There is no shortage of vital issues for Tennessee's Legislature to be considering right now. With state tax revenue visibly recovering from the Great Recession -- revenues for the past seven straight months have generated $238 million more than at this point last year -- lawmakers and Gov. Bill Haslam should be thinking about restoring vital funding cut last year from children's services, education and health care. Neglected state infrastructure needs should also be on the table.
But those aren't state government's priorities.
Haslam is busy pushing a dicey program to incentivize economic development by giving taxpayer dollars -- that is to say, real cash -- to companies to induce them to locate or expand in Tennessee. He has not yet offered a cogent reason why the state's regular lucrative tax abatements are not enough, nor has he competently explained why the business people who would get taxpayers' cash should not be identified.
His majority Republican lawmakers, having slashed teachers' tenure and negotiation rights, now are trying to reduce the state lottery's college scholarship HOPE grants to "marginally" qualified students from $4,000 to $2,000 a year. Of course, that would cheat students who typically need scholarship aid the most, and it would mainly benefit students whose parents, neighborhoods and income generally provide them with best possible high school options.
With reason and fairness out the door, other major legislative initiatives range from the wacky to the destructive to the dangerous. In one of the wackiest actions ever to take place in the Legislature (true, we're overlooking the infamous right-to-eat road-kill bill a few years ago that made the Tennessee Legislature an instantaneous laughing-stock), Republicans overwhelmingly passed a resolution last week denouncing a 20-year-old United Nations proposal to support sustainable development.
They claimed the proposal, which simply advocates sensible restraint of environmental and natural resource exploitation as the world's population booms, is actually a nefarious U.N. plot to somehow legalize, through our own state and local governments, the massive unconstitutional taking of our private property rights.
If there's a lawmaker who believes Tennesseans are so gullible as to fall for sneaky wordsmithing to make bad ideas about private or public property look good, it's State Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey.
He's still pushing the Senate to adopt a destructive, Machiavellian mountain-top removal coal mining bill that would claim there that mountain-top removal does not actually occur if the coal mining companies -- after they've blown away a mountain top and stripped the coal -- can bulldoze back the massive debris of the mountain-top they have exploded and shape it into an "approximate original contour" of the real mountain before it was destroyed. We're not making this up.
Apparently some of Ramsey's legislative and coal-mining cronies realize this isn't a tenable redefinition of mountain-top removal mining, which already has been permitted for 13 mountain-tops in Tennessee -- up from five over the past five years in which opponents have pushed to ban it. That's forced Ramsey to tactically delay to vote on his pet project until April 2.
As for bills truly dangerous to the public, the Senate is still considering a bill written by the National Rifle Association to give Tennesseans with gun-carry permits the legal right to store firearms in a vehicle and park it anywhere they could otherwise park, even in the parking lots of employers and institutions that ban firearms on their private property to protect all employees.
Tennessee's major businesses, among many others, rightly object. But the NRA and its law-making lackeys are legendarily myopic and stubborn. Sen. Mike Faulk, in arguing for the bill recently, asked whether giving employers the right to ban items from cars in their parking lots might also let them ban Bibles from the glove compartment. Bullets vs. Bibles. Go figure.