VOL. 132 | NO. 43 | Wednesday, March 1, 2017
State Democrats Introduce Bill of Rights, Looking For Every Win They Can Get
By Sam Stockard
NASHVILLE – House Democrats introduced a People’s Bill of Rights in the State Capitol Monday, Feb. 27, a comprehensive legislative package to ensure rights of Tennesseans affecting everything from jobs to criminal justice to education.
Protesters have been a common sight at the Capitol in Nashville this year as citizens look for state lawmakers to protect basic freedoms in a new era under President Donald Trump. State Democrats introduced a Bill of Rights legislative package to address concerns.
(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
“We all believe in the Bill of Rights. We came up with a Bill of Rights for Tennesseans,” says Minority Caucus Leader Craig Fitzhugh, who is seriously considering a run for governor. “This is going back to the basics. There’s not anything that you haven’t heard and we have not been speaking about for years.”
Democratic leaders say they don’t expect every measure to pass the Republican-controlled Legislature, but they plan to keep pushing for every victory they can find.
With the backing of dozens of Tennesseans holding signs opposed to perceived anti-LGBT legislation in the General Assembly, numerous Memphis legislators joined the unveiling to reinforce the bedrock of their beliefs.
“We are here to improve quality of life for the citizens of Tennessee, plain and simple,” says Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis. “There are five basic rights that we, as Tennessee state legislators, should ensure that our constituents have.”
Parkinson announced the Bill of Rights package, which emphasizes good-paying jobs, a right to safe neighborhoods and a fair justice system; strong and well-funded public schools and universities; high-quality health care; and a “right to participate in democracy without facing unreasonable obstacles.”
Pointing toward the crowd behind them, Rep. Joe Towns Jr. of Memphis called the group a “fantastic reminder” of who should be in charge of the state.
“The bosses are the 6.5 to 6.7 million Tennesseans who pay the bills, and it’s high time we start listening to what they want,” Towns says.
The Democratic Caucus’ bills included in this initiative focus on five basic rights:
• An economy with good-paying jobs.
Shelby County legislators are backing several bills to increase minimum wages. For instance, Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis is sponsoring legislation to set the minimum wage at $15 an hour and provide a minimum wage for service industry employees.
A measure by Rep. Dwayne Thompson of Cordova would raise the minimum wage for tip-earning employees to $2.50 from $2.13, while Memphis Rep. John DeBerry is sponsoring a bill to establish a minimum wage that increases every year starting July 1 and provides a minimum wage for service industry workers. Yet another bill, by Rep. Johnnie Turner of Memphis, would require the commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development to set the minimum wage at $10.10 an hour, adjusted annually for inflation.
Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville is sponsoring legislation guaranteeing equal pay for equal work through two pieces of legislation.
Several bills sponsored by Democrats also fight Gov. Bill Haslam’s outsourcing plans. One by Fitzhugh of Ripley in West Tennessee would prohibit outsourcing of maintenance, operation and preservation of state parks, and another by Thompson would require legislators to be notified when a recommendation is made for outsourcing a state program.
• Safe neighborhoods and sensible justice.
Rep. Sherry Jones of Nashville is sponsoring legislation to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana while Parkinson is backing a bill to increase the amount of marijuana possessed under offenses of simple possession to one ounce, up from a half-ounce.
A bill by Hardaway would require law enforcement officers to issue citations for simple possession of a controlled substance unless the officer believes the person is unlikely to appear in court.
Rep. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis is sponsoring legislation to reduce the fee on expunging criminal convictions to $180 from $350.
• Quality schools with strong funding.
Legislation by Memphis Rep. Karen Camper sets Basic Education Program instructional salary unit costs for fiscal 2017-18 at the statewide average.
A measure by Parkinson establishes a timeline for the state education commissioner to shift schools under the Achievement School District back into the local education agency if ASD fails to improve student achievement.
Fitzhugh is sponsoring a major K-12 funding plan to distribute block grants to each local education agency with $250 million in excess state revenue collected in the last two fiscal years. Tennessee has a one-time surplus of $1 billion and another $1 billion in recurring extra money.
• Quality health care for all residents.
Democrats plan to oppose any bills cutting Medicaid or altering it through “health-care compacts.” They also want to expand health care under the Insure Tennessee plan proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam or similar plans to protect people’s “rights to affordable health care.”
Rep. John Mark Windle, of Livingston, is sponsoring legislation to require insurance to cover breathing and heart-rate monitors for some infants and to prohibit insurance companies from stopping coverage for pre-existing conditions.
Fitzhugh is sponsoring a bill to authorize the governor to expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, a measure the supermajority Republicans refused to enact several years ago when Obamacare took effect.
• Participation in democracy without obstacles
Democrats are continuing to hammer away at voter identification laws they say hinder people’s ability to cast ballots. A bill by Rep. Larry Miller of Memphis enables a person to file an appeal with the State Election Commission in case their provisional ballot is rejected by a county election office.
Hardaway is sponsoring measures allowing voters to take selfies at the voting booth, named after pop star Justin Timberlake, and allowing voters to take photos or videos of their marked ballot at the polling place.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com.