This year in the General Assembly was a year of some major disappointments, but also one of some significant victories by the Tennessee Democratic Caucus. I’d like to take this moment to take a look back at this past year in the Legislature and some important events that took place in 2015:
The year started with Gov. Haslam’s Special Called Session for his Insure Tennessee proposal. The proposal was killed in a Senate sub-committee without even getting to the House or Senate floor for a full vote. Towards the end of the regular session, there was a move to revive the legislation but it was killed in another Senate committee and moved to summer study in a House subcommittee where it subsequently went nowhere. For the 280,000 working people who need Insure Tennessee right now, those actions dealt a devastating blow to their hopes of having access to quality, affordable healthcare. Democrats are not giving up the fight to pass Insure Tennessee. We have participated in rallies and held press conferences to keep the issue alive. We will continue building a bi-partisan coalition needed for passage and will introduce it again in 2016, 2017, 2018 or as long as it takes to get it passed.
Guns in Parks
The controversial Guns in Parks bill was a major topic of debate this year. The new law takes away a local municipality’s right to ban firearms in local parks, playgrounds and athletic fields and turns that authority over to the state of Tennessee. So if a high school baseball team was using the park, firearms would be prohibited, but if nine- and 10-year old Little Leaguers were using the park, guns would be allowed. Democrats fought against passing the bill into law but ultimately, the bill was passed. While the bill was opposed by the governor and numerous police and sheriff’s departments across the state, Gov. Haslam did sign it into law.
Fought against bad gun legislation
While the Guns in Parks bill did pass, Democrats defeated several bills that could have had dangerous repercussions. One would have allowed guns to be taken to places used, but not owned, by schools like a larger public stadium where a graduation or sporting event may be held. Another would have eliminated background checks to buy a gun if the purchaser received a valid gun permit in the past five years. In other words, you could get a gun permit, commit a gun crime, and if it’s less than five years, go buy another gun. Also killed was a bill that would have allowed a person to openly carry a gun without a permit.
Stand against Rep. Butt
The Tennessee Black Caucus took a stand against comments made by Rep. Sheila Butt (R-Columbia) on her Facebook page calling for creation of a NAAWP in America. NAAWP (National Association for the Advancement of White People) is an acronym that has been widely used by White supremacist organizations. The Caucus made a public call for her to apologize and called for her resignation from her position as House Majority Floor Leader. While the Republicans did not remove her from her leadership position, the actions of the caucus helped bring her repugnant comments to public attention and ensure that Tennesseans were made aware of them.
Toughened elder abuse laws
I sponsored a new law that required that a person convicted of abuse, neglect or exploitation of an adult more than 60 years old is fined. The fine would be between $50 and $200. The law also authorizes that the fines be used to fund services and programs for senior citizens.
Passed new Achievement School District guidelines
Under the new guidelines, a lower-performing school is allowed to stay under the control of the local district if it attains an assessment score of four or greater and if the local district assigns a new principal to the school. This gives districts more flexibility in preventing their schools from being taken over by the ASD.
Black Caucus holds Town Hall Meeting on mass incarceration
Things tend to slowdown after the Legislative session ends in April, but the Black Caucus continued its work throughout the year. In October, a day-long meeting on mass incarceration was held at the Legislative Plaza. Caucus members heard from several speakers and are considering several proposals for possible legislation in 2016. Among the proposals:
• Reviving the state’s sentencing commission to review and make needed changes in sentencing laws
• Look at alternative sentencing for individuals with drug or mental health problems
• Loosen sentencing guidelines for some nonviolent crimes, particularly those involving drug offenders
• Look at changing sentencing guidelines for offenders convicted of selling drugs near a school if it occurs during nights, weekends, summers or other times when no students are present
Black Caucus holds Poverty Symposium
In November, the Black Caucus met in Jackson and held a Poverty Symposium to discuss how poverty impacts life all across the state. The latest statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau say more than 17% of all Tennesseans live below the poverty level. A new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation also found that more than one-fourth of Tennessee children are living in poverty. We heard from professionals infields ranging from education to healthcare. Lawmakers again left the meeting armed with information that can be used to draft legislation for the upcoming 2016 legislative session.
Many of these issues will still be facing us next year. In addition to those mentioned above, here are a few other issues that are ahead of us in the next session:
Achievement School District takeover of schools
A Vanderbilt study in December showed that the ASD is not yet achieving its goals of moving the schools that it takes over into the top 25% of schools in the state. There is a movement that the Black Caucus will be addressing to keep the ASD from taking over any additional schools, at least until more progress is shown. Many Caucus members feel the money going to the ASD would be better suited funneled into Innovation Zone (I-zone) Schools, which the Vanderbilt study cited as showing great progress in moving schools forward. Legislation is expected this session to address these issues. Increasing funding for I-zone schools will be a priority.
The controversial school voucher bill died again last session and is almost certain for revival this session. Supporters say the bill helps students trapped in failing schools pay for a private school education. Opponents say vouchers don’t necessarily help students and drain public funds from schools where they’re needed most. The House Democratic Caucus publicly condemned the bill last year, setting the stage for another battle in 2016. In a similar issue, expect the tension between Charter schools that receive public funding and those that feel the money should go to the local school districts to continue to escalate.
By an extremely narrow margin, House lawmakers killed a bill on the final day of the session that would have allowed certain undocumented immigrant students who live in Tennessee to pay in-state tuition rates at colleges and universities. The bill had bi-partisan support and fell one vote short of the number need for passage. These students deserve our support and you can expect another strong push from both sides in the New Year.
Decentralization of the Board of Regents
Gov. Haslam has proposed creating independent Boards of Trust for state colleges and universities like Tennessee State University and the University of Memphis. There is significant support for the proposal and the Legislature will take up the issue in 2016.
Possible gas tax
The governor has also proposed increasing the gas tax this year to fund improvements to Tenn-essee’s roads and highways. That proposal has already been criticized by his own party’s leadership, saying it will never pass. This, along with other divides within the Republicans, will certainly bear watching this year.
Other funding issues
The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators is also preparing its budget priority list for the upcoming session.
Among our priorities:
• Funding for the Meharry Medical College Wellness Program
• Funding for African American museums across the state
• Equitable Land Grant funding for TSU
• Funding for the preservation of music institutions in Tennessee
This will be an important legislative session for many reasons. I look forward to hearing your concerns this year and working for you.
(Rep. Brenda Gilmore represents District 54 serving parts of Davidson County. She is also the current chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators.)