:Chattanooga; :Jan 11, 2009; :Perspective; :64

Capitol agenda

State’s focus should be on jobs, environment, schools

Andy Berke District 10 state senator

The beginning of a new year is typically a time of celebration and hope. As 2009 dawns, however, we Tennesseans face sobering and unprecedented challenges in the months ahead.

    Hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans are out of work. Many of our rural counties could see double-digit unemployment by summer. Home values are declining and foreclosures are rising, as the American dream turns dark and threatening. Businesses cannot find credit, colleges are cutting classroom programs while raising tuition, and hospitals are struggling to stay open. Suffice it to say, this is no ordinary time. In the midst of this turmoil, the Republican Party last November gained a one-vote majority in the state House and a five-vote majority in the state Senate — giving the GOP control of both for the first time since Reconstruction. What does this change mean for Tennesseans? We know it means changes for the way our Legislature works. Should the House elect a new speaker on Tuesday, there will be new committee chairmen and chairwomen, a shift in emphasis and tone and, I expect, more than a few missteps born of inexperience and zeal.

    I imagine and, indeed, I hope it means changes for the way Democrats conduct campaigns for the General Assembly. Democrats should be concerned about the electoral trend of the past decade. Just 10 years ago, there were 19 Democrats in the Senate. Today, there are 14, and the Republicans have 19. Even more striking is the change in the House, where Democrats held a 61-38 majority in 1998.

    That’s a loss of 20 percent of Democratic House seats in just a decade, a number that gives me — and should give all Democrats — pause to consider the manner in which we have told our story and expressed our values to Tennesseans.

    I reject, however, any
suggestion from my newly enthused Republican colleagues that the results mean anything for the work Tennesseans expect us to do.

    While legislative majorities have shifted over the past 10 years, the priorities of Tennesseans — and the fundamental role of state government — have not.

    Tennesseans still expect state government to provide an excellent education for their children and the safest, healthiest communities for their families. They still aspire to good jobs and equal opportunity. They still want a clean environment and good, safe roads.

    Any political party ignores these priorities at its peril.

    Since the election, Republicans have rightly been crowing about the opportunities they now have at hand. Many of the issues they cite, however, seem far from the challenges that my constituents face.

    As we face the new year, every Tennessean I know is going to bed tonight, and every night, deeply worried over the basics: their jobs, their children’s education, and their safety in cities and communities where basic human want is rising precipitously.

    If there is one fundamental, philosophical divide between Democrats and Republicans in our Legislature, it is over state government’s role in addressing these concerns. If you’re struggling in this economy, Republicans believe you’re on your own.

    Democrats view things differently. Democrats believe we should use the tools of government to provide a platform of equal opportunity for all. While each individual’s success ultimately is his or her own responsibility, Democrats believe each individual’s likelihood of success will grow if we come together to provide good schools, safe neighborhoods, sound infrastructure and a clean environment.

    All of us see the economic crisis. For our citizens, however, economic crises are not systematic. They are personal crises, with personal consequences: a child who must sacrifice dreams of college, a mother whose health care costs have stolen her retirement, a father whose job is lost and isn’t coming back in the next recovery.

    The questions before us in 2009 are, will we act to give all these citizens the best opportunity to resolve their personal crises, and which political party will speak best to those individual hopes and dreams? I believe Democrats are best suited to that task, but now certainly is the Republicans’ chance to prove me wrong.

    In the end, however, all of us in the Legislature — Republican and Democrat — take the same oath. We do not pledge loyalty to party or to partisan advantage. Rather, each of us swears to uphold the constitution of our state and to protect the welfare of its citizens.

    These times demand serious men and women. Fortunately, Tennesseans have had such leadership in the past.

    It was Ned McWherter and a Democratic legislature who built the finest roads in America, and reclaimed our schools and prisons from court control.

    It was Phil Bredesen and a Democratic legislature who protected our Tennessee wild lands, put schools first, restored our government to fiscal sanity, created billions in lottery scholarships, and opened the door for every 4-year-old child in this state to attend pre-kindergarten.

    Have we given leadership of our new legislature over to equally serious men and women, or have we inadvertently handed the car keys to the kids? My Republican friends now have their opportunity to answer this question by the tone they set and the priorities they adopt.

    We will know very soon. And, of course, Tennesseans will give us the final answer, as they always do, come November 2010.

    Democrat Andy Berke is state senator from Tennessee District 10, which includes parts of Hamilton and Marion counties. He can be reached by e-mail at sen. andy.berke@legislature.state.tn.us.

Contributed Photo The Capitol in Nashville.