Four years ago, a reporter stood outside the office of Lt. Gov. John Wilder and was admonished for an upstart attempt to crash a late-session secret meeting of the Senate Finance Committee.
“You know, there’s supposed to be a Sunshine Law in this state,” the reporter snapped at the elderly Wilder.
“Let me tell you something,” Wilder responded. “We’re in the sunshine, and you’re in the shade! And you’re going to stay in the shade.”
Since that time, the number of secret budget meetings has dwindled. No one is certain about the reason for the change, but there are some theories. One possibly is the frequency with which reporters complain about secret meetings and all the disparaging stories that have accompanied the carping. Another possibly is the lawsuit filed by Nashville resident Mark Mayhew last year (in which the Scene joined him as a plaintiff) that unsuccessfully challenged the practice of secret meetings. The third is the increasing power of younger legislators uncomfortable with the idea of flagrant violation of open government, most notably Jackson Democrat Rep. Matt Kisber and Memphis Democrat Sen. Jim Kyle.
However, the most likely explanation is that as the need for new taxes increases, so has the demand to make the discussions more public. “In the past, we had sufficient revenue to pay our bills, and the only thing that needed to be argued over was how to divide up the excess,” Kyle says. “It’s a lot easier to decide how to cut the cake than to figure out how to divide up the meat and potatoes.”
Today, secret meetings aren’t as much of a problem. But now there’s a new difficulty for reporters, lobbyists, and other citizens who want to watch their government at work: making time to cover all the open meetings. Last month, the House and Senate formed 15 informal budget-planning groups. Some of those groups focused on ways to cut the budget, some of them on the best way to raise taxes. All of them convened at least half a dozen times during the same weeks standing committees were also meeting.
All the meetings let onlookers in on a disturbing reality: Most legislators know very little about state government finances.
Perhaps the most vivid example of this came from the House group created to find ways to cut the budget. It probably met for more hours than any other group and included several veteran lawmakers from the Nashville area, including Democrats Sherry Jones and Tim Garrett. In the end, the group didn’t propose a single solid budget-cutting idea. Instead, it developed a disorganized list of unoriginal and arbitrary options, some of which didn’t have more than one supporter on the 26-member committee. The ideas ranged from the obvious (using some or all of the tobacco settlement money to balance the budget) to the bizarre (using volunteer chaplains instead of paid chaplains at state prisons). The list also made no acknowledgment of situations in which Tennessee is under a court order to spend certain amounts of money. Many options would have violated those court orders, making them potentially illegal.
“There is a reason why the attorney general described some of those options as ‘stupid,’ ” state Comptroller John Morgan says. “You cannot reduce the cost of complying with a court agreement without ending up back in court. And if you end up back in court, you will likely end up with a higher settlement cost next time around.”
Some of this group’s proceedings also will be remembered for airing excruciating lawmaker ignorance. Case in point: One morning, several Republican lawmakers asked a state Department of Health official whether field workers regularly quiz AIDS patients seeking help from health centers about their citizenship status. “No,” the official replied, because the purpose of the department is to stop the spread of disease. The official explained that if the word gets out that the department isn’t treating illegal immigrants, then they won’t seek treatment for their disease, increasing the chances that it will spread to others. Of course, such a practical approach was lost on many lawmakers, who went on to argue that Tennesseans are tired of their tax dollars being used to help illegal immigrants.
The disorganized list of “budget cut options” clouded the fact that to be substantial, budget cuts must be imposed in one of two areas. “If you really want to cut, you have to either talk about education or TennCare,” says Rep. Tommy Head, a Clarksville Democrat and co-sponsor of the income tax plan. In fact, education and TennCare account for three-fourths of every state tax dollar.
Legislators could cut the 400,000 “uninsured” patients from TennCare, the state’s health insurance plan for the indigent and working poor. This would affect neither the so-called “Medicaid eligible” TennCare patients, who can’t afford to buy health insurance, nor the so-called “uninsurable” TennCare patients no insurer will cover. Such a move would save an estimated $100 million in state tax dollars a year, and a legal battle to stop it would be unlikely, given Tennessee’s expansive efforts to insure those people in the first place. But there is one major reason why TennCare’s “uninsureds” won’t be cut: TennCare has become an all-star constituent services program for lawmakers. Virtually every one of them has helped voters sign up for the program.
Then there’s education. As long as education spending is cut equally in urban and rural parts of the state, court action probably could be avoided. However, even state legislators realize the folly of cutting education spending in a state already ranking somewhere between 47th and 50th in quality of public education. As Kisber puts it, “We have no room to cut education.”
The reality is that lawmakers don’t want to consider these major cuts. Recent meetings of the House-Senate budget conference committee indicate that they also don’t want to consider taxing services or an income tax. That means that they are headed for what some might call a “Band-Aid” solutionraising the sales tax half a cent, increasing taxes on car tags, using tobacco settlement money, and trimming Gov. Don Sundquist’s proposed increases to education. Those measures will ensure a mediocre state public education system and create an even more regressive tax structure. They also will guarantee that the budget crunch will continue into the indefinite future.
Watching it all in slow motion is enough to inspire nostalgia about the shade good-government advocates complained so loudly about not long ago.
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