The catfish is the Tennessee state commercial fish, and it’s the perfect mascot for our bottom-feeding Legislature.
Time after time, just when we think it can’t go any lower, it always manages to do it.
Once again, this year, the competition is fierce for the bills that are the Legislature’s most shameful pandering to the lowest, basest common denominators in our state.
It seems long ago that Tennessee was known for its proud tradition of statesmanship and diplomacy rather than being the butt of jokes in the national media. While the extremism of the General Assembly has done grievous harm to our national image, more importantly, its genuflection to all things Koch Brothers and ALEC-related is reducing our state’s ability to compete in the global marketplace and anti-urban policy decisions that undermine the cities that drive Tennessee’s economy.
In the current session, the Legislature has given us the deannexation bill, yet more laws that proliferate guns in public places, an anti-counseling bill for LGBT Tennesseans, a transgender bathroom bill, and a bill naming the Bible as state book.
Two Wins For Memphis
At a time when schools are underfunded, universities are struggling to operate with state funding, public transit funding is nonexistent, economic development is flagging, and public health is poor, the legislators devote their time to dividing up Tennesseans for their own political self-interest rather than uniting us behind a vision for a great state.
In this way, they debase their office and abuse their oath of office. In the process, they inject their personal biases into law, they treat their religious views as superior to all others, they invest their energy into denying constitutional rights in the wake of Supreme Court decisions, and they gratify their own egos with statements that demonize people who think, live, and believe differently.
In this context, it’s impressive that Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland was able to accomplish two of his top priorities in Nashville: stopping the deannexation bill and getting $12 million in state funding for the major expansion of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Backed by strong support from the Greater Memphis Chamber and leading Memphis business leaders like Pitt Hyde, Mayor Strickland navigated the miasma that is Capitol politics to achieve two major wins for Memphis, and in the process, he proved the power of personal mayoral intervention.
Later this week, it is expected that the Legislature will override Governor Bill Haslam’s veto of the bill making the Bible the state book. Already, this year, the legislators have given us a state rifle – the Barrett .50 caliber rifle that can penetrate light armor, down helicopters, destroy commercial aircraft, and blast through rail cars. It’s been described as among the most destructive weapons available to civilians in the U.S.
Trivializing The Bible
In a political environment where gun issues are used as the ultimate cudgel by right wing extremists against those they consider moderate or liberal (ignoring the fact that the majority of the public are in favor of reasonable gun control laws), we should not be surprised by the willingness of legislators to make our communities less safe, put law enforcement officers in more danger, and militarize college campuses. After all, they readily refused to expand Medicaid to protect the health of 300,000 Tennesseans.
We should also not be surprised that Tennessee’s extremist legislators can gratuitously take actions that threaten their fellow citizens’ safety, health, and education while thumping their Bibles, which now join the state insect (firefly), the state agricultural insect (honeybee), state amphibian (cave salamander), state butterfly (zebra swallowtail), state sporty fish (bigmouth bass), state game bird (bobwhite quail), state reptile (box turtle), state stone (agate), and state wild animal (raccoon) as a Tennessee symbol.
Then again, we’re not sure if the legislators are talking about the Catholic Bible, the Hebrew Bible, or the Protestant Bible, and which translation they like: King James Version, American Standard Version, New American Standard Version, English Standard Version, New International Version, The Living Bible, or what is reputedly the worst translation ever published, the one by late televangelist and Christian Right leader Jerry Falwell.
Then again, there’s the Jefferson Bible, the edited version by the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, who cut and pasted together his own Bible, eliminating all the miracles. Perhaps, the Bible can be treated like the official state song: there are 13 of those.
Playing To The Cheap Seats
That legislators use their Bibles to justify discrimination, intolerance, and injustice against others is the ultimate sacrilege. That they are willing to do this to LGBT citizens seeking counseling and to transgender children in school says volumes about how badly their moral compasses malfunction.
School officials have not reported any problems involving transgendered students, adding that bathroom questions can be easily dealt with. The bill allowing people to refuse service to the public based on religious beliefs, even specifically mentioning mental health counselors, is just as mean-spirited, because its real purpose to is to encourage and excuse discrimination.
We think the Legislature continues to play to the cheap seats while most Tennesseeans are moving on. Marriage equality has not ushered in the threats to marriage so long predicted by the Religious Right. The truth is that because most of us have family members or friends who are LGBT, and we know from personal experience that their desires in life are the same as ours, we support their resistance to those who would push them back in the closet.
Meanwhile, the Legislature’s motivation is to keep mining the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same sex marriage for political benefit, but it’s worse than that. The motivation is also legalizing discrimination, limiting a specific group’s liberties, and demonizing LGBT Tennesseans.
No Smart ALEC
All of this is testament to the political bubble the Legislature’s super-majority lives in. They only hear far right voices from far right sources pushing far right agendas. Chief among these voices is ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), whose drumbeat is for government to be a singular instrument for a brand of capitalism that still believes that the Laffer Curve is sound economic theory, as a result, it pushes the fiction that lower and lower taxes for business will spark more jobs and expand the economy.
Here’s the thing: the higher Tennessee is ranked on ALEC’s “economic outlook” scale, the more perilous is its future. Tennessee is part of the swath of Southern states that are some of the poorest in the nation with the highest percentage of minimum wage workers and where legislators like ours want the poor to stay poor. They outlaw living wage laws at the local level, they refuse to expand Medicaid, and they pass discriminatory laws that discourage companies with higher wages and skills.
And yet, states who finish lowest on ALEC’s rankings are regularly found at the top of nonpartisan, honest economic prosperity rankings. The states that finish high in their ALEC rankings just happen to have Republican-controlled governments.
To people like our legislators who have little understanding of research methodologies and how biases can be baked into conclusions, they accept ALEC’s “research” as credible rather than recognizing it as a cache of unreliable data. As Greg LeRoy and Peter Fisher have written, the idea that there’s such a thing as a measurable business climate is “nonsensical.” They go on to disparage population growth, tax cuts, and anti-union laws as measures of a state’s economic outlook, pointing out that ALEC’s “real agenda is a policy or political agenda. It’s about trying to get states to lower taxes.”
The core of ALEC’s work is to draft “model bills” that benefit corporations at the public’s expense. ALEC is a corporate bill mill where draft legislation is prepared by corporations, corporate trade groups, and corporate foundations, which pay big fees to have access legislators (about 98% of revenues come from business). These cookie cutter bills have shown up in state legislatures all over the U.S., including Tennessee’s.
Inappropriate Use of State Moneya
To advance its agenda to dismantle public services, eliminate government oversight, and reduce workers’ rights, ALEC pretends to be a nonpartisan organization when it was in truth an outpost for the deeply conservative part of the Republican Party. It has a committee structure and national meetings that give corporations the chance to influence legislators and their legislation.
Buried in the massive state budget is $100,000 for ALEC, but that’s not all that it costs Tennessee taxpayers. With a couple of dozen legislators attending ALEC meetings, taxpayers are also paying for their registration fees, hotel rooms, food, and transportation. If our legislators want to attend ALEC meetings (or any other partisan meeting, for that matter), legislative ethics would suggest that they pay for it themselves since the entire organization is a front for corporate lobbying.
Confronted with questions about the ethics of such an appropriation to ALEC, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris and Senator Bill Ketron (ALEC state chair) said the organization is no different than the National Conference on State Legislatures. Both have to know that it was a lie, but a clever one. Appropriating money to ALEC is tantamount to writing a check to the Republican National Committee. It is nothing like the highly respect National Conference on State Legislatures.
All of this is another reason why the catfish is the most appropriate mascot for the Tennessee Legislature. In addition to its bottom-feeding approach to governing, it also meets the modern definition of pretending to be someone you’re not.
In this case, it’s the Tennesseans who are being catfished.
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