Bad Sell 

Tax reformers thumb their noses at the very people they need to win over

Tax reformers thumb their noses at the very people they need to win over

Well, that was a bust.

When the Tennessee Tax Study Commission was established two years ago to take a long, hard look at the state's revenue system, naysayers thought the whole exercise was an utter waste of time while cautious optimists held out hope that something useful would come of it. Unsurprisingly, the naysayers were right.

It didn't look promising from the outset. Each commission member had been appointed by someone who either openly supported a state income tax (former Gov. Don Sundquist and House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh) or who had been difficult to interpret on that front in the past (Lt. Gov. John Wilder). Any proposal the commission came up with that included an income tax was therefore going to be suspect. And, indeed, the commission recommended just that at its final meeting last week. But this alone is not what rendered the effort a $775,000 failure. Rather, it's what the commission didn't do—namely, anything at all to appease voters who are deeply suspicious of a state income tax.

Sure, chairman Nelson Andrews made a few feints in their general direction. There was some idle talk of "accountability" to taxpayers and even of possible refunds in the case of surpluses, but these don't really mean much of anything. Nobody at this point is going to trust anyone on Capitol Hill when it comes to fiscal accountability, and promises of refunds are empty without anything solid to back them up. Income tax supporters, once again, have telegraphed their deep inner conviction that the concerns of the anti-income tax opposition are quite simply irrelevant.

It's a shame, really, because with the tax issue off the front pages for a while and its members largely politically insulated, commissioners had the very real opportunity to dig deep and get a little innovative. Had they really set their minds to it, they could have put together a package palatable to all sides, even one including—dare it be said—a state income tax.

Commissioners could have recommended the adoption of a Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Casually dismissed by many tax reformers as a gimmick, "TABOR," as it's known, actually has some merit, tying spending increases to indices such as inflation and population growth and requiring a statewide plebiscite to bust those caps. It's worked pretty well for over a decade in Colorado, filling voters there with enough confidence in the system to approve a substantial spending increase for public education in 2001. TABOR is now a pet project of Tennessee fiscal conservatives, and the commission's embrace of it would have done wonders to bring them into the fold.

Commissioners could have called for a constitutional amendment to freeze tax rates. One of the more salient arguments against an income tax is the fear that state legislators will continually fiddle around with the tax rates, rather than something they're actually competent at doing, like naming bridges after people who give them money at election time. "Locking-in" tax rates by writing them into the state constitution would do a great deal to alleviate anxieties. Furthermore, it would require (short of an unlikely constitutional convention) a statewide referendum to establish the income tax, which many voters believe is the only honest way of going about this whole affair in any case.

At the very, very, very least, commission members could have refrained from insulting those with whom they disagreed. By "members," to be clear, we mostly mean former state senator and pro-tax lightning rod Bob Rochelle, who should have just kept his trap shut (impossible, we know) when conservative talk show host Steve Gill railed into the commission a few months ago. Instead, Rochelle took the bait like a walleye bass in Center Hill Lake, comparing Gill to Joe McCarthy, and thereby destroying whatever slim chance there was of convincing the anti-tax constituency that it was getting a fair shake. Honestly, whose hare-brained idea was it to appoint Rochelle to this theoretically impartial body anyway? The Promise Keepers could announce the appointment of Scott Peterson to their national advisory board and it wouldn't be more counterproductive than this turned out to be.

Most Tennesseans oppose a state income tax, the strained claims of Tennesseans for Fair Taxation to the contrary notwithstanding. (Face facts gang: if most Tennesseans supported a state income tax, we would already have a state income tax.) The commission's utter refusal to engage the concerns of these folks is exactly why, in the wake of its report, there will be a Republican movement afoot to place an outright ban on any imposition of a state income tax. It's why state Sen. Joe Haynes, a Nashville Democrat who once said he would support whatever the commission recommended, has conveniently changed his mind. And it's why Gov. Bredesen is going to get the commission's report, take a "respectful" look at it, and then shove it in his desk drawer, never to be referenced again.

Which, in all fairness to the governor, is more than anyone else is going to do with it.


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