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Front Page - Friday, May 10, 2024

Rogers column: Mental evals for legislators? How did that not pass?

Just as one invading species – state legislators – has departed Nashville, we’re steeling ourselves for the imminent arrival of another: Brood XIX cicadas. Of the two, which is more irksome?

In fairness to the bugs, I probably shouldn’t characterize them as invaders. Unlike most of the lawmakers who temporarily occupy Nashville annually, they’re homegrown natives. Brood XIX, this year’s star attraction, is simply emerging after 13 years of underground eating and development to go about their adult business.

That business basically consists of finding a mate, reproducing the next generation and kicking the bucket. They’re not keen on travel, ranging only a half-mile or so during the few weeks of life they spend above ground.

And to be fair to legislators, I should note that they are for the most part less physically repulsive than cicadas, which look like evil fruit flies on steroids. In 1998, when I was last in Nashville for a Brood XIX appearance, my yard was teeming with the critters. Up close, the spectacle reminded me of a 1950s-era horror movie with atomic-mutants setting forth intent on doing mankind ill.

It’s not hard to imagine a convoy of them swooping down on a small pet – perhaps even a toddler – and whisking it away, accompanied by their signature mad buzzing and squawking. That’s how villainous they appear.

Looks notwithstanding, though, they are quite harmless. They don’t bite or sting, they help aerate the ground and they provide nourishment for songbirds and all manner of other creatures, including some humans. (Google “cicada recipes,” if you dare.)

I wish I could say legislators were that beneficial. If you paid attention during this past session, you know that their chief “accomplishments” were to hand out hundreds of millions in tax breaks to corporations and to make it possible for educators to pack heat in the classroom.

As usual, their actual successes can better be assessed by what they didn’t do. Along those lines, thank goodness Gov. Bill Lee’s expansion of school vouchers fell short, as did Rep. Gino Bulso’s embarrassing effort to police what flags can and can’t be displayed in schools.

Bulso, by the way, was a notable voice in opposition to a bill that passed banning marriage between first cousins. His grandparents were first cousins, he revealed. I will say no more.

For the past half-dozen years or so at the start of legislative sessions I’ve compiled lists of bills that I wanted to follow, either because they made sense, because they made no sense, or because they were so quirky I just wanted to see how they fared.

In that last category this year were companion bills that would have required, on an annual basis, that “each member of the General Assembly shall undergo a mental health evaluation.” Yes, you read that correctly.

I was curious about the purpose, so the other day I asked the Senate sponsor, Jeff Yarbro. The idea originated with the House sponsor, Rep. Torrey Harris (D-Memphis), he told me. It did raise some eyebrows, including mine.

“You’re not alone in thinking that the filing of the bill seemed like commentary on the legislature, which is behaving increasingly erratically and foolishly over time,” he said. “But I don’t know that I would have filed the legislation if I thought of it like that.”

Instead, he said, the bill spoke to the seriousness of both mental health and of the legislative process. “Look, I think mental health is an issue that affects families across the state, and there’s no reason to think the legislature isn’t represented on that front.”

We spoke on the phone, so I don’t know if Yarbro smiled when he said that. But I did.

Following legislative procedure, the mental health bills were assigned to House and Senate committees, respectively. There, both quietly and unsurprisingly expired from inattention. I’d like to see them revived next year and actually get consideration. It would be fun to see who argues against them.

Meanwhile, I look forward to the cicadas. The mating choruses of the males form the spring/summer soundtrack of my life.

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