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Opinion: Tennessee General Assembly becoming anti-democracy


Critics have claimed that new House rules are keeping the people from being able to express their opinions of actions by the Tennessee legislature. FILE PHOTO

This writer has, unfortunately, been witness to many anti-democratic acts by our Tennessee legislature. So many so, that I’m not sure where to start. Do I start a few years ago when the Tennessee House changed committee voting norms from roll call to voice votes? Even though the National Library of Medicine states on behalf of PubMed that “Unless some control is imposed on the sound level of individual voters, it is difficult to establish even a two-thirds majority, much less a simple majority.”

Not only is this type of voting system unreliable, but it also allows lawmakers to hide their voting choices. As of right now, if you want to see how a representative voted during a committee hearing you need to hope that they requested for their vote to be published on the General Assembly website. A couple of years after this switch, a Republican representative has asked for roll call votes to return as the norm in committee hearings. Noting that us constituents expect our lawmakers to have the courage to stand by their vote. This request was not only shot down, but it was also mocked by the chairman of the committee.

In 2023 Tennessee proudly put forward their Slate of Hate, joining other red states in our country. Tennessee introduced over 20 anti-LGBTQ+ bills stretching from attacking same-sex marriage to allowing teachers to possibly mentally harm their students; and even bills threatening doctors should they preform life-saving surgery on children or pregnant people.

The Tennessee legislature also displayed its fear of knowledge when they further restricted “divisive concepts” in higher education. These concepts include topics of racism and sexism. Residents from across the state came to our Cordell Hull Building to testify against such ignorant legislation. With misinformation and the Bible used as citation, many of these discriminatory bills passed.

Towards the end of the legislative session in April, tragedy hit Nashville. Another mass shooting resulted in the deaths of six people, half of which were under the age of 10. For years, for decades in fact, lax firearm legislation and disinterested politicians have allowed our nation to choose guns over children.

With such a common heartbreak hitting a state built on community, the people showed up. Constituents all over the state came back to our legislature tenfold, we met with lawmakers and asked for common-sense gun laws – something well over half of Tennesseans want.

Hundreds of people asked their representatives to begin to turn Tennessee into a safer state and what was the response of our GOP? Business as usual, end the session. While many of our lawmakers ignored the hundreds of constituents literally begging “Gun reform, now.” “Save our kids.” “Do your job.”

Eventually our pleas were actualized by three Democratic legislators: Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson. These three representatives left their desks, approached the well with a bullhorn and gun-reform signs and represented their constituents. After all too many times of having their microphones cut off in hearings, these new forms of communication were necessary. Thousands of people who had been begging for legislative change had been ignored no longer. The Tennessee Three reprimanded their colleagues on the other side of the aisle for their lack of leadership.

Justin Jones looked his counterparts in the eyes and said, “How are we to address this crisis at hand? Our people are asking us to act.” Words he has surely shared with the GOP behind closed doors. Justin Pearson thanked us. He thanked us for taking time away from school or work. Personally, I lost my health insurance because my hours at work dropped just below the minimum to qualify. And Gloria Johnson stood behind our young representatives as they attempted to wrangle in justice and order in a place where both had been actively denied. And for this act of representation and solidarity, our two youngest black representatives were expelled from their seats. They were immediately voted back into office, as expected.

In 2023 the Tennessee GOP not only attacked their LGBTQ+ and child-bearing constituents by removing our rights and ignoring our fears, but they had destroyed their support system by allowing their children to die. The cries of grieving mothers echoed through the Capitol halls while the Speaker of the House laughed in their faces. Younger generations begged their lawmakers to protect them by passing common-sense gun laws; instead those lawmakers asked them what kind of firearm they’d like to be shot with. Democratic lawmakers risked their careers to try to introduce justice into Southern government.

Tennessee far-right legislators looked at a sorrowful and scared community and decided to do nothing but offer thoughts and prayers. While blaming murder solely on mental health, our lawmakers ended the legislative session with many frustrated constituents further questioning the competency of our General Assembly.

Gun-reform rallies were planned throughout the spring and summer which consistently brought in crowds. Constituents contacted their representatives calling for gun reform. Eventually Gov. Bill Lee called for a special session to focus on public safety. When a special legislative session is going on, bills proposed must only be revolving around what the session was called for. Since this special session was not specifically called for firearm legislation, gun reform was not proposed or considered. Or at least that we know of. Rep. John Ray Clemmons mentioned at the beginning of the special session that some of his proposed legislation was not filed nor published for public viewing like it normally would be.

Over 100 bills were debated during this session, not a single one aiming for common-sense gun laws. There were a lot of filler bills that brought on no change, there were bills protecting mental health professionals instead of helping the mentally ill, and there were bills that pretended to be on the side of responsible gun ownership yet held no reinforcement. But I am not here to go over the bills that 2023 offered, instead I want to talk about the deception and crass behavior that the Tennessee GOP displayed to try to keep the people out of the people’s House and how it transferred into 2024.

During the special session, law enforcement roped off approximately half of the Capitol rotunda, seemingly to allow less constituents into the people’s House. Police presence has also seemed to increase, and these practices have crossed over into this current legislative session.

We also saw new rules that teetered on the edge of being dangerous in 2023. On the first day of the special session, water bottles were not allowed inside the Capitol despite the over 100-degree heat. Water fountains were cut off and bathroom sinks are already designed in a difficult way if you were to need drinking water. This has not been repeated in 2024. However, a new rule disallowing constituents to use the access tunnel 30 minutes before or after a hearing begins has. This can cause damage to those needing to walk long distances to arrive at the people’s House.

This writer has a steel plate in one of her ankles, she used to use the access tunnel to avoid a large hill that has affected her mobility. Now that option is limited. This access tunnel could also help get us out of the elements faster. With temperatures reaching below 0 degrees, a warm trip through the tunnel could make all the difference in our experience.

In the summer of 2023, our Tennessee Legislature took away one of the two balconies from constituents and designated them for lobbyists and media. These balconies were built so citizens can watch our legislature at work. Perhaps our GOP realized they couldn’t get away with such a blatant denial of transparency because now, in 2024, they have made up a ticket system! Out of thin air our legislators are given a single ticket to allow one constituent onto the balcony that was previously stripped from us. In fact, this new system was so out of nowhere that some (if not all) Democratic representatives were not informed of this rule until just before the session began.

On what was marked to be the last day of 2023’s special session, constituents were given the runaround when the full House hearing was rescheduled multiple times on the same day, forcing people to change their plans over and over. A similar situation happened on the first day of 2024’s legislative session. On the day that new House rules were to be voted on, they weren’t. The House of Representatives gaveled in, went through welcoming & honoring, rolled through announcements, then adjourned for the day.

They rescheduled the rule change vote for the next day. Unfortunately, most people were not able to bear witness to these proceedings. Luckily local activists showed up and held their representatives accountable for their votes on both the new House rules as well as silencing Rep. Justin Jones.

Speaking of silencing representatives and their constituents, rules from the special session on this act seemed to have passed along into 2024. One of the new rules voted on states that if a lawmaker is called out of order a certain amount of time in one day, they are not to be allowed to debate for the rest of that day. Should this happen again, this time is extended. And again, extended again. This type of rule effectively silences tens of thousands of constituents and denies our legislative process of a proper debate. Under amendments to Rule #19, should this scenario start to play out, a representative may be limited to only two minutes of debate, then possibly none.

We also saw new House rules limiting the time a representative has to present a bill and respond in debate. During this portion of debate, our Republican lawmakers blamed this on Democratic representatives speaking too much during debate. This writer believes this greatly shows a lack of dedication from the right side of the aisle, to say the least. Democracy has been struggling in Tennessee for a long time and now it seems to be held on to by a thread. Let’s not forget that under the new House rules, a speaker no longer needs to call on representatives by order of hand raised, now they could choose between debate or calling on someone that is known to call for vote on bills.

In 2023, when two of our youngest black representatives were expelled, they were immediately voted back into office a few months later. Now a resolution has been introduced that would make that re-election impossible for four years. Just as well, in 2023 Tennessee saw an incredibly progressive ballot to which we elected our first transgender woman into a city council! Now a bill has been proposed increasing the number of signatures required to even run for candidacy. It almost feels like our legislature is gatekeeping who may represent the people.

These unjust acts from our GOP cannot go unnoticed as they trickle from 2023 into 2024. We’re seeing a legislative body be met with fierce opposition to their bigotry, and as a result we are also seeing proposed legislation that heavily changes the way our democracy has worked for many years. We are watching the GOP try to suppress our voices, whether that be 2023’s unconstitutional attempt to ban signs or other vindictive acts like silencing the people’s choice of representation. As the first month of our 2024 legislative session ends, we are being met with a lot of unjust acts against constituents. Acts that affect how we are represented and possibly how we may vote.

So, now what? Now is the time to organize and act. Now is the time to speak, or even testify. Now is the time to show up and offer a face to the legislative harm. Now is the time to make sure our lawmakers know our eyes are wide open. Now is the time to contact your representative, or any representative, and talk this through. Now is the time to link up with organizations you are able to help. Now is the time to vote the anti-democratic out and take their seats.

All 99 seats of Tennessee’s House of Representatives are up for re-election this year. Are you happy with your district representation?