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Front Page - Friday, March 4, 2022

Rogers column: House teases, defeats bill to preserve cash transactions

Sometimes, a piece of Tennessee legislation seems drafted specifically to address a personal beef of mine – a Joe bill, as it were. This is gratifying since most of it appears to have been drafted to tick me off.

But it’s disheartening to then see that Joe bill crash and burn.

The personal beef in this instance involves a local business. I don’t want to name names. Let’s just say it’s an outfit that stages athletic competitions pitting one Nashville team of nine professional players against another visiting team of the same, at which a variety of vendors offer food and beverages for consumption by spectators.

Hot dogs, beer and peanuts are popular consumables.

In a change of policy in the past year or so, those vendors now accept payment only via plastic. My money – and anyone else’s – is literally no good there. Which means that every transaction is slowed by the process of having the sale approved, printing out a receipt, adding (or not) a tip, signing, etc.

There are multiple opportunities for irritation since each purchase comes with a slowdown, multiplied by those of others ahead of me in line.

Granted, it’s not the greatest annoyance of my life. It doesn’t nearly rise to the level of someone using “your” when he means “you’re,” or spelling “y’all” as “ya’ll.” But annoying it is, and I had assumed no remedy was available.

Until I came across House Bill 1873.

As written, the measure would prohibit a retail seller in Tennessee “from requiring a buyer to pay using credit.” And it would require the seller “to accept legal tender when offered by the buyer as payment.”

Legal tender, as in money. Cash. Bills and coins. Moolah. I’m looking at a $1 bill right now and it states, right next to the likeness of the great George Washington: “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.”

All debts.

So I eagerly watched via video link as the sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Bud Hulsey, presented it for consideration by the Banking and Consumer Affairs Subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee.

As it happened, some of the arguments Hulsey made were not ones I personally would have mounted. He relied a bit too heavily on “Big Brother issues,” with purchases being tracked and records kept and snooping done and comparisons to China, where, as he described it, people are being forced into a cashless society.

“And the reason for that is, they can control their behavior,” he told subcommittee members. “If they don’t think right, they don’t act right, the don’t behave, they simply turn their account off and they can’t buy or sell.”

You will note that Hulsey’s pronoun usage is a little tangled. Sometimes “they” refers to the Chinese government. Sometimes “they” refers to the Chinese people. But I trust you can sort it out.

In any event, what the issue came down to for Hulsey was personal freedom.

“Cash is liberty,” he said. “Cash is privacy. Nobody can track what you buy. When you bought it. Where you were at when you purchased it. It is the maximum amount of liberty with the maximum amount of privacy. It is censorship resistant and it is nondiscriminatory.”

You might think that by invoking the notion of liberty, Hulsey would have had fellow lawmakers heartily disposed to vote aye. You would be wrong. Rep. Jason Powell took that notion and turned it against Hulsey’s bill.

“My concern is that ultimately the freedom is in the consumer,” Powell said. “And that’s when they make that purchase. If they don’t like the fact that the business will not take that form of payment, then I feel like they can go take their cash and spend it somewhere else.”

That’s the point where, had I been a participant in this sausage-making, I would have pointed out that taking cash and spending it somewhere else is not always an option. Like in the case where every vendor on-site has the same no-cash policy.

Instead, I was left to watch things play out as they did. Another subcommittee member, Rep. Kevin Vaughan, joined the opposition.

“In this case,” Vaughan said, “I’m just going to have to side with the freedom of the business owner versus the freedom of the consumer.”

The bill failed in a 3-to-5 vote. And I can’t help feeling it was all an elaborate tease.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com