The Tennessee General Assembly has adjourned for 2009, but the actions taken by legislators have had many Davidson County residents scratching their heads.
While everyone was expecting a more conservative legislature due to Republicans taking the numerical majority in the state House, the impact they had on the state’s most populous counties is still being felt.
Why that was the case could have more to do with the difference between rural and urban lawmakers and less to do with Republicans and Democrats.
Whether it was the guns-in-bars legislation or the women’s health bill, there is no denying that rural legislators were more visibly influential this year.
One legislator told The City Paper that “a lot of these issues pit urban interests against rural… Rural legislators flexed their muscle and showed they have the real power in this state.”
Rural legislators do make up the majority of both houses and the ideological divide between Democrat and Republican is nothing compared to that between urban and rural.
Dissecting the action
Easily the most talked about law born this year is the “guns in bars” or “guns in restaurants” bill. Unless your local watering hole hangs up a sign saying “no shirts, no shoes, no handguns” you could be drinking next to someone packing heat.
Local restaurant owners are calling it an “unfunded mandate” as their insurance liability costs are rising with or without a sign and current and former members of the Metro Council are pulling out all the stops to overturn the law.
At the center of the opposition were legislators from both Nashville and Memphis. They were joined by the top law enforcement officials from their counties and tried to warn of the dangers of mixing guns and alcohol, even pleading to opt their counties out of the bill.
Historically, when a majority of legislators from a county want to remove their county from the effects of a proposed law, legislative courtesy will allow. Apparently that isn’t the case anymore.
In addition to the new gun laws, other measures passed through the legislature affect the state’s biggest counties despite the opposition of their elected officials.
A bill proposed by State Rep. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) met with vehement opposition from virtually all the members of the Davidson and Shelby County delegations regarding the distribution of state and federal funds for women’s health programs.
Well, that’s what the bill said, but it specifically was aimed at Planned Parenthood, which is contracted by both Davidson and Shelby counties to provide women’s health services. They are the only counties in the state to contract out the program.
Throughout the course of discussion on this legislation, legislators on both sides of the aisle pointed out that Planned Parenthood was the target. Hensley and other proponents of the legislation are staunch pro-life advocates and Planned Parenthood is one of the most vocal pro-choice entities in the nation. The purpose of the legislation was an effort to cut away at the funding for the group.
Proponents of the bill said the purpose was to treat every county in the state equally and give priority to county health departments. Hensley used a letter from a nurse with Metro’s Health Department during the debate stating that Metro wanted to use the money.
Davidson County legislators pointed out that the letter was more than two years old and wasn’t applicable to the situation. They forced Hensley to admit that he had not spoken to anyone from either the Davidson or Shelby County Health Departments to find out the need to change a law that only affected those two counties.
Despite their protestations, the bill passed. Tennessee Right to Life praised the action.
“Giving first priority to local health departments strengthens the provision of service to vulnerable populations without favoring an entity [Planned Parenthood] which has a significant financial interest in the success or failure of those services," said the organization’s president Brian Harris.
However, state Rep. Sherry Jones (D-Nashville) sees it a bit differently.
Asked about the Planned Parenthood legislation, Jones was circumspect, “If that’s the way that things are gonna go, we are a little more progressive. They want to live by their standards, but it is a detriment to our people.”
When discussing the 2009 General Assembly as a whole, Jones said, “It was a difficult year, everything is upside down. I guess there are a lot of people who don’t like what we have for our citizens.”
Asked if she and other Davidson County officials would meet more extensively with Shelby County officials before next year’s session, Jones said, “We need to talk about these issues when we go to the floor. It’s a different world up there now.”
Another example of the legislature doing an end-run around Metro’s Health Department was a bill by State Rep. Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet).
Metro’s Health Department was considering a requirement that restaurants print nutritional information on their menus. Davidson County was the only county considering the move, but before the Health Department issued any rulings the legislature passed a law preventing them from doing so.
The fact that rural legislators wielded significant influence this year is nothing compared to what it used to be. The power that they once held became what is arguably the most important Supreme Court case of the 20th century.
In 1960, Shelby County Republican Charles W. Baker alleged that a 1901 law designed to apportion the seats for the General Assembly had been virtually ignored. Baker's suit detailed how Tennessee's reapportionment efforts ignored significant economic growth and population shifts within the state.
The case, which became Baker v. Carr, centered around the fact that Tennessee had not redistricted since the census of 1901. Population centers in the state had shifted such that his district in Shelby County had about 10 times as many residents as some of the rural districts.
A local example can be found with current Comptroller for the State of Tennessee Justin P. Wilson. His grandfather, C.P. Wilson, was a Democratic state senator from Williamson County.
Wilson, whose claim to fame was casting the deciding vote that established free textbooks in the state, had a district that ‘representationally’ meant that his vote counted six times more than that of a state senator in neighboring Davidson County.
The argument put forward by Baker was that this discrepancy was causing him to fail to receive the "equal protection of the laws" required by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.
The opinion was finally handed down in March 1962, nearly a year after it was initially argued. The court split 6 to 2 and set in motion the principle of “one man, one vote” that was ultimately defined in the Alabama case of Reynolds v. Sims.
Chief Justice Earl Warren, who presided over the U.S. Supreme Court from 1953 until 1969 — a period in the country’s history that includes the decisions of Brown v. Board of Education, Gideon v. Wainwright and Miranda v. Arizona — later said that the Baker case was the most important one of his time on the bench.
With another round of legislative redistricting set for 2010, the urban/rural divide will be a focus of the debates and where to draw district lines.
Seemingly, the legislative actions of 2009 had their roots in a U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1962, and they are the battle lines of future elections.