With their session now dragging into its fifth month, state lawmakers have resorted to bickering over who's the goofiest. Like everything else at the Capitol, the sides in this argument are drawn strictly down party lines. But the hapless Democrats make the strong case that it's the Republicans we ought to worry about, since they are the state's potentates now and their wacky ideas might just become law.
Democrats contend the legislature's mighty new GOP majority, while pretending to maintain a laser-like focus on the economy, actually is dedicated to (a) sabotaging political foes to strengthen its already iron grip on power, and (b) enacting into law every nutty idea endorsed by reactionary pundits or right-wing think tanks.
So, from Category A, we have proposals to bust the teachers' union, thus plugging a source of Democratic money; and to force voters to present photo identification, thus making it harder for reliable Democratic constituencies — the old and the poor — to vote.
And from Category B — well, give us a few hours. There are Republicans trying variously to create the state's own currency (perhaps in honor of the Civil War?), banish any mention of gay people in schools, strip away abortion rights, open college campuses to handguns, seize control of Medicare, and require presidential candidates to prove they are natural born citizens.
"It's kind of like I've fallen down a rabbit hole and I've woken up in Alice in Wonderland or Bizarro World or something," says Rep. Mike Turner, Democrat of Nashville.
This week, the House voted 73-24 to nullify Nashville's new anti-gay bias ordinance and to bar any city from enacting another one anywhere in Tennessee.
That city ordinance came after Belmont's ouster of lesbian soccer coach Lisa Howe. But according to Rep. Glen Casada, the Republican from Williamson County who sponsored Nashville's smackdown, the wrong that needs to be righted is the Metro Council's "attempt to inflict their morality on this small Christian school."
Optimists were counting on new House Speaker Beth Harwell to moderate her party's extremist tendencies. But the veteran Green Hills representative is all for outlawing collective bargaining by teachers and all the rest of the Republican agenda. She supports Casada's bill.
As her lead legislator for the GOP's vision of education reform, Harwell named the social conservative Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville. One of his bills would require public schools to "create an environment" in which teachers "respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues" — namely, evolution and climate change.
With a straight face, Harwell insists the goal is to promote "critical thinking" by students. Even the Senate sponsor of this House-passed bill is embarrassed by it and decided to drop it.
"The bottom line is, we don't want to get into pointing fingers," Harwell says before pointing her finger at the Democrats. "I could pull out some Democratic bills that are a little unusual." She mentions a Democratic proposal directing teachers to hand out report cards grading parental participation in school activities.
"Perhaps penalizing parents for not participating in the school system, which is something the Democrats are offering right now, may be going a little bit extreme," Harwell says.
But it's hard to argue that report cards for parents are as crazy as the Republican hit parade. One bill by Senate Judiciary Committee chair Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet directs the federal government to surrender billions of dollars' worth of health care programs to the state government to administer.
Asked whether Tennessee's Republicans are capable of running Medicare, House GOP leader Gerald McCormick confesses even he sees that bill as a little strange.
"I don't think that's a real issue," he says, reassuringly. "The federal government's not going to turn Medicare over to the states."
"We've got 99 members, and anyone who wants to bring a bill about any subject can bring it, and that's part of the way our government works. ... The voters of Tennessee decided which party was wacky and far out of line with their views in November."
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey takes the same tack: "They've been calling us right-wing kooks for the last decade and it's now 64-34 in the House and 20-13 in the Senate," Ramsey says. "Baby, keep pouring it on, because the people of the state of Tennessee are with us."
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