The Governor and Salamanders

May 2nd, 2019

You’ve heard the old saw about law and sausage: If you like either one, don’t watch it being made.

Well, I have a new image for you: If you want to visualize the Tennessee State Legislature, just think about a cave full of salamanders.

Published in The Daily Memphian

(photo: The hellbender salamander, aka, snot-nosed otter)

SnotNosed Otter


I recently read that the governor of Pennsylvania has named the hellbender as the state’s official amphibian. The hellbender is a two-foot-long, nocturnal salamander also known as a “snot-nosed otter.” Come on. Just seeing that name makes reading this column worthwhile. You’re welcome. 

We already have an official state amphibian: the Tennessee cave salamander. That’s a pity, because I looked it up hoping the position was open so Governor Bill Lee could get right on it and better occupy his time.

This whole school vouchers thing seems to be his number one priority. Climbing around in Tennessee caves and digging in the mud for some creature to name the official state something or other has got to be cleaner then the mess he’s made of this.

First, he called his voucher program an “education savings account.” Nobody’s saving a thing. Handing a parent a $7,300 voucher for every child moved from public school to private school is the taking of critical public resources and support from already underfunded systems. This is about losing, not saving.

Next, Gov. Lee said the money taken would be returned to each district … with strings attached, of course. But even that dubious promise has already been broken. As of this writing, some of the money will come back to the urban districts for a limited time, but now they’ll have to split it with rural districts.

In other words, to get the rural lawmakers’ vote, those lawmakers had to make a little something. Without losing a penny of their public school money to private schools, they get some of the money urban districts are losing. Urban kids lose again.

It’s all slimier and uglier than Pennsylvania’s snot-nosed otter.

Then, to waltz the whole thing through, the governor and his dance partner, House Speaker Glen Casada, had to do a little two-step. When confronted with a tie that would have killed the law for now, Casada decided to stall the vote … for 40 minutes … a new state record. It took 40 minutes of arm-twisting and deal making to flip one vote: Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville. They gave him an ironic prize to switch his vote to yes: Assurances that Knox County would be removed from the legislation.

In other words, Zachary only voted for vouchers when assured that vouchers wouldn’t be in his county. As a matter of fact, it now looks like only Shelby County and Davidson County will be eligible for vouchers. They passed it, with Shelby and Davidson public schools paying the price, despite the fact the districts in both counties were against it. Urban districts lose again.

Over in the Senate, Gov. Lee got our own Brian Kelsey to carry his water on this legislation even though Kelsey is on record that his constituents don’t want vouchers. Simultaneously, the Memphis waterfront took a hit. Germantown – Kelsey’s district – got $2.5 million for an amphitheater, and Gov. Lee’s requested $10 million funding for Tom Lee Park got slashed by 25%. Kelsey calls that a coincidence. Since that coincidence became public, the $2.5 million has coincidentally been restored to Tom Lee and taken away from a movie project. Still going to Germantown from somewhere else.

It’s all slicker and smellier than our own Tennessee cave salamander.

As this week began, the House rejected the Senate’s version of the voucher legislation, and the whole mess went to conference for the two chambers to work it out. Wednesday, the compromise version was approved, although the two targeted districts have threatened to sue.

It’s bad law, and a self-inflicted wound to our brand-new governor. He used his honeymoon period to shove school vouchers down the throats of just two districts already strangled for cash. To get it to pass in both the state House and Senate, he had to spend a considerable amount of his political capital and spread promises and pork from Germantown to Rocky Top. And he’s just getting started.

Gov. Lee called the day the House passed the law an “historic day.” If so, the bar for historic days is lower than a salamander’s belly.

I’m a Memphian, and our governor and our rural state legislature have again confirmed the status of Tennessee’s largest cities as the Official State Punching Bags.

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