunes of two rival resolutions to amend the "Tennessee Plan," a system of appointing state appellate judges that has persisted for decades. The Tennessee Plan begins with a nominating commission that provides names of possible judges to the governor, who selects from the list and makes an appointment. The judges who are named are subject to retention elections every eight years.

State Senate speaker/lieutenant governor Ron Ramsey, the dominant power in the legislature and perhaps in state government overall, insisted in the last session that the nominating process, formerly in the hands of bar associations, be shifted to members named by the House and Senate speakers. And there matters stood until the current session, when state representative Glen Casada (R-Franklin) got reasonably far with a bill requiring direct election of all state appellate judges. His bill to that effect failed by a single vote in committee.

But two other amending resolutions are live and well. One, Senate Joint Resolutions 183 by Collierville Republican Mark Norris (remember that name if, by some unaccountable quirk, it's unfamiliar to you) would redefine the appointment process for appellate judges as something wide open for the legislature itself to decide, from among a variety of options, including the existing one.

Another plan, SJR710, by state senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), would essentially decapitate the current Tennessee Plan, keeping the concept of gubernatorial appointments (to be ratified by the legislature) and that of subsequent retention elections but lopping off the idea of a nominating commission. Kelsey calls his plan the "Founding Fathers Option" for its resemblance to the federal appointment process.

Both plans seemed headed for a first round of approvals as the legislature was coming to an end. If approved again next year in both chambers by a two-thirds majority, either or both could end up on the 2014 state ballot as constitutional changes requiring voter approval.

* Also hanging fire toward the end of the legislative session were two bills by the aforesaid Norris, Republican majority leader in the Senate, designed to affect the Shelby County school-merger process. (Two more bills by Norris, we should say, since he was the principal author of the Norris-Todd bill, fast-tracked at the onset of the 2011 legislative session to provide parameters for city/county school merger and, not incidentally, to create the prospect of new municipal school districts for dissenting suburban municipalities.)

One bill, HB3234/SB2908, was a Norris creation designed originally to speed up the process of legalizing new school districts for six Shelby County municipalities — Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Lakeland, Arlington, and Millington. Advised by the same set of consultants, principally Jim Mitchell and Timothy Fite of Southern Educational Strategies, all except Millington had already received the go-ahead to hold enabling referenda this year, and Millington had been advised as to how to retrofit itself (mainly by annexing adjacent turf) so as to do so.

But Tennessee attorney general Robert Cooper, answering a query from state representative Beverly Marrero (D-Memphis), had opined that none of the municipalities could take such concrete steps to prepare themselves until the August 2013 target date specified by Norris-Todd to complete merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools.

Cooper's action had shut the water off, and Norris' task was to get the tap turned back on. HB3234/SB2908, as written, would advance the eligibility date for new districts from August 2013 to January 1, 2013 — not much of a boon to the suburbs, really, since referenda and school board elections could still not be put on the calendar of the 2012 election year.

Worse, from Norris' and the suburbs' point of view, the bill had been written so as to apply to all of Tennessee, not just Shelby County, as Norris-Todd had been. This was the side effect of another opinion from Cooper, one which had declared unconstitutional a bill by Norris and House cohort Curry Todd (R-Collierville) that would have altered local annexation formulas to the detriment of the city of Memphis.

Too local, had said Cooper. But HB3234/SB2908 proved to be too statewide, as wary Republicans elsewhere in Tennessee objected, along with Democrats, to the fact of its universality. To be made passable, the bill was altered so as merely to repeat the August 2013 deadline already specified by Norris-Todd and to restrict new municipal districts, after all, to Shelby County. Even this redundancy was greeted with a sourness across party lines that had not existed for Norris-Todd in February 2011.

A second Norris initiative consisted of an amendment to an existing bill, HB1105/SB1923, which, as written, addressed primarily the matter of evaluations of school directors by their supervising school boards. The Norris amendment, successfully attached in the Senate, specifically authorized, during calendar 2012, both referenda for municipal school districts and elections for school boards.

But, though the amendment, like the other Norris bill, was recast to apply only to Shelby County, it, too, was looked at askance by Republicans in the House, which has twice rejected the amendment. As of this week, a conference committee appointed by the two chambers was being named to see if anything agreeable to both bodies could be hammered out.

The foregoing list of bills has been restricted to measures which had been brought to the cusp of final action as this final week of legislative action began. It does not include some remarkable ones that have met with at least temporary rejection or that have already sailed through the threshold of approval.

In the former list would be included such blocked measures as HB2271/SB3480 by state representative G.A. Hardaway and state senator Reginald Tate which would have allowed restrictions on hitherto public materials relating to governmental negotiations with industries looking to relocate. Consigned to collect committee dust in the Senate and taken off notice in the House, that bill, like a similar one advanced early on by allies of Governor Haslam, was effectively stopped.

The latter category, that of done deals, includes such momentous (or notorious) scaling-backs as HB3717/SB3101, a GOP leadership bill brought by Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) and Norris, the majority leaders of the House and Senate, respectively. Styled the "Tennessee Civil Justice Reform Act of 2011" and signed into law by Haslam, the bill accomplishes a long-held wish by medical professionals to impose severe statutory limits on non-economic damages in damage and malpractice suits.

Another item long on the wish list of political conservatives, the gradual elimination of the state inheritance tax ("death tax" in the jargon of the right) over a four-year period, was about to be accomplished by Norris and McCormick in HB3760/SB3762. Backed by the governor and passed by the House, it needed only routine processing by the Senate finance ways and means committee and thence to the floor.

Such bills would join a list of other wet dreams of the right, previously accomplished in the 2011 legislative session, as the de facto defunding of Planned Parenthood, the abolition of collective bargaining rights for teachers, and the prohibition of independent antidiscrimination ordinances by local jurisdictions.

Given that background of prior actions, this year's session of the General Assembly has (to go looking for a silver lining) in most ways been marginally less drastic. This is partly due to behind-the-scenes efforts by Haslam and his staff to focus attention on the governor's pro-business agenda — an extensive one deserving of separate treatment, perhaps next week or soon thereafter in the Flyer's "Politics" column.

Meanwhile, the good news is surely the mere fact that the legislative session of 2012 is about to come to an end. It remains to be seen what happens next year at the hands of the legislature that will be elected in 2012.

Numerous long-term incumbents, most but not all of them Democrats, have decided to pack it in, and, for what it's worth, the aforementioned Casada of Franklin, a stalwart of the Republican right, has publicly predicted that next year will see even more lopsided GOP majorities in both the House and the Senate. The current ratios are 65-34 in the House and 20-13 in the Senate.

Do the math.

See also "Late Innings."

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