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Focus on pandemic, economy, education at annual retreat of Shelby County lawmakers

Although the annual retreat of the Shelby County delegation of state legislators was virtual this year, it hosted some of the state’s most powerful decision makers and influential elected officials.

The two-day event convened four hours each day Monday (Nov. 9) and Tuesday (Nov. 10) in the ZOOM format.

“We decided to do a virtual retreat this year because of the pandemic,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, the delegation’s chairman. “But when setting the agenda, there were three very important priorities we wanted to focus on –  the pandemic, the economy and education.”

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee kicked off the retreat with opening remarks, followed by a question-and-answer session with legislators.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris headlined their own segment, both also answering questions by participants.

Memphis City Council Chair Patrice Robinson and County Commission Chair Eddie Jones also were present.

“I think we were able to glean a number of takeaways from our speakers,” said Parkinson. “These discussions help to shape our agenda as we prepare for the legislative sessions ahead. Normally, we have a longer retreat, but in this virtual meeting, I didn’t want legislators to have to sit in front of a screen all day.”

Parkinson said he was especially impressed with Mayor Strickland’s concerns about recovering tax money for Memphis and the Tennessee Highway Patrol negligible presence along local highways.

“Our city mayor expressed great concerns about the drastic reduction in revenue from income tax reduction,” said Parkinson. “The Republicans reduced it for the rich. He also wants to see the Highway Patrol on Memphis highways like we see in other parts of the state. These are concerns we will take back up to Nashville.”

Harris’ address to the delegation was a Tuesday’s highlight, punctuated with the concerns about COVID-19 outbreaks and challenges of a safe return to normalcy.

“The outbreaks in our jail facilities coincide with what’s happening in the rest of the country,” Harris said. “But by the end of the year, a new ventilation system will be installed in 201 Poplar, that kills the virus as it circulates through the air. That is great news.”

Harris expressed a need for more uniformity in mandates and guidelines that direct public masking and school policy.

“I appreciate the cooperation and uniformity in approach between the seven municipalities in Shelby County,” said Harris. “What we need is uniformity throughout the state. We need a statewide mask mandate. But until we get more aggressive interventions on the state level, Shelby County must continue doing what we can to fight the virus.”

Harris also expressed concern that there was such political division nationally as well as in Tennessee.

“It’s been a tough year and a tough election period,” Harris said. “I’ve seen some headlines in Tennessee that raise concerns. Let’s do what we can to unify and to stop the trend of undermining the election.”

Although Harris did not mention Lee by name, one of the legislators sent a link while Harris was speaking, of a headline citing the governor’s refusal to acknowledge Biden as president-elect.

Other GOP governors and Republican officials around the country have joined this pro-Trump movement.

Jones, the County Commission chair, said the commission is concerned that the county is losing $20 million annually to keep the penal farm operational.

He asked state legislators to push for an increase in what the state gives per day for each inmate. A sharp decrease in the inmate population there is an issue, Jones said.

Jones also asked that lawmakers work on decriminalizing marijuana.

“People get time in prison for having small amounts of marijuana on them, prison terms that are much too long. This mainly affects people of color …,” Jones said.

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