Like his ideological soulmates Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis before him, it looks like Gov. Don Sundquist has learned his lesson. That is, it doesn’t pay to be a liberal in Tennessee.
It will probably annoy Sundquist to no end to hear himself described as a McGovernite. But that, unfortunately, is the most attractive spin for the recent legislative session.
Through a liberal lens, Sundquist is the guy who nobly stood up for working families by trying to shift the burden of taxation from the backs of the downtrodden to the business interests and wealthy professionals who could well afford to bear it. Although beaten by the power of the business interests, it was a game effort against overwhelming odds. In the process, he not only muddied his identity as a conservative Republican and opened himself to criticism for being inconsistent, but he suffered betrayal by people whose careers he made and by people he sought to serve.
On the other hand, if Sundquist is viewed as a conservative, he doesn’t look nearly so good. He’s the guy who threw away all the conservative rhetoric he’s been spouting all these yearsas recently as last fall’s gubernatorial and legislative election, he was an anti-tax mouthpieceand tried to raise taxes. The peoplein their righteous furysmote the governor and his nefarious friends, who lacked both the craft and the muscle to thwart the will of the people.
So, on balance, it’s perhaps better for the governor to be viewed as an out-of-the-closet liberalindeed a populistthan as a conservative traitor.
As the Legislature slunk out of town Friday leaving behind a state budget held flimsily together by artifice and inertia, it became clear that this year’s public drama was like a three-act play in which the governor left the stage after Act II.
The first act was Sundquist’s dramatic early proposal, in which he unveiled his plan for a non-income-tax that was really an income tax, and a repeal of the grocery tax. The package would have gotten the governor the additional revenue he wanted while significantly shifting taxes from lower income individuals to businesses and professionals. The proposal managed to outrage his fellow Republicans, and a lot of Democrats sat on their hands, perhaps because of their ties to the trial lawyers, who would have also lost a good chunk of income under the proposal.
Act II was the month-long special legislative session and the slow, painful process of Sundquist surrendering on his real and alleged principles to fashion a budget deal. He even indicated a willingness to roll over for a real income tax. The curtain came down on this act in a Caesar-like moment when Sundquist’s former briefcase bearer, Republican Party Chairman Chip Saltsman, stabbed the last-gasp plan.
Act III was House speaker Jimmy Naifeh and his protégé, House Finance Committee Chairman Matt Kisber, patching together a budget based on cracking down on the businesses that had gotten greedy in their tax-avoidance schemes, and making a few token cuts to let the Republican anti-tax demagogues know that there is no free lunch.
Whipped by the first two acts and standing on the sidelines only to be disappointed by the third, Sundquist didn’t claim much victory when the deplorable scene was over. Instead, he was openly annoyed.
”Too much of this spring’s debate was driven by rhetoric and reaction from people who often didn’t know what they were talking about,“ the governor said after the session was over. The governor carefully skirted the fact that many people who didn’t know what they were talking about were fellow Republicans. ”No one can take pride in the results“ of the session, he said.
In Act III, the budget was balanced, and drama became bittersweet melodrama. What had seemed important ultimately got fixed, if only temporarily, by the necessary intervention of a few legislative heavyweights, leaving the legislative membership free to go with critical issues of tax policy deferred rather than resolved. The final budget fix was small and relatively painless (except for state workers, who will not get pay raises).
It’s over now, but the seemingly liberal governor remains undaunted. He still plans for tax reform in Tennessee and will perhaps even call for another special session in the fall. Meanwhile, there is precedent for the fix Sundquist finds himself in. Both of his predecessors, former governors Ned McWherter and Lamar Alexander, needed two years to get anywhere with their big, second-term initiatives.
Meanwhile, the other issues that had loomed large before this session, such as charter schools and home health care, were largely ignored as a sweeping issue turned into a minor budgeting issue. In the end, the state’s voters were left with only two real questions: How liberal will Don Sundquist be next year? And, who’s really going to eat the road kill?
WOW!!! Now back in my druggy days (70's), before fatherhood and those family responsibilities led…
Yeah, the Pachelbel Canon is our magic nursery music. I like it, too, xray. They…
@Donna Locke: Love Pachelbel's Canon in "D."
A couple of thoughts: 1) If the…
>>wonders what might happen if another catastrophic flood met up with Metro's planned tomb for…
Of all things. We must issue more Phony, Lying "Liberal" Alerts.