Two state representatives from Memphis say the 19-member Shelby County delegation in the Tennessee General Assembly isn’t as united as it should be.
“I have to be brutally honest. I have yet to see us come together and move as a block for Shelby County,” Democratic state Rep. Antonio Parkinson said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind the Headlines.” “There appears to be an alignment with some members of our delegation that align with other parts of Tennessee before they align with Shelby County. I’m optimistic that will shift.”
Republican state Rep. Mark White said the lack of unity is also a function of the relative unity among legislators from rural areas.
“I think our Shelby County people need to realize that Tennessee is a very rural state,” White said. “So the issues of our urban areas, like Memphis and Nashville, are not their issues necessarily. A lot of times they get frustrated with issues we have to bring up.”
The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on the Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com
A bill to establish $2 million in state funding to test the backlog of untested rape kits for the entire state failed to win passage in the legislative session that ended in April.
White said the bill was poorly written with no details on how the state finance commissioner was to disburse the funding.
“The way the bill was written, it didn’t say how the money was to be spent. … You’ve got to have a piece of legislation written correctly if you are going to do the most good,” he added. “We want to get an inventory statewide and see what the need is.”
White also pointed out the state has provided $500,000 in funding to Memphis for the backlog in the past seven months.
Parkinson said the failure of the funding bill sends the wrong message to crime victims. He blames it on the fast pace of the session.
“We’re talking about a fast-paced legislative session that we are trying to get out of, and we are talking about $2 million to test rape kits that we couldn’t get passed because we didn’t have time to amend the bill to say how this money was going to be spent,” he said. “We sped up the process and we nixed a bill that would get rapists off the street.”
Parkinson’s proposal to require that rape kits be submitted to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation within 10 days of them being taken and the TBI to return findings on the rape kits in six months failed in the session largely because it came with a fiscal note or cost to the state estimated at $10 million.
But State Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville said other bills were passed that do much of what Parkinson wanted in his bill, including repealing the statute of limitations on rape, aggravated rape and child rape. The law applies to cases reported within three years of the assault and to prior cases for which the statute of limitations has not already run.
Norris, responding specifically to points Parkinson and White made on “Behind the Headlines,” said the state’s goal is to get an inventory of the rape kit backlog statewide, now required by a bill passed in the 2014 session, and then determine what it will cost to clear the backlog by year’s end.
Norris added the $500,000 in state grant funding for Memphis will allow rape kit testing to continue through the end of the current fiscal year.
Meanwhile, White and Parkinson disagreed on an expansion of Medicaid in Tennessee, which is known as TennCare. Gov. Bill Haslam has turned down the 100 percent federal funding of the expansion in its first three years, with the federal government paying 90 percent of the cost in the second three-year period.
“We are concerned that if we go down this road and then three years from now, when they start pulling the money back, we are going to have to find $200 million or $300 million that we currently don’t have to keep the program going,” White said.
“I think people will die,” Parkinson countered. “Everyone needs to be covered. … There’s absolutely no reason why we should not have taken that money. It was a big influx of revenue. … It gives us time to plan for what happens down the road.”
White concedes that public hospitals, especially those in rural areas, are feeling the strain of the decision.
“But the current plan is to ask the federal government to go ahead and give us the money and let us appropriate and weigh the best options for private insurance,” he said.