Walking up the one-lane gravel road that leads to the Tennessee State Capitol, you get an eerie sense of the ghosts that haunt the current stalemate under the massive marble dome. The lobbyists still sit out on the veranda, spitting tobacco grown in nearby fields and watching the cows graze on the grass of the Legislative Plaza.
Since the Republican lawmakers decamped to Palestine, W.Va., earlier this week to deny House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh the quorum he needs to push through critical legislation to lower taxes and improve services for the rich, the halls of the Capitol have been a cathedral of lassitude. Democrats linger beneath the bust of Ulysses Grant talking about their ambitions to make the state a better place.
“The governor and I have been working together and doing our best to push through our plans for improving the state, and I’m just baffled at their resistance,” Memphis Sen. Steve Cohen, a tall, humble man with a full head of bushy dark hair, says of his Republican counterparts.
Gov. Phil Bredesen, meanwhile, is relishing the lull and the extra state tax collections that are making it possible, putting his Hushpuppy-clad feet up on his desk and making quick work of a bag of pork rinds. In between crunches, the Mississippi-born governor is making calls to city and county mayors across the state to enlist them for a Friday afternoon touch football game at the Executive Residence, to be followed by a poolside wet T-shirt contest among his female department commissioners.
Central to the debate that caused the Republican evacuation is what to do with an estimated $400 million in surplus tax collections. House Republican Beth Halteman Harwell has been her party’s point person, pushing earlier this week to use the money for pay raises and $100 Office Depot vouchers for all state teachers. That was before Nashville Sen. Thelma Harper hatched a proposal with House Democrat Henri Brooks to use the money instead as a rebate to the state’s wealthiest citizens, who pay the Hall income tax on their investment dividends. Getting behind the Democratic proposal were the governor and House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, a cerebral cosmological thinker who doesn’t worry much about day-to-day legislative minutiae. The whole thing was too much for the Republicans, who then staged the walkout.
“Teachers know going in that they’re in for a life of poverty,” Bredesen says, explaining his position on the volatile debate. “But people who get rich do so because they want it. We shouldn’t punish one class of people in favor of another class who never expected to have a pot to piss in.”
As you walk up the one-lane gravel road to approach the mud-banked poolside of the Palestine, W.Va., Holiday Inn, Harwell and her fellow “campers” can be seen huddled around a 5-inch black-and-white television watching Dr. Phil. The GOP visionary breaks from the episode about mothers who flirt with their daughters’ boyfriends to make a counterargument.
“Think of how much money we would save if we could send our kids to public schools,” Harwell says. “If we give the public school teachers a raise, maybe they’ll do a good job and we can put our tuition money into some hedge funds. It just makes good sense.”
It wasn’t clear at press time how this deadlock would end, but sources say that Lt. Gov. John Wilder, a hard-eyed realist, was emerging as the voice of reason. “John’s a real hard-core numbers guy,” says veteran consumer affairs lobbyist Tom Hensley, who was using his free time volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity building site. “He has a way of taking hard analysis and turning it into clear concise English that everyone can understand.”
Blazing new trails
Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell has announced a major initiative for neighborhood improvement with his proposal to add new gravel to the one-lane road known as Belle Meade Boulevard.
“If we’re going to be doing things outside of downtown, where our efforts will benefit the whole community, we’ve got to focus on things in areas that really need help,” the mayor says.
Purcell, an easygoing personality known for delegating responsibilities, ran for office on his commitment to downtown development and an improvement in the performance of the local football team, the Oilers. Having succeeded in those goals, Purcell is now able to move on to other issues.
At-large Metro Council member Chris Ferrell, one of the body’s more combative personalities, lashed out this week during the council meeting held at the newly renovated Metro Courthouse. Ferrell, a longtime critic of social service agencies, publicly decried the Monroe Harding Children’s Home for sending him one too many faxes about its mentoring program for resident kids.
“Mentor schmentor,” Ferrell yelled, waving the fax in the air before storming out of the chambers.
Liz Garrigan and Phil Ashford contributed to this report. If there are accuracies herein, please call them at (800)-ALL-BUNK.
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