What’s in a name? Translating Tennessee’s laws

Gun Rights

Tennessee lawmakers like to give fancy names to laws that don’t remotely represent what the titles suggest. 

For instance, Gov. Bill Lee on June 5 ceremoniously signed the Transportation Modernization Act at a table by the side of Donelson Pike in Nashville, surrounded by a clutch of lawmakers as airplanes from the nearby Nashville International Airport roared overhead. 

The folderol was unnecessary, as Lee signed the act into law in April after the legislature passed it, but the event got me to pondering. Why did Lee choose to name this law the “Transportation Modernization Act,” and what does it modernize? 

When I hear the words, “transportation modernization,” I think high-speed trains, or at least some Amtrak. Cars were invented more than a century ago and roads are as old as time, although President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the interstate highway system in 1956 — a mere 70 years ago. 

So I eagerly read through the text of the new transportation law and found the $3 billion fund can be used for “building, maintaining, or improving county roads or bridges,” to fund initiatives “including, but not limited to, congestion mitigation, rural interstate widening,” and to respond to a transportation system failure or threat of a failure. 

Gov. Bill Lee hasn’t issued a proclamation for an August “public safety” special legislative session and some Republican lawmakers are calling on him to scrap plans for it, so let’s call this the “Don’t Say Guns Special Session” or “The Session That Didn’t Happen.” Either could be accurate.

The law also provides for “managed lanes” or “high occupancy user fee lanes,” both of which mean drivers must pay to use the lanes. The governor has been marketing these as “choice lanes,” but the rest of us call them “toll lanes.” 

And under the new law, owners of electric vehicles will pay higher fees and new fees will be levied on hybrid vehicles. 

In Tennessee, we love our roads, and I’m all for ensuring our crumbling infrastructure is safe. In fact, I applaud Lee for setting aside funds to potentially keep us from spending so much time in traffic while wondering if cracks will appear in our bridges. 

But I’m not sure there’s anything particularly modern about either toll roads or interstate widening. Amtrak trains aren’t cutting edge, but as Tennessee is not known for our mass transit options, they would at least be new to us. At this point, bus rapid transit — used for decades in cities around the world — would be welcome. 

Let’s change the name of the Transportation and Modernization Act to something more realistic, and call it the “Toll Roads Act.” 

But that’s not the only inaptly named bill: 

Adult Entertainment Act 

The title of the Adult Entertainment Act could reasonably make one think it applied to exotic dancing clubs, but no: There are already laws to restrict that type of entertainment.

The Adult Entertainment Act, which was the third bill filed prior to the start of the 2023 legislative session, was geared only to drag artists and public drag performers, so let’s call it what it was: the “Anti-Drag Law.” 

Perhaps not surprisingly, U.S. Judge Thomas Parker ruled the new law is unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment, while also noting in his opinion that “Defendants also agreed that the state’s existing obscenity laws can punish most — and possibly all — of the conduct that the AEA seeks to regulate.”

Protecting Children from Genital Mutilation Act 

I’m going to call this indelicately named law the “Anti-Transgender” or “We Know Better Than Doctors and Parents Act.” 

I know of no one who is pro-genital mutilation, but I do know plenty of people who think if a minor child has gender dysphoria and wants gender-affirming care, that decision should be left up to the child and their parents to make — not the legislature. Yet, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, a Franklin Republican, deemed gender-affirming care such a threat to Tennesseans, he not only gave it a misleading name, he also ensured it was the first bill filed in the last legislative session. 

The law applies to all aspects of gender-affirming care, including puberty blocking medications, not only surgical procedures, rarely performed by Tennessee physicians.

Human Life Protection Act 

With no knowledge of Tennessee’s culture war politics, one might assume this broadly named law took steps to keep Tennesseans from being killed. Maybe the Human Life Protection Act could limit the sales of guns, for instance. 

In plain terms, this is the “Anti-Abortion Act,” or as it’s become known, the “Trigger Law.” It does nothing more than ban abortions, and the wording was such that it would take effect, or trigger, 30 days after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, as happened in June 2022. 

Speaking of protecting lives, Lee has called for a special session in August to ostensibly address gun violence and safety measures to forestall more mass shootings. But the governor says the session will be about “public safety” and he can’t bring himself to say the word “gun,” so calling this a “Gun Safety Session” is out of the question. 

But Lee hasn’t issued a proclamation to officially schedule the session and several Republican lawmakers have called for him to not hold it at all, raising doubts about whether it will happen. Legislative leaders have flatly rejected the notion that any laws that limit the rights of gun owners will pass should the session come to fruition. 

I’ll take the liberty of offering up several potential names for the special session:  the “Don’t Say ‘Guns’ Special Session,” the “We Care More About the NRA than Dead Tenneseans,” or “The Session That Didn’t Happen.” 

As the saying goes, “words matter,” and in the case of many Tennessee laws, words are being used to not only frame debate around issues but to obfuscate to the public what the content of the laws are. 

Tennesseans deserve transparency: bill and law titles should accurately reflect that what we’re buying isn’t what lawmakers are selling.

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