It is entertaining to watch our legislators climb upon their high hobby horses and proclaim their fealty and obligation to the constitutions of Tennessee and the United States, because they only seem to proclaim that fealty when they have ulterior motives.
Tuesday, the Senate Finance, Ways and Means committee advanced, 9 to 1 with 1 abstention, a resolution that would direct the attorney general to sue the federal government over who is paying for the potential costs of resettling refugees in Tennessee. The resolution has 23 co-sponsors, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, so passage on the floor seems assured.
"The purpose of Senate Joint Resolution 467 is to initiate legal proceedings for declaratory relief in light of the federal government's failure to consult regarding the relocation of refugees in Tennessee and the mandatory expenditure of state funds under a federal program from which the state has formally withdrawn," Norris said.
Tennessee is one of 12 states which have opted into an alternative means of handling the resettlement of refugees to the United States under the Refugee Act of 1980. The federal government contracts with private groups to provide coordination and services in these states under the provisions of the Wilson-Fish amendment to the refugee act - Catholic Charities of Tennessee manages the Office of Refugees.
"This is a friendly lawsuit," Norris told the committee, "to resolve the issue of consultation in 12 states, the Wilson-Fish states."
While the federal government pays all the costs of resettlement, the sponsoring senators contend, rightly, that the state is burdened with expenses that the federal government does not explicitly pay - additional expenses to TennCare, English Language Learner programs in affected school districts and other similar programs funded by the state.
Those expenses are essentially rounding errors in the state's $30 billion budget, but it is not the money, these senators say, it is the principle!
"We have an obligation to file this lawsuit," said Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon. "An undercurrent here is a notion is that what makes America exceptional is our acceptance of immigrants, but what makes America exceptional is our adherence to the rule of law as expressed in our constitution."
But as Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, illustrated with a question to Sen. Norris, it is not the impact on Tennessee's budget.
Dickerson pointed out that issue underlying the resolution was that the state was being forced to spend money that was not specifically allocated in the budget. He asked Norris what was the practical difference to the budget by a refugee who was relocated to a neighboring state, say Kentucky, and then moved to Tennessee to live?
"There is freedom of movement in the United States," Norris said. "This isn't designed to build a wall around the state of Tennessee. This is designed to uphold the constitution of the state of Tennessee."
Despite the disingenuousness of Norris' comment, this resolution stems from concerns that were expressed in a December hearing before a joint State and Local Government Committee hearing exploring the impact of refugees in the state.
That hearing was held in response to fears and concerns from constituents fueled by nonstop cable coverage of the surge in refugees fleeing civil war in Syria; the violent terrorist attacks on Nov. 13 in Paris; and the startling attack on Dec. 2 by an apparently radicalized American couple in San Bernardino, Calif.
Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition Co-Executive Director Stephanie Teatro observed then: "After today's hearing, the question is not whether the screening process for refugees is rigorous or thorough, but whether legislators will continue to exploit the fears of their constituents by casting doubt and suspicion on refugees who themselves are fleeing terror."
Teatro was clear on how she thought this resolution answered her question, calling the resolution "one of the most extreme anti-refugee" efforts in the United States.
"This legislature has been considering anti-refugee policy for the last several years," she said after the meeting. "This isn't about keeping anyone safe. It's really about creating an unwelcoming and hostile environment."
The lone dissenting vote came from Dickerson, who asked penetrating questions about the likelihood of legal success and the practical impact on the state budget. Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, abstained.
Reach Frank Daniels III at 615-881-7039 and on Twitter @fdanielsiii.