The big news for the Green Party of Tennessee this month is that the court finally ruled on our ballot access suit–which we filed over two years ago–the bad news is, they managed to drag their heels until it was too late for the ruling to apply to the upcoming election. The other potentially bad news is that the court instructed the Tennessee legislature to change the state’s laws to correct the problem. That could drag it out another two years, or it could get melded with some kind of tea-party nuttiness that would specifically allow people to carry concealed weapons at political rallies and mandate that political candidates must keep and bear arms at all times. If it’s good enough for Zach Wamp, it should be good enough for all other politicians, right? Drop something into the legislative hopper in this state, and you never know what will pop out the other end.
I wish the Green Party of Tennessee was big enough and high-powered enough that we could have, in response to this ruling, screamed out “JUSTICE DELAYED IS JUSTICE DENIED!!!” and had our high-powered lawyer bring the state’s electoral process to a screeching halt so we could declare our party affiliation on this year’s ballots, but the Green Party of Tennessee is a skeleton crew, a small band of friends keeping the faith until enough people in this state realize what an ideological treasure the ten key values are, how important the marriage of anti-corporatism and grass-roots control is, and create that famous “vast sucking sound” as they vacate the Democrat, Republican, and Tea parties to build a statewide Green Party that is a serious player in the state’s politics. So….let this cup pass from my hands, please.
WWGLD? What Would a Green Legislator Do? If we had a Green bloc in the Tennessee legislature, what positions would they take? How would they deal with a legislative agenda that would, at least in the early stages of our presence, be dominated by Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats?
And, although I think one of the first priorities of a Green caucus in the state legislature would be the introduction of instant runoff voting, to overcome the “spoiler effect” of a third party splitting the vote and allowing someone to win without a majority, or the need for an expensive second round of voting, it’s at least theoretically possible to elect a Green majority in the Tennessee legislature without any “three’s a crowd” elections–because 57 of the 99 seats in the House were not contested by one or the other major party, not to mention fully half the Senate seats. Yes, voters went to the ballot box and found they had not three, not two, but one choice, which is no choice at all. When I was a kid, I was told that the wonderful difference between America and Godless Communism was that here, we have a choice at the ballot box. Today, not only do nearly 60% of Tennessee’s voters not have a choice at the ballot box, the major-party gubernatorial candidates are hard to tell apart….Howard Switzer, you are the man! But I digress…..
An outfit called “The Progressive States Network” put together a concise but detailed summary of the state’s legislative record during the 2010 session. I’m going to use that as a kind of syllabus on which to hang my view of the Green Party’s positions on the issues in question. Bear in mind that the Green Party is a big tent, and while my “Deep Green Perspective” tends toward the radical fundamentalist Green view (no need to worry, tolerance of dissent is a radical fundamentalist Green value!), a Green who tends more toward the “realpolitik” end of the spectrum might think differently. The German Green Party refers to the two tendencies as “fundi” and “realo,” and I’ll use that terminology here.
Progressive States starts by giving the state kudos for the “First to the Top Act,” which resulted in $500 million in federal grants for the state’s schools.
Public education is a tricky issue for me. I view public schools as primarily a tool for indoctrinating kids to be good sheep, to sit quietly and listen to authority figures, no matter how boring or irrelevant, to get up early in the morning and leave home, just as they will be expected to commute to work later in life, to identify with sports teams as a patriotic duty, to memorize and regurgitate facts without necessarily understanding their significance, to submit to being drugged if they find it difficult to pay attention to things that are supposed to be important, and to be warned against taking other drugs on their own.
And all this is being done to train kids to enter a workforce–and a whole “American way of life”–that is dissolving before their eyes. No wonder they’re unhappy and unmotivated.
On the other hand, most parents are too busy running on the American treadmill to have the time to educate their own children. If they are part of the increasing number of unemployed Americans, and thus have some time to spend with their kids, they are all too frequently mind-numbed by television and the inadequacies of their own public school educations, and feel inadequate for the task of teaching their children.
So, it seems like we are going to need some kind of public institution to instruct youth in what life is about. Such an institution should emphasize problem-solving and coping skills; but what we are emphasizing instead, and what the legislation cited above panders to, is standard test performance, which, ultimately, measures a kid’s ability to take tests and little else. Likewise, student performance on tests is a very poor standard by which to judge teachers. It hampers teachers from inspiring kids’ imaginations and firing up their aspirations, which are far more important to later life than the ability to get a good grade on a standard test. I should know. I was very good at taking standard tests, and there are people who will tell you that I haven’t been good at anything much since. F’rinstance, I’m having a hard time sticking to the topic of “a Green look at the Tennessee legislative agenda!”
As a “fundi” Green, I would probably have voted against this legislation, but I think a “realo” Green would have supported it. I think both fundis and realos would agree to push legislation that would move the state in the direction of fostering less structure and more creativity in our public school systems–but the details should be handled at the local level, where I hope we will soon see a surge in Green-oriented school board members, running on the “unschooling” principles of John Holt , John Taylor Gotto, and Ivan Illich.
Progressive States also gave us high marks for The Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010 , which
“creates a new funding formula for public colleges and universities that is based on student success rather than enrollment. It also creates a statewide transfer policy to allow students who graduate from two-year community colleges to move on to four-year universities as a junior.”
My opinion of the value of college is similar to my view of primary and secondary education–somewhat dubious. Much of what is taught in community colleges is “job skills,” which can result in a great deal more people being trained to be computer programmers, massage therapists, telephone sanitizer, blacksmiths, or whatever, than the job market can absorb. Too often, this results in these young individuals being saddled with large debts that they have to struggle to repay and cannot escape, even through bankruptcy. To me,it makes more sense to re-institute apprenticeship for job training.
What college-level education is good for is facilitating communication between an inspired teacher and students who want to learn what he has to teach. This is not about job skills, it’s about great ideas–literary, mathematical, scientific, cultural, spiritual. It is important for people to get together to learn and discuss and expand their horizons, not just for two or four years of college, but throughout their entire lives. This is what ought to replace American Idle (sic) and (un)reality television.
OK, off my fundi soapbox and back to the legislation at hand. Funding colleges based on how many students stick around, rather than how many sign up initially, sounds like an intelligent change to me, and, given that the courses of study are supposed to be synchronized, allowing community college graduates to enter four-year schools as Juniors seems like, as they say, a no-brainer. My realo side would have supported this legislation, after letting my fundi self rant and rave as above.
I’ve been going on for quite a while here, and I’ve still only covered the first two pieces of legislation. Let’s take a musical break and then I’ll have more to say on this essential topic.
Grateful Dead: “Tennessee Jed” (first half)
And now, back to analytical thinking!
The next bill Progressive States highlights is SB 3870/HB 3804, which “raised the ceiling for eligibility for Federal energy assistance to low-income families.”
This is legislation that Greens would definitely support. All too often, rising prices caused by climate change and increasing resource scarcity fall on the shoulders of those least able to bear them, for the simple reason that those who can afford lobbyists get laws passed that shunt the burden away from them. This proposal is half of the “carbon tax” equation: tax importers and producers of products that increase the carbonization of our environment, which will raise the price of their products and, hopefully, decrease demand, but pass most of the tax on to lower-income people so they can afford to keep the lights and heat on while we figure out lower-impact alternatives.
The legislature also passed a bill that changed sentencing guidelines, increasing the amount of jail time armed robbers have to serve, but eliminating mandatory jail time for a wide variety of non-violent, property-related crimes involving petty forgery, theft, vandalism, and burglary. As a Green, I would approve of this bill, but would have to ask, “why not decriminalize marijuana possession and small-scale growing while you’re at it?”
Practically speaking, that might have been pushing things too far in the current legislature–some Republicans practically had a hissy fit as it was.
And, to climb up on my fundi soapbox once again, I have a hard time with increasing jail sentences, even for crimes involving the threat of deadly force, because there is virtually nothing being done in the way of rehabilitation in our current prison system. Warehousing somebody for six years is unlikely to change him or her in any positive way. If we are going to incarcerate people, we need to be very proactive with them while they are locked up–we need to find ways to motivate them to understand and move beyond their antisocial behaviors, and we need to help them learn skills that will make them useful members of society when we release them–and, rather than having inflexible mandatory minimums, an inmate’s rehab team should be sensitive to real change, if or when it occurs, and reward real change with increasing degrees of freedom.
Campaign Finance Reform: In response to the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling, the legislature approved the bipartisan SB 3198/HB 3182, which would make corporations play by the same rules as political action committees and require public disclosure of political donations for independent expenditures.
This bill is a tremendous credit to our legislature, and I am saying that as someone who generally has a low opinion of it. The US House and Senate, despite a great deal of angry rhetoric, have done nothing to respond to the Supreme Court’s bizarre ruling, but Tennessee’s legislature, dominated by pro-business Republicans who won’t even outlaw mountaintop removal despite the fact that tourists attracted by scenic beauty are a bigger financial engine for the state than coal mining companies, managed to put at least a small bell on the fat cat who is angling to take over politics in this country. Thanks, ladies and gentlemen, and the Green Caucus would be with you all the way on this one.
More kudos, this time for what the legislature didn‘t do:
Defeating Anti-Immigrant Legislation: An effort to eliminate translations of the written driving exam was defeated in the House Budget Subcommittee. Over thirty-five other anti-immigrant bills were defeated in the Tennessee legislature this year.
I think we need to change the way we view people who were born, or whose families come from, south of the Rio Grande. They’re not “Hispanic.” Most of them are no more of Spanish ancestry than they are Chinese. They are genuine, honest-to-Goddess Native Americans, and we white folks are not. Their ancestors have been moving back and forth across what we have declared to be a “border” since long before we were here to call it a border. It is we who are the newcomers, not they, and it would be much easier and cheaper to adjust our laws and immigration policies to reflect this than to build an Iron Curtain from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific in order to restrain them. Besides, it’s our country’s economic policies, imposed on Mexico via NAFTA (Thanks, bill Clinton!) that destroyed their ability to earn a living in their homeland, and it’s incredibly hypocritical of U.S. politicians to ignore this. But this is a national question, not a Tennessee legislative question, and I’m digressing again. I love to digress…I guess you can tell.
One of the legislature’s loudest gaffes was the attempt to pass legislation directing the state attorney general to join the lawsuit that is trying to stop Obama’s health care bill from being implemented. This is a subject of some equivocation for Greens. We don’t like what I refer to as the Health Insurance Company Bailout Act either, but for exactly the opposite reasons that Republicans get all foamy-mouthed over it–we think it doesn’t go far enough. It’s as if Teddy Roosevelt, instead of breaking the trusts, passed laws mandating that everyone had to buy from the trusts or be fined. I think we might sit this issue out, but do what we could to create better health care for people in Tennessee.
For instance, Tenncare doesn’t cover dental work. I have a friend who’s indigent and on Tenncare, which is paying large sums of money to treat him for several conditions. But they won’t take care of his teeth, which are sparse and rotten, and could become infected and kill him.
So we Greens would be looking for ways to expand Tenncare and, of course, new sources of funding for this, which leads to the next item on our agenda, a bill that failed to pass:
Fair Taxation: SB 1741/HB 1947 would have required out-of-state corporations that are not required to collect Tennessee sales tax to report annually the amount of their customers’ purchases to the customer and to the state Dept. of Revenue.
There are two questions involved here: the first is that increased internet commerce is eroding local sales and sales tax collections, which are a big chunk of Tennessee’s revenue stream, because the state does not have an income tax, which is what most states depend on for the bulk of their revenue. Tennessee’s sales tax approaches ten percent in many locations, one of the highest in the nation, and is regressive in nature because low- and middle-income taxpayers spend more of their income on taxable items than higher income taxpayers. Greens would likely support the Tax Modernization and Economic Stimulus Act (SB2054 / HB2182), which would repeal sales taxes on groceries, cut other sales taxes from an average of 8% to around 5%, and institute a state income tax keyed to the national income tax–which means many middle- and low-income households, aka most of the people in the state, wouldn’t owe the state any income tax.
Of course, this doesn’t deal with the decline in actual income that so many are experiencing due to the economy falling apart, but it would put taxation on a fairer basis. The current conservative movement, composed largely of the wealthy, once wealthy, and would-be wealthy, has forgotten the principle of noblesse oblige: the wealthy and powerful have a moral obligation to help those who have not been so fortunate. To put it in terms Tennessee’s evangelical Christians will understand; Jesus said: “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me.”
And speaking of taking care of people, a bill to establish a “Department of Aging” in Tennessee did not pass. Now, perhaps this would create a pointless bureaucracy, and perhaps we are going down the tubes so fast that it will never happen, but at this point we have increasing numbers of people living longer, some of whom are perfectly healthy, some of whom need a lot of help, and some of whom are being mistreated.
One thing that would be an important step towards better senior care would be to make it easier for people who need help to receive it in their own homes rather than in nursing homes, which have become the recipients of a shocking share of our country’s inheritable wealth over the last few decades. Children don’t get the benefit of inheritances from their parents because eldercare is sucking it all up. This is helping to impoverish the country, and needs to be stopped, and yes, the nursing home lobby spends a lot of money in Nashville, with the result that 96% of state funding for senior care goes to nursing homes, and only 4% for home care. This is highway robbery, ladies and gentlemen.
Speaking of highway robbery, predatory lending is another vampire practice the legislature failed to stop this year. The strongest bill would have capped payday lending rates at 100%APR, but even that softball approach couldn’t get any traction. Shame, shame. The Green Caucus would push for much tighter restrictions than that.
I already mentioned that the legislature wouldn’t act to protect the state from mountaintop removal, but it’s worth noting that the bill to restrict this radical, selfish, ecocidal practice was supported by ” every major Christian denomination in the state.” Despite a lot of bloviation of legislators about America being a Christian nation, they’ll only push that as far as it will go without interfering with campaign contributions.
Did I mention yet that it’s a fundamental principle of the Green Party not to take corporate campaign contributions? Green legislators would go to Nashville to represent the best interests of the people of their districts, not the best interests of their major corporate donors.
The legislature took some giant steps backwards on abortion:
Both chambers approved a measure banning insurers from offering abortion coverage. But legislators didn’t stop there:
Legislators also approved SJR 127, which would remove the right to abortion found in the Tennessee Constitution by the state Supreme Court. Before going to the 2014 ballot for voters to ultimately decide, it must first pass each chamber in the next two-year General Assembly by 2/3 vote.
SB 3812/HB 3301 would levy a fine of $2,500 per day against any facility performing abortions that doesn’t post signs declaring it illegal to force a woman into terminating a pregnancy. Additionally, physicians would be fined $1,000 per day whenever he/she conducts an abortion and the signs are not posted.
That last bill goes so far as to define the size of type that the sign must be printed in, and it’s BIG. This is Christian Sharia, people, especially since the legislature voted down a proposal mandating the presence of an equally large sign pointing out that it is also illegal to force a woman to continue a pregnancy against her will.
I think you can tell that Green legislators would have objected to these bills in no uncertain terms, als well as the “guns in bars” bill, which is akin to mandating that citizens throw lighted matches at any gasoline spill they see. The legislature also passed a law preventing local health boards from requiring restaurants to post nutritional information on their menus. That might, indeed, be a bit unwieldy, but it’s also the state intervening to prohibit local control, which runs contrary to the Green Party’s principles.
That gets us to the end of Progressive State’s report on Tennessee. I’ve sprinkled it with some references to the kind of legislation a Green Caucus might introduce in Tennessee, but what else might we do that didn’t even come up in our legislature’s somewhat limited (but somewhat fevered) imagination?
We would rein in the state’s out-of-control highway budget, which has already built us a set of roads that will probably last longer than we will have cars and fuel to drive on them. Hey, they’ll make horse transportation easy, at least until the bridges fail.
Simple calls for “mass transit” ignore the fact that our auto-dependent population is too scattered for there to be any “masses” to transport, the decline in the number of people who actually have a job to go to, and the decline in revenue as the tax and commuter base shrinks. What we really need to do is look at ways to reconcentrate people, to create walkable/bikeable communities that don’t need a lot of infrastructure–rail or road–to function. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I am not such a legislative wonk that I can spell out in detail how the Tennessee legislature could encourage this.
This leads into the whole concept of preparing to transition out of the age of wealth and petroleum that is all we have ever known. A great deal has been made of encouraging local agriculture, but local agriculture, to be truly viable, needs a whole local infrastructure to supply its needs: urban composting operations to provide fertilizer, local foundries and forges to make tools and implements, local tanneries to make leather for local shoes and also for local tack shops to outfit the horses that, sooner or later, are going to replace our automobiles. How much of this would make any sense whatsoever to our current crop of legislators?
Well, back to more immediate practicalities. Urban composting–that’s down to earth. Tennessee’s current waste disposal and recycling laws are being reviewed, and there are hopes among many activists that we will soon see a much more recycling and repurposing-friendly way of doing things–again, the waste-disposal lobby doesn’t want their bottom line to suffer, and they have plenty of funds with which to persuade legislators to see things their way–but everybody knows that landfills are filling and leaking and new sites are hard to come by. This one is so urgent that it may be solved in a reasonably intelligent way before the Green contingent hits the state legislature.
Oh, and of course we would have resist the move to postpone a return to recountable voting. If I had more time, I’d be talking about all the ways a party can steal an election–and touch screen voting is only the tip of the iceberg.
Well, I think I’ve gone on plenty long enough about this…maybe too long! Let’s get back to Tennessee Jed.
Grateful Dead: “Tennessee Jed” (second half)