April 22, 2024 8:00am

A Letter from the Legislature

Updates on the governor's failed voucher plan, guns in schools, pro-life legislation, and our everlasting political and cultural collision in Tennessee

Photo of Bruce Dobie
Nashville, TN Correspondent

There are few surprises in the April Nashville Power Poll.

Our urban Democratic Davidson County—and the voters who live here—continue to veer politically left on hot-button issues like abortion, guns, and vouchers in public schools. These are about as hot as hot-button issues get.

Except for Memphis, and chunks of Chattanooga and Knoxville, the rest of the state for the most part walks a much more conservative walk.

At this moment, the Legislature is racing towards the finish line with regard to bills related to each of those three issues—abortion, vouchers, and guns. On the abortion front, a measure would make it a crime to advise a minor on getting an abortion without the consent of the parents. As far as the controversial gun bill goes, it would allow teachers to carry a gun in a school so long as a laundry list of conditions is met. Finally, as relates to vouchers, the governor had introduced an ambitious plan to allow some 20,000 students to use state-funded vouchers to attend private schools. However, Lee acknowledged early this week that the bill was likely to fail and he withdrew it from consideration.

At the same time Power Poll members in Nashville were expressing their clear displeasure with these bills, they appeared consigned to losing the U.S. Senate race in Tennessee this year. Most members said they thought that incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn will destroy the favored Democratic candidate Gloria Johnson in November. It was not even close.

Here are the specific questions and answers in this month’s Power Poll:

Context 1: The Mish-Mash of It All

Our state continues its highly weird political behavior. There is the economic powerhouse of Nashville surging ever forward. If anything, its lefty politics appear even more ingrained with the election of Freddie O'Connell as mayor. Metro Council, as well, grew even bluer in that election. At the same time the more rural, conservative, and less prosperous parts of the state continue to elect conservatives who run the state. The gulf remains wide and deep.

But one would have to conclude that this session has gone better than many would have expected as far as state-local relations go. After he was elected, O'Connell made overtures to legislative leaders and that probably had a lot to do with what seems to be less outright hostility.

Back in the day, as Lamar Alexander often tells it, he would gather House Speaker Ned McWherter and Lt. Gov. John Wilder for regularly planned early morning gatherings to deliberate the order of the day. That seemed to keep the temperature down at the very least for this simple reason—it's much more difficult to say bad things about someone if you know you're going to see them in a day or two.

As to the bills being debated, and about which Power Poll surveyed, the one that obviously ran into the most trouble was the voucher bill. Having withdrawn the bill, Lee can always call the Legislature back into special session to debate vouchers further, but most members don't appear excited about doing that.

The politics surrounding the voucher bill were always dicey. For one thing, there was opposition from the Tennessee Education Association (TEA), which represents all of the state's teachers. What also made the measure's prospects treacherous were the thousands of others, besides teachers, with a dog in the fight. That includes public school board members, public school administrators, bus drivers, you name it. Having been clobbered by charter schools in recent years, the public education industrial complex is not in any mood to give up and go away. And to a significant extent, vouchers are in many ways a greater threat to the public education world than charters. After all, charter schools are still public schools.

Even a lot of Republicans appeared not to support vouchers on an ideological level. After all, vouchers can always be made to look like government spending run amock. A survey taken by the TEA, for instance, ran this poll question to drum up opposition: “Do you support or oppose the use of taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for private or religious school tuition or homeschooling, even if it reduces money for public education?” Over 50% of likely Republican Primary voters said they would not.

It is anticipated that the Legislature will not be here in town much longer. The governor's withdrawal of the voucher bill is a sign that the end of the session is in sight. You will now be able to get a table at Jimmy Kelly's. Coming soon: it's election season!

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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