By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN — In a remote press conference last week, Democrats summed up the Tennessee 2020 Legislative Session. They expressed disappointment with their Republican colleagues who control the House and Senate. Tornados, a pandemic, and a whole bunch of bad Republican bills did not leave much in the way of good news to report.
“Tennesseans are worried about the pandemic, the recession, their healthcare, their kids’ schools, their parents in nursing homes, and the justice, if you will, of our justice system. Instead they got a Governor and legislature who just couldn’t summon the strength to lead,” said Senator Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville).
Yarbro said Republicans were “mind-bogglingly out of touch. Rather than step up to the challenges of this moment, Republican fell back into the old habit of divisiveness that Tennesseans are sick of,” he said.
Rep. Harold Love (D-Nashville) said lawmakers missed a chance to get rid of the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest on the 2nd floor of the State Capitol.
“I think it was a missed opportunity for the legislature not to consider legislation about how we could de-escalate force, talk about how we could have bias training, talk about how we could be more proactive in the way that we address race and justice in Tennessee.” Love said.
Senator Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) talked about education. “This year we know that out schools are facing probably the biggest trouble of our lifetimes,“ Akbari said.
In addition to the normal achievement gaps, she said students will have much catching up to do because they have not been in schools for several months.
“The final budget that we passed in March cut education by $70 million dollars. It took away pay raises for our teachers,” Akbari said.
The democrats were unable to get an additional $150 million into the budget for schools. Many districts are facing cutbacks from their local governments. Akbari said Knox, Jackson, and Wilson counties will have to lay off teachers and teaching assistants this year.
“This is a time when our students need the most support, not the least amount,” she said.
The Democrats’ plan was to use $150 million of COVID relief funds and reallocate it to the states school system. Under the CARES Act, the federal government would have reimbursed the money. Republicans voted against the idea.
House Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Stewart (D-Nashville) said the 2020 session was focused on politics instead of peoples’ health.
“The ‘signature’ health bill that was passed was not Medicaid expansion, long overdue,” said Stewart. He slammed the Republicans for passing an abortion bill in the dead of night after they had already announced they were not going to address the issue.
Stewart said the abortion bill was passed because Senate and House Republicans did some horse trading at the last moment before the session ended. House Republicans wanted the bill and gave Senate Republicans money for things on their wish list in exchange for the Senate approving the anti-abortion bill.
Lawmakers attempted to pass a bill that would make telemedicine more widely accessible in the short term and permanently expand the use of telemedicine in the state; however, the Legislature adjourned before a compromise could be reached between the differing House and Senate versions of the bill.
Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Leader Karen Camper thanked Democratic lawmakers for making a concerted effort to protect citizens when the pandemic hit, notably for going to bat for the unemployed.
“We kept pressuring the administration. It was our caucus that pushed the administration to do all the things that needed to be done. In essence we became social workers for our constituents so they could get their unemployment checks,” Camper said.
Camper lauded caucus member for fighting hard for healthcare protections, for small business funding, and to protect the state’s schoolchildren.
There was some good news. Senator Brenda Gilmore (D-Nashville) found a Republican co-sponsor and managed to pass a bill that reduces the size of drug-free zones around schools and parks.
“It’s something I would like to see done because it will impact the 70 % of people in prison who are African American men as a result of the School Zone law,” she said.
Undercover narcotics officers have been known to lure people into those zones to make drug buys. That happened to a young man who made a bad choice 18 years ago.
Gilmore said he had unpaid bills and sold drugs to an informant, was convicted, and got a 32-year sentence. It was his first. He had never been in trouble with the law before.
“There is no probation. You have to serve out 100 % of whatever your sentence is. That law is really a tragedy. Most of the people who are in prison have long sentences and sometimes law enforcement would lead them into this zone on purpose just to get them trapped,” Gilmore said.
She said she hoped to pass a bill next year to make the new law retroactive and get severe drug sentences reduced.