SAME OLD TENNESSEE WALTZ

19 07 2005

By now, every Tennessean who isn’t brain-dead—about 33% of the adult population, according to one recent survey—knows about Operation Tennessee Waltz, a sting operation in which the FBI set up a dummy corporation that paid bribes to Tennessee lawmakers so they would introduce legislation favorable to the corporation. The bill actually attracted several co-sponsors who weren’t bribed, but should have been indicted—except that it’s not illegal just to be stupid and venal.

The day after the arrests, Speaker of the Senate John Wilder prayed publicly for his busted colleagues, calling what had happened “entrapment.” The sad thing is, he was right—getting paid to introduce legislation is just business as usual for Tennessee legislators.. A dismaying amount of what is supposed to be public policy in this state is designed for the benefit of special interest groups—from the sales tax that benefits the wealthy to the welfare-for-contractors outfit known as the Department of Transportation to the facts that you can buy beer, but not wine or distilled spirits, in grocery stores, and that you can’t buy beer in a store that sells wine and distilled spirits.

Now, I am not a big fan of any form of alcoholic beverage, but I see no point whatsoever in this peculiar arrangement. Former governor and beer distributor Ned Ray McWherter wanted it that way, though, so that’s how it is.  Yep, folks, the plain fact is that the law in Tennessee is for sale to the highest bidder, even on days when the FBI isn’t trolling for suckers.

Our legislature is busy minding the short-term bottom line, spending money in ways that make them richer but that leave us unprepared for the kind of future we are likely to have—one without the plentiful fossil fuels it takes to make good use of all these roads and sprawled-out cities. When I look at what goes on in the Tennessee legislature, I have to roll my eyes and clutch my stomach at the way nearly everything they do is and say is irrelevant and out of touch.

You, dear listener, could most assuredly do a better job than your current state legislators. Please—get together with your friends, get up a nominating petition, and start talking. It’s not too early. You probably won’t win the next election, or even the one after that. But what else can we do but go for it? The hour is getting late.

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