State of the State: Two Parties, Two Views 

On Friday, three days before Republican Governor Bill Lee's State of the State address, Tennessee's Democratic legislators launched their own idea of the state's political agenda, and, though the General Assembly's Democratic contingent is a tugboat compared to the GOP majority's ship of state, the tone of Senate Democratic caucus chair Raumesh Akbari's remarks was that of "Pull up the Drawbridge."

On behalf of her party, Akbari, a Memphian, challenged Lee and the assembly's dominant Republicans with an ambitious program designed to confront conditions that, even before the pandemic, had included "a long and uneven economic recovery, a crisis in healthcare affordability and access, huge gaps in education, and a reckoning with decades of racial injustice."

click to enlarge Governor Bill Lee - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Governor Bill Lee

Akbari said it would not do merely to return to the status quo. "The truth is, the old normal was not good enough then. And it's not good enough now." A year of the pandemic has been brutal, she said. "Per person, Tennessee's coronavirus outbreak is one of the worst in the world. More than a million people in Tennessee have lost their jobs and more than 10,000 Tennesseans have died." Things were worsened, she said, by the "lax response" of the governor, whose "interventions started too late, ended too early, and did too little."

Republican government had not only ignored last summer's "pleas for racial justice," but the GOP legislative supermajority has already in the current session "approved a Trump-inspired scheme to radically alter TennCare ... without hearing testimony from a single doctor, nurse, patient, or any of the 1.4 million Tennesseans who rely on TennCare" and begun "an overhaul of education without hearing from a single teacher — not one principal, no school board members, and not even a member of the PTA."

Akbari said Democrats believe that, "whether it's policing, housing, healthcare, or education, we need profound changes that address our nation's deep racial injustices."

Democrats are proposing what Akbari termed Tennessee's Path to Recovery, "a multi-year reform package, backed by billions worth of our own tax dollars, to build thriving schools, guarantee doctors for every family, expand access to child care, ensure good pay and benefits, reform what's broken in our justice system, and restore and revitalize our democracy."

In his formal State of the State address, Lee acknowledged "heartbreaking losses" in the state as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic but defended his reluctance at any point to impose statewide restrictions on mobility. "It's a natural temptation to think growing the size of government and reaching for the nearest mandate will save everything," he said, a maxim he applied to other spheres of both public and private life — but not without an occasional irony. Though Lee boasted that "as of today, 146 of our 147 districts have an in-person option for students," he made no direct mention, as he has in the recent past, of possible measures to punish the school systems of Shelby and Davidson counties for not mandating in-person classes.

The governor celebrated the Trump administration's awarding of an unprecedented waiver for block-grant spending of Medicaid funds and warned that legislative resistance to the block-grant formula could threaten "savings" gained by the state thereby. Lee also touted his "Governor's Civic Seal" program, which routes federal funding into a conservatively couched program of "civics" instruction in the state's public schools. A strong supporter of Donald Trump, Lee boasted that Tennessee had avoided the post-election controversies that had arisen in other states.

In an apparent rebuke of the national outcome, Lee declared, "With elections behind us, we will watch with patriotic skepticism to see if politicians in Washington try to force more government on the states than the 10th Amendment allows. ... Tennessee knows what we need a lot better than the federal government."

Among things that he thinks Tennessee needs, the governor proposed marginally increased salaries of teachers and state employees, improved internet access, an enhanced program of foster care, and a "constitutional carry" bill eliminating the need for firearm permits.

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