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Tennessee Democrats Discuss Missed Opportunities, Lessons Learned From This Year’s Legislative Ses

It was a tough year for the minority party in the state legislature, and after the session’s wrap earlier this week, Democratic lawmakers criticized Republican for focusing on what they called “Fox News problems” instead of making life better for Tennesseans.

Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis, says the pandemic allowed Americans to slow down and see who we really are as a country. But she says this year’s session showed that some lawmakers are more interested in controlling the conversation than listening.

“America is dealing with itself right now, and this legislation is a reflection of how some people believe or want to control how that is going forward in the state of Tennessee,” Camper says. “On one hand, yeah, it was horrible to go through that. But it also revealed to us about how people actually feel about some of this stuff. And it can create dialogue, which is my hope.”

Party members lamented missed opportunities to take bolder steps on criminal justice reform, medical marijuana, healthcare and education. Many were also disappointed by Republicans’ decision in the midst of a pandemic to cap unemployment benefits at 12 weeks.

They said the legislature should have voted to invest more in schools and social services to support Tennesseans in need, especially since the state had a revenue surplus.

In a statement, Gov. Bill Lee praised state lawmakers for approving his entire legislative agenda, including spending for rural broadband, expanding postpartum care for people in TennCare and eliminating the state’s gun permit requirement.

“I commend the legislature for their work this session to pass measures that will benefit Tennesseans and continue our reputation for conservative fiscal management,” Lee said.

‘Culture war’ rather than innovation

But Sen. Raumesh Abkbari, D-Memphis, says lawmakers had the chance to be innovative. Instead “culture war-type legislation sucked the oxygen out of the room.” She points out that Tennessee spends less on schools than nearly every other state, but that legislators chose not to use excess funds to substantially increase the education budget.

Akbari also notes that Tennessee is one of the few states that is incarcerating more people each year, even though lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed support for criminal justice reform. Gov. Bill Lee has said since his campaign that the issue is one of his priorities.

“We might have passed a couple of good pieces of legislation, but then we passed other legislation that were two or three steps back,” Akbari says. “It’s like if we want to do something that helps folks, we have to do something else that possibly harms them.”

For instance, the legislature approved bills to prevent the execution of individuals with intellectual disabilities and to provide more supports for people leaving prison. But it also passed bills to increase sentences for people with illegal guns and strip police oversight boards of their power if members don’t complete law enforcement training within a year of their appointment.

Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, was especially disturbed by a bill passed in the last week of session that prohibits public school teachers from teaching about racism and inequality in a way that could cause “discomfort” to students. He says the legislation will deter conversations at a time when he thinks more education about race and slavery is needed. Dixie hopes lawmakers can focus more on working together next session.

“We cannot afford to have another General Assembly session where we pass more divisive bills,” he says. “Our job should be to celebrate our differences, to make sure everybody understands that we’re all more alike than we are different. But we have to make sure that we come together and teach our kids and our grandkids, because our job is to make this world a better place than we found it.”

Democrats say their next priority is to ensure that the new census data doesn’t lead to unfair redistricting. And they’ll be thinking about strategies to push their agenda next year.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.

Copyright 2021 WPLN News

Samantha Max covers criminal justice for WPLN and joins the newroom through the Report for America program. This is her second year with Report for America: She spent her first year in Macon, Ga., covering health and inequity for The Telegraph and macon.com.