If God had been asked to sit in on the state income tax debate as it escalated and then finally disappeared in a puff of budget compromise, he’d probably have thrown up his hands and hit the golf course. So many people were taking his name in vain during the public discoursenot to mention in the Legislature itselfthat the debate could have been turned into a drinking game more entertaining than the one built around The Bob Newhart Show.
There were the income tax supporters charging that an anti-tax conspiracy had been mapped out by a group of conservative Christians fighting a religious war over taxation. Then there were the conservative Christians, who accused the tax supporters of being dastardly heathens scheming to draw out the legislative session in an evil, unholy effort to wear down lawmakers and even cause them physical harm.
Dave Backs, a Republican challenging Democratic state Rep. Ben West in this year’s legislative election, went so far last week as to disseminate a press release charging that income tax supporters were trying to “destroy their fellow legislators financially and physically.” He went on to rant that “Sinful is too kind a word” for the likes of Democratic state Sen. Bob Rochelle, who was fighting for a levy on income. “How can Rochelle and others call themselves Christians?” Backs asked. “What kind of person would do this not just to members of his own party but to fellow human beings?”
Backs also said he would be reviewing the state constitution to see what legal steps could be taken against Rochelle, but added, “the Lord will determine the real price he’ll pay.” Asked whether Rochelle and Gov. Don Sundquist could support an income tax and still be Christians, Backs paused and said, “I think it puts them in a very precarious position.”
It gets weirder still. Becky Clark, a former Christian Coalition activist and former president of Nashville Right to Life who counts herself among the income tax supporters, decided last week it was time for her “to reveal to the press what I know about the religious agenda of the tax opponents.”
In a lengthy, conspiratorial tome theorizing where some of the anti-taxers attend church and what they believe, Clark wrote that their “use of the Internet has circumvented democracy in that they have made it so easy for those who could access a PC (the rich and healthy) to stay informed and to flood lawmakers with communications with one click of a button.”
Ironically, Clark’s screed came in the form of an e-mail, which became more out-there with each passing word: “The common belief among right-wing, ultra-conservative Christians involved in the anti-tax movement that they are obeying a mandate from God and are opposing a ‘godless’ government has fueled their inordinate passion and relentless determination.”
Clark, who has held signs during pro-tax rallies that read, “Tennessee taxes help the poor; God loves the poor,” went on to write that anti-tax political activists believe they are “noble crusaders in a holy war (a Christian Jihad).”
Or maybe, either out of greed or conviction, they just don’t want to pay the tax. We’re guessing God would prefer to stay out of it.
Pay to play
State lawmakers apparently haven’t been so thoroughly absorbed in their budget tasks that they haven’t had time to pitch fits over unpaid days of legislative work as a consequence of the session droning on too long. Lawmakers have been asking their leadership whether there is any way they can be paid for their days of work, even though they’ve exceeded the number of days allotted for the legislative session. It’s a sentiment akin to schoolchildren asking their teachers, in the midst of a history lesson, “Will this be on the test?”
“When I know what the law is, I’ll try to do what the law says,” a typically incoherent John Wilder, speaker of the Senate, has said about whether a loophole can be found to grant the payments.
Fortunately, other officials are more willing to be clear about what the consequences are for lawmakers dawdling all summer long in a staggeringly unproductive session. As Jim Shulman, chief of staff to House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, has put it: “They are up here on their own.”
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