Gov. Bill Haslam's appeal to legislators to tone down the divisive partisan rhetoric might get more traction if he and the Republican-dominated Legislature would entertain legislation focused on bona fide needs, rather than extreme right-wing bills that are excessively partisan and harsh.
Given these, the rhetoric seems destined to become more heated as Republicans - in control of all three branches of legislative power for the first time ever in Tennessee's history - continue to flout reason, logic and moderation as they ram a reactionary agenda through the law-making process.
Consider just a few of their recent actions:
n The state Senate has just passed a bill, by a vote of 28-5, to amend the Tennessee Constitution to ban a state income tax. This show-boat action ignores the fact that the state's sales tax - the nation's highest when local option sales taxes are tacked on - is punitively regressive to Tennesseans making the median household income.
Because they must spend most of their income on sales-taxed goods, most Tennesseans pays a disproportionately higher share of their income in state taxes than do wealthier Tennesseans. In fact, income tax bills and research introduced when Don Sundquist was governor demonstrated that fully two-thirds of Tennesseans, as well as state government, would be far better off under a state tax system that coupled a much lower sales tax combined with a modest income tax on wealthy Tennesseans.
As it is now, high-income Tennesseans, and particularly very wealthy residents, now pay an unfairly low proportion of the state tax burden relative to their much higher incomes. That inequity should be corrected as a matter of simple fairness.
n Republican-sponsored Senate and House bills have been introduced that would allow faculty and staff members at state universities who have gun-carry permits to carry concealed guns onto state campuses. This wild-eyed action comes despite the opposition of both municipal police departments and faculty and staff at UT-Knoxville, UT-Martin and other campuses around the state, and in spite of common sense restrictions on gun-carry rights.
n Republican legislators are trying to revise state campaign finance laws to allow corporations to make campaign contributions directly to candidates rather than through monitored, legal political action committees. They're also trying to dramatically lift the cap on contributions. This legislation would essentially gut the state's campaign finance laws and would wrongly give corporations and special interest groups even more influence over important governmental oversight powers.
Rep. Glen Casada's bill (HB-1003) on this matter would also ditch the campaign donation limit of $101,400 for individuals to all candidates in an election cycle. That would further compound the insider political influence of rich individual and corporate donors. In addition, the bill would make it easier for lawmakers to secure campaign donations while the Legislature is in session. If passed, this amount to an open invitation for legalized graft.
(We can see it now. A deep-pocket giver whispers to a lawmaker: Psst! I'll donate $10,000 to your campaign - or you tell me a number - if you vote my way on this bill.)
n Even as Republican legislators push their own bills to wrongly deny teachers' professional associations the right to negotiate on their wages and benefits, Gov. Haslam has pushed through a bill in both chambers which would needlessly restrict teachers' tenure rights.
This misguided assault on employee rights ignores the fact that bargaining rights and tenure rules are already weak. The latter, moreover, mainly inhibits the sort of arbitrary firings that used to be rampant when politicians used school systems as political patronage farms to award jobs to their cronies and their relatives.
Tenure rights already weak
Tenure rights do not prevent principals and school boards from firing incompetent or under-performing teachers. They merely require supervisors to document why teachers may be fired, and give them a short time to improve their performance. Weakening teachers' tenure rights further - teachers gave a lot of ground in last year's special legislative session on education reform - is simply a needless assault on teachers' integrity and dignity.
The vitriol of Senate leader Ron Ramsey and state Sen. Jim Summerville toward teachers and the teachers' weak and mild-mannered union, the Tennessee Teachers Association, is, in any case, wildly out of proportion. The teachers union is already gelded. They are legally forbidden to strike. They cannot demand binding arbitration. Without a representative bargaining committee, they will be stripped of a broadly representative voice in school policies pertaining not just to their wages and benefits, but also with regard to curriculum and classroom needs.
A partisan hit job
The effort to kill their union has nothing to do with the function of education, and everything to do with Republicans' political objection to a union that, they believe, leans more toward the Democratic Party than the Republicans. Stripping teachers of union rights is simply political payback.
Sen. Ramsey's own justification for the bill - that "Democrats are bought and paid for by the unions" - explains precisely why he wants to kill the teachers' union, and why, conversely, he supports Casada's bill to open the campaign donations gusher by lifting caps on corporate and individual contributions.
An arrogant hypocrite
Ramsey is, of course, a supreme hypocrite, one bought and paid for by the coal mining industry. He has proved that by his own grasping take of campaign donations from the coal industry alone. He received nearly $200,000 of the $300,000 in donations given by donors from the coal industry to Tennessee politicians in 2009 and 2010. He subsequently worked to kill a bill, by former state Sen. Raymond Finney, a Republican, to prevent mountaintop-removal mining in mountains above 2,000-feet in elevation.
And while wallowing in coal money, he also condoned fellow Republican Sen. Jim Summerville, who warned teachers against protesting the bill to kill the teachers' union with this inflammatory statement:
"Make no mistake," Summerville gravely intoned, "the final responsibility is ours - and we are warriors." Then, citing a line from Shakespeare's "Henry V," he declared: "We will bend public education to our awe, or break it all to pieces."
Gov. Haslam, of course, hasn't said a word about any this. If he wants moderate, reasoned, adult debate, he will have to be a much stronger leader to rein his party's harsh reactionary horde in the Legislature.