Opinion: So long, horse sense

Photo/Mark Zaleski/The Associated Press / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State address in the House Chamber on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.

Being a state legislator isn't rocket science.

Don't take it from me; take it from the state legislator who told me that last year. We were discussing how our government in Nashville is failing Tennesseans. He used the expression out of frustration, but I'm using it literally here.

It's the job of state legislators to make the best and highest use of their (taxpayer-funded) time and our tax dollars. That doesn't require specific expertise. It requires human decency and horse sense. If rocket science is involved -- which it conceivably could be in Tennessee -- they should listen to the rocket scientists, then legislate accordingly.

The 132 members of the Tennessee General Assembly are insurance agents, Realtors, lawyers and farmers; small-business owners (plaques, pest control); or self-employed (jeweler, storyteller, auctioneer). They're all experts in some things but not most things. Just like us.

They don't necessarily look like us: They skew older; many are retired. And 86% of them are men. These are the people with the resources and flexibility to relocate to Nashville every January through April for around $34,000 a year.

Nevertheless, they're our neighbors. When we see them around town, they're polite, even congenial. We assume that they know what our communities need and that they'll try their best to deliver.

Historically, and depending on the party in power, "delivering" might hew more toward investment in things or investment in people. For years, the Tennessee General Assembly struck a reasonable balance between the two: roads got paved, kids got educated. The TGA did that important work -- keeping the lights on and otherwise keeping out of our business -- in relative obscurity.

Obscurity provides handy cover for malfeasance. In recent years, the Republican supermajority in the state House has outdone itself with scandals leading to investigations, indictments and resignations.

But when many Tennesseans don't know who represents them in Nashville or even what the TGA does -- something I discovered when I ran for state House last year -- there are few electoral consequences for bad behavior. In Tennessee, a lot of people vote for a letter, and lot of people don't vote at all.

That's a longtime habit we need to break quickly, because under Gov. Bill Lee, malfeasance has become malpractice.

It's hard to pinpoint when it started, but here's the pattern: ignore the experts, ignore public opinion, and ignore big problems (of which Tennessee has legion). Instead take extreme policy positions to stay in the good graces of lobbyists, corporate donors and talking heads.

Here's what that looks like:

With teachers fleeing Tennessee's struggling public schools -- perennially among the lowest-funded in the country -- our state government is aggressively pushing public funding of private charter schools, which have a worse track record. It's also forcing voucher programs (more public funding of private schools) on counties that have explicitly rejected them. Hamilton County may be up next.

Between 2013 and 2022, with chronic disease, drug addiction, maternal mortality, rural hospital closures and medical bankruptcy soaring in Tennessee, our state government turned away $22.5 billion in federal funds to expand TennCare. It's political posturing that's morally and economically indefensible. Yet under Lee, the Republican crusade against federal "strings" is spreading, to the detriment of Tennesseans. Our new health commissioner has announced plans to reject $8 million in CDC funding for HIV prevention, and the state House speaker wants to refuse $1.8 billion in federal K–12 funds for high-need kids.

In 2021, with gun crime surging in Tennessee, our state government passed a law allowing permitless carry, overruling law-enforcement experts and most voters.

Our kindly neighbors in the Tennessee General Assembly are actively causing us harm.

The clearest example is Tennessee's "no-exceptions" abortion ban. On Capitol Hill, legislators just heard stark testimony from medical experts and not-so-veiled threats from a nonmedical lobbyist. Guess who they listened to. Exceptions for rape and incest are officially off the table; a "life of the mother" exception faces political headwinds.

Meanwhile, as Lee touts our state's $2 billion budget surplus -- and sits on hundreds of millions of federal dollars intended for Tennesseans in need -- one in five kids in Tennessee is living in poverty. At our criminally under-resourced Department of Children's Services, kids are sleeping on office floors. (At least they're not sleeping on the sidewalk, which is now a felony in Tennessee.) And our state leaders are laser-focused on drag shows, protecting kids from a danger they can't document or even articulate.

Forget rocket science. In Nashville, the horse sense has left the barn. Human decency is scarce too. But if Tennesseans aren't paying attention, will it matter?

Allison Gorman, who ran for a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives in 2022, is a writer and editor based in Chattanooga.