Tennessee inaugurated a new governor recently. The 111th General Assembly was already sworn in. There are new committee chairs and new leaders at state departments.
All of this change means it’s time for our state to get serious about a people’s agenda. Here’s what that should include:
• Medicaid expansion: Tennessee leads the nation in rural hospital closures. This means access to necessary care is becoming more and more difficult for our most vulnerable citizens. Our state is also losing $3.8 million a day by refusing to expand Medicaid. Estimates from the University of Tennessee suggest those funds could support at least 15,000 jobs in our rural communities.
The General Assembly passed legislation in 2018 that would allow bartering of goods and services for health care. That’s not acceptable. We need real solutions to the health care crisis, not an offer of chickens in exchange for a check up.
• A $10 an hour minimum wage: Tennessee is one of only six states with no state minimum wage. Twenty-eight states have a minimum wage higher than the paltry $7.25 federal minimum. Meanwhile, cost of living is increasing all across our state. Instead of standing up for workers, our legislature has been busy overturning local living wage laws.
Tennessee should establish a state minimum wage of $10 an hour that includes an automatic increase at least every other year. Supporting workers means supporting fair wages. Setting a solid-state minimum wage is an important step in this direction.
• Expanded access to the ballot box: Historically, Tennessee has among the lowest voter turnout percentages in the nation. We saw some improvement in 2018, but more can be done. Unfortunately, Tennessee puts a number of barriers in the way of would-be voters.
One solution to encourage voting is same-day voter registration. Citizens should be able to register and vote on the same day. Research shows that most potential voters engage in an election in the last two weeks. By that time, current law keeps them from registering and voting.
We have the technology and resources to allow citizens to register and vote on the same day. Unless they fear democratic participation, our legislature should authorize same-day registration this session.
• Reining in payday predators: Tennessee families lose more than $400 million to fees and interest paid to payday and car title lenders each year. This is money drained from local economies. These predators trap citizens in desperate situations in a cycle of debt. What seems like a little help in an emergency often turns into a crisis that spirals out of control. Tennessee payday lenders are allowed to charge 460-percent interest rates. Some of these legalized loan sharks even offer a “first loan free” like a drug dealer trapping a customer with that addictive first hit.
Tennessee should follow in the footsteps of states like Georgia, North Carolina and South Dakota. These states have taken important steps to cap interest rates and, in some cases, outright stop the practice of payday lending.
At a minimum, our state should adopt a rate cap of 36 percent and require lenders to extend the time period to pay back a loan and to make some effort to determine a borrower’s ability to repay. These steps will stop the most egregious industry practices.
For those Tennesseans in need of emergency cash, many will find that community banks and credit unions offer small dollar loans at reasonable rates.
Tennessee can be an amazing place to live, work, and raise a family. Our potential is limitless. Our policymakers need to step up and pass a people’s agenda that provides improved access to health care, empowers workers, expands voting rights and ends the debt trap caused by payday predators.
The only thing standing in the way of moving Tennessee forward is a lack of political will. The new faces and voices in power need to stand up for all of us.
Andy Spears is the executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, a statewide issue advocacy nonprofit focused on improving the quality of life for all Tennesseans.