There are two members of the state house that I simply cannot quite get a handle on. The words that seem to slip out of their mouths are ignorant, insulting and generally have no place in the public discourse as the men and women of the legislature try to go about the business of running our state government.
The first one is an obvious choice: Rep. Glen Casada (R-53, Franklin). This past March, when questioned in a subcommittee about a proposal to block the extension of unemployment benefits, Casada quipped that those that would lose benefits had best "find you a job." Either oblivious to the fact that 1-in-10 Tennesseans was out work (some areas of the state that number had been as high as 1-in-4), or simply not caring, he told his fellow tax-paying Tennesseans that they are simply on their own if the jobs didn't come back. His district returned him to the House earlier this month, an unsurprising move since he represents one of the wealthiest counties in the country.
Instead of trying to cut unemployment benefits, Rep. Casada should have been talking about ways to reduce unemployment by focussing on job creation, and workforce training. For Casada, the strife of the nearly 300,000 Tennesseans without jobs do not matter to the 2.7 million that have them.
Earlier this week, Rep. Curry Todd (R-95, Collierville) had another "did he really just say that?" moment for the Republican caucus. In expressing his disapproval of provisions that protect health care services for pregnant undocumented immigrants, he worried aloud that they would "go out there like rats and multiply." Rats. Because that is exactly what the debate needed -- equating human beings to rodents. He too has been returned to the state house by his district.
I'll take a step back from Rep. Todd's remarks (he refuses to apologize to anyone for them). He says that he meant to use "anchor babies," incidentally another term that many find offensive, but at least we can agree it is less so than calling them rats. And, given that the term "anchor babies" is so often repeated in the national debate on immigration reform, I doubt there would have been nearly the uproar.
The outgoing Governor called the remarks "a very poor choice of words," and called it a "grown-up" issue -- one in which children should not be the used as the proverbial political football.
My own views on immigration are not cut and dry. On one hand, I can fault no one for wanting to leave a place of poverty to try and make a living in our great land of opportunity. On the other, anyone who doesn't play by the same rules as his neighbor should not get a free pass. My focus in the debate is on the employment of undocumented workers, not on the children.
I believe strongly in stiff penalties for companies that knowingly hire undocumented workers instead of those who can legally work in the country. That penalty should be even stiffer if the pay for these workers is below the federally-mandated minimum wage (as is often the case). I see the fault there not in the man or woman who crossed the border, but in the business owner who engages in modern-day indentured servitude by taking the fast and cheap way out of responsibly running their business.
There is a part of the equation that does pertain to the children -- school systems. I have heard numerous school teachers fault an influx of non-English speaking students in their classrooms as a reason for falling test scores. While I believe strongly in the innovation of the American education system to find a way to turn this into a positive experience, I can acknowledge in the shortterm that it creates a strain on the school that has limited resources but a mandate to teach every student enrolled.
The truth is, you can substitute the non-English speaking students with inner city school kids that still cannot read at their grade level by the time they enter junior high. Tennessee consistently ranks near the bottom in per-capita spending on education, and our test scores are even lower. The quality of graduates that do finish their senior year of high school is in question, and they already entering a tough job market. But instead of talking about ways to adapt our schools to the changing needs of the population, we are just calling people "rats".
In January, a new batch of state legislators will come to Nashville to take on some of these issues. Or not. My wager is that we see a greater number of wedge issues come forward rather than plans that address unemployment, despite improvements, that still sits just below 10 percent. We will hear more about women's (lack of) rights and same-sex marriage than we will about what it will take to make our students competitive in the job market. There will be lip service about keeping Washington out of Tennessee rather than leveraging our unique geographic benefits to bring new business to the state. I do not consider myself a pessimist -- I just know what platform many of these folks ran on, and a confused and frustrated electorate has decided to give them a crack at it.
We have real opportunities in the state to get out of the basement on such dubious distinctions in education and health care (Shelby County still has a higher infant mortality rate than many developing countries). It has got to change. We all get a laugh when a mosque debate or calling immigrants "rats" end up on the late-night comedy shows, but I am not laughing any more. Tennessee deserves better than the reputation she is earning right now.
The 2000s have come to a close, and we are entering a new decade for our state. There will be a new governor in January. I have greater respect (and expectations) for him than I do for some of the members of his own party. Otherwise, we are in for a long four years.