Tennessee's Legislature shifted quickly and radically two years ago from a centrist Democratic majority to a hard-right tea-party leaning entity, and lost its bearings along the way. Now it stands on the threshold of an extreme right-wing super-majority in both chambers that seems intent on quietly giving away the store to business interests and lobbyists, and slashing the state's core safety net programs, while distracting voters by loudly trumpeting social wedge issues and defaming teachers, immigrants, gays and women's reproductive rights.
In just the last legislative session, for example, lawmakers approved measures to hand hard state cash rather than tax abatements to new or expanding businesses, and to allow lobbyists' PACs to fully fund 100 percent of lawmakers' campaigns, up from already generous 50 percent limit.
They also sent a chill through the state's largest employers by driving bills -- now just temporarily postponed -- to let employees bring guns onto state college campuses and employers' parking lots, and to ban employers' rights even to ask employees if they're bringing guns to work. And, of course, they've moved to downgrade sensible environmental regulations on water and air quality, fracking and mountain top removal for strip mining coal.
All this is bad enough. But it's hardly the extent of the bad news. Through gerrymandering districts that had leaned Democratic, and squeezing residency rules to force incumbent Democrats into the same legislative and state senatorial districts, Republicans are poised to claim a super-majority in both the state House and Senate. That would give lawmakers ability to veto Gov. Haslam's occasional embrace of moderate policies -- for example, employers' rights to bar workers' from bringing guns onto their premises.
In this depressing circumstance, it's critical that voters in Hamilton County's partisan legislative elections mind their choices on the Nov. 6 ballot. One critical race involves the seat being vacated by state Sen. Andy Berke, one of four among the 13 Democrats left in the 33-member state Senate whose seat is up for grabs.
City Councilman Andraé McGary won the August primary for the Democratic nomination for the seat. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga investment broker, narrowly defeated Greg Vital for the Republican nomination. Though we respect Gardenhire and his work ethic, most of his agenda goes too far to the right. We recommend McGary for the job.
McGary is up against new and stiffer partisan odds in this race. The 10th state Senate District, like other legislative districts, was gerrymandered last year, splitting counties to reduce the Democratic base and boost Republicans. That increases Gardenhire's odds. Even so, insightful Republicans should see the benefit of thwarting creation of an extreme right-wing majority reeling with super-majority power.
McGary's promised agenda is entirely sensible and in the best interest of voters in the 10th District. He supports Gov. Haslam's focus on job creation, but he rightly sees the need to secure jobs that pay family wages and that can be filled by local workers. Both are relevant here. The jobs brought by Amazon, for example, are mostly low-wage. Volkswagen pays a bit better, but has advertised nationally for some factory jobs rather than investing more here in employee training.
He supports state implementation of the Affordable Care Act's mandate to establish insurance exchanges to provide affordable, flat-rate insurance to uninsured Tennesseans. Along with many Republicans, he believes the state should fulfill this duty rather than turn it over to the federal government. He also favors requiring county government to fulfill its duty under the 1977 Hospital Authority Act to provide an annual minimum of $3 million to Erlanger Hospital for indigent care. County government wrongly cut that minimal amount in half -- Erlanger's indigent-care costs run over $70 million -- when the city of Chattanooga let the old city-county sales tax agreement to expire.
McGary favors providing the state's demoralized teachers -- stripped last year of their bargaining authority -- a restored voice in curriculum, school funding and pay. He rightly opposes state vouchers, on the grounds that they weaken public schools and effectively subsidize private schools. His goals are to strengthen public schools and higher education, to involve broader support for urban "promise zone" schools, and to focus on securing the second half of the state's promised $25 million in BEP funding for Hamilton County schools to achieve parity with other counties;
He supports creating needed model legislation, with claw-back criteria, to regulate the use of tax increment financing to leverage economic development.
McGary would be up against tough odds in a Republican controlled legislature, but his voice there is needed. We endorse his election in the state's 10th senatorial district.