The 107th General Assembly – Looking Backward in More Ways than One

Making Tennessee look ridiculous.

Clearly the number one achievement of the Republican majority was diminishing Tennessee’s hard-earned reputation as a serious, effective state.   In the last four weeks of the session, House and Senate Republicans managed to pass what has been called the “Monkey” bill, which makes Tennessee the only state in the union to mandate that science teachers teach things other than science, and the “Gateway Sex Activity” bill, which opens a teacher up to potential disciplinary action for not taking action against teenagers who hug, slow dance and engage in similarly threatening activities.   Only time will tell how much we all have to pay for these pointless legislative diversions, but it is noteworthy that over the past two years of Republican control, Tennessee has already dropped significantly in Site Selection Magazine’s widely reviewed business climate rankings.

Taking care of pet projects for special interests

Did you know that in passing the budget House Republicans doled out $500,000 in tax dollars to build a museum located in Virginia?   That’s right – among many other pet projects in the budget, Republicans, gave half a million dollars to help with a “Birthplace of Country Music” museum  championed by Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey – a museum not located in Tennessee.  Meanwhile, apparently less vital state programs, like higher education, saw significant across-the board budget cuts.  Are these sort of excesses normal when a new group takes over?  To find out, I am offering a free lunch to the first reader who can point to another instance in which legislators of either party have had the audacity to pay out Tennessee tax dollars to construct a building not located in Tennessee.  Pick any restaurant as long as it is in House District 52.

Denying citizens’ access to the courts.

Perhaps the most significant agenda pushed by the Haslam Administration has been a broad-based effort to close Tennessee’s courts to regular Tennesseans.  This year, that led to the adoption of the “European rule” whereby a person who has his or her case dismissed pays the other side’s attorney’s fees.  Proponents of this legislation will point to all sorts of soon-to-be-repealed exceptions, but anyone who knows anything about the American justice system will recognize this as a momentous and unprecedented change in our law.  Now, a regular person seeking to enforce Tennessee’s anti-discrimination statutes or pursuing a judgment against an out of state corporation will face the prospect of paying up to $10,000 of attorney’s fees if the company wins a motion to dismiss; on the other hand, if the company loses the motion, it pays the plaintiff nothing (my amendment to at least make this bad law shift fees in both directions was voted down along party lines).  This chilling law, which in and of itself makes a mockery of widely publicized efforts to increase “access to justice,” is just the most outrageous example of a multitude of changes, many drafted by the Administration, deliberately designed to diminish the ability of courts to serve regular people.  That, in turn, is part of the national effort by Republican radicals like Grover Norquist and Congressman Paul Ryan to turn the United States into a more Latin American style country, in which entrenched elites accumulate power and wealth at the expense of all other citizens who, regardless of work and talent, are denied opportunity at every turn.

Cutting taxes on unearned income for a lucky handful of people; burdening everyone else with excessive sales and business taxes.

Estate taxes tax unearned income; wealth that is passed from productive people who earned it to their lucky relatives.  Thankfully, Tennessee is a balanced budget state.  But that means that when we cut estate taxes by a dollar, we must add a dollar in taxes we put on the back of (1) a productive Tennessee business or (2) money that a Tennessee citizen has earned.  This year, Governor Haslam and the Republican majority began the process of eliminating Tennessee tax on unearned estates; during debates, it was revealed that this tax cut will go to less than a thousand Tennesseeans a year.  Look for the  rest of us to pay for this tax cut through Tennessee’s high business and sales taxes.  What about the Haslam Administration’s audacious claim that it has cut Tennessee’s food tax?  Technically true, in the same way that one can claim to be “fighting world hunger” by dropping off a dented can of pumpkin pie filling at a food bank.  Tennessee has the highest food tax in the nation; the Haslam Administration’s microscopic cut amounts to less than twenty-five dollars per Tennessee family per year.

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