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Front Page - Friday, May 5, 2023

Rogers column: Some highlights, lowlights of 2023 legislative session

If the intent of state legislators this past session was to raise Tennessee’s profile on the national stage while simultaneously lowering its stature, it’s hard to imagine how they could have been more successful.

From Nashville bashing to drag show trashing to transgender-care smashing to gun-safety dashing, they hit the ground stumbling and never looked back. And I didn’t even mention the two members they ignominiously booted only to have them back within days.

All in all, on a 1 to 10 scale for embarrassing themselves – probably a 12.

But they still found time to enact or ignore several thousand other bills and resolutions of one sort or another, some of which bear mentioning if only as footnotes to the general carnage. Here’s a partial accounting:

• Among measures dead on arrival were a resolution that would have allowed people to propose laws by initiative, a bill to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $12, bills to either legalize or decriminalize marijuana, a bill to allow medical marijuana and a bill to define the beginning of life as “the moment that an egg is fertilized in the womb.”

The proper response to that last one is: Thank God.

• Speaking of God and DOA: A bill I wrote about by Sen. Heidi Campbell to require random lettering on car tags whether or not they have “In God We Trust.” No surprise. So, God tags will continue to start with three numbers, and Godless tags with three letters.

I wonder if St. Peter is keeping track.

• In related legislation, a bill requesting the governor to submit a new design of the state’s great seal to include “In God We Trust” passed the Senate unanimously, but at least got some opposition from Democrats in the House. Which is to say, it only passed overwhelmingly.

State law already calls for it to proclaim The Great Seal of the State of Tennessee and 1796, for when the state was admitted to the Union; the Roman numeral XVI, signifying that we were the 16th state; below that depictions of a plow, a sheaf of wheat and a cotton plant; below that the word Agriculture; below that the figure of a boat with sail; and below that the word Commerce.

It’s hard to imagine anyone taking a look at the seal and thinking it needs more stuff. But legislators love to pay homage to the deity, if only in name.

• A bill that would have allowed a divorce court to provide for joint ownership of a pet or companion animal (there’s a difference?) sailed through the Senate with nary a dissenting vote, but died in a House subcommittee.

Apparently, the members are unaware that animals are people, too.

• June 19, or Juneteenth, is now a state holiday commemorating the date in 1865 when slaves in Texas were informed of their freedom. It thus steps up in status from before, when it was a day of special observance, a distinction shared by, among many others, Mother’s Day, Bluegrass Day and Towing and Recovery Week.

• Along those lines, two bills to do away with Columbus Day fell short. One, proposing to rename it Indigenous Peoples Day, was deferred to summer study. The other, to replace it with a holiday on the Monday after the Super Bowl, was deferred to 2024.

I haven’t seen a name for that one proposed, but Hangover Day would seem appropriate.

• It’s now legal, if you live next to the Smoky Mountain National Park, to use deadly force against a bear if it enters your property and you have “a reasonable belief that the bear’s action placed [you] in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury.”

Provided, that is, you aren’t violating federal law. You might want to check that first.

• A nonsensical bill to allow legislators to void federal laws, regulations, executive orders and such through a process known as nullification died without a second in a Senate committee.

As I’ve written before, the notion that a state can override federal edicts was settled in the 1830s by a fellow named Andrew Jackson. And yet Tennessee keeps trying.

• And in the all-important category of official state this, that and the others, legislators created four new ones: “Send Me,” as a state motto, “Copperhead Road” and “Tennessee in Me” as state songs (the 11th and 12th so designated) and pumpkin pie as a generic state “symbol.” They didn’t even call it a dessert. (Should have chosen pecan pie.)

And I hereby renew my vow not to rest until the banjo becomes the official state musical instrument.

• I should also note that, while the marijuana measures failed, a bill did pass to authorize and regulate the sale of products containing the mind-altering component of grass: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). They’ve already been on sale for a while, but the bill institutes some limits – like no sales to anyone younger than 21 – and sets standards for producers and retailers.

Are these products the equivalent of the real, hippie-endorsed products available in states with legal dope? No. They are the wine cooler alternative to a glass of sauvignon.

I end with a prediction: Soon, legislators will try to put the Ten Commandments in classrooms. Thou shalt not doubt me.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.