Political courage, apparently, is not something that one develops with practice. This seems to be the sure lesson from the current state legislative session. As the session goes on and on, the members seem to show less nerve, rather than more. For more than a week now, lawmakers have made no progress on the budget dilemma that stands as the only obstacle to adjournment.
So, the result is that we are left with the membership lurching about while all the key players are left to battle with the inner demons of their particular interests.
While truth-telling is not a particularly prized legislative virtue, we can fairly easily discern what the members would confess if forced by drugs or gunpoint to reveal their innermost thoughts:
Gov. Don Sundquist: Any solution must include at least some fig leaf of tax reform.
Senate strongman Bob Rochelle: Oh, hell. That damn Sundquist tricked me into doing the right thing.
Senate Speaker John Wilder: Principles? I just want to go on being speaker.
House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh: Principles? I just want to go on being speaker.
House Majority Leader Jere Hargrove: Principles? I just want to go on being leader.
House Finance Chairman Matt Kisber: Principles? I just want to be speaker some day.
Former Republican Party chairman and leading anti-tax agitator Tommy Hopper: I rescued the Republican Party from the income-tax folly of the Big Money pigs nine years ago and got thrown overboard by Sundquist and Lamar Alexander for my troubles. Now I have to rescue them again. In the process, maybe I can drum up a little business as a political consultant.
Senate Democratic Leader Ward Crutchfield: I had to go to law school cause I was no good in math. I may not have been able to make it through engineering school, but at least I can get a new building for the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
House Republican Leader Steve McDaniel: Maybe all this publicity will be good for my restaurant. At least no one has proposed a special tax on barbecue.
Senate Finance Chairman Douglas Henry: Any session in which I find myself believing that John Ford is right on principle has gone on too long.
Former Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen: What a bunch of amateurs. If they’d made me governor in 1994, there’d be five income taxes by now.
It would be easier to find a compromise in the budget stalemate if anyone involved stood for any principles at this point. One would like to say the difficulties are a reflection of the great matters of principle at stake. After all, democracy is supposed to be grandiose in its pretensions and messy in its practice. But the canons of journalistic ethics, such as they are, prohibit telling such bald-faced lies.
Indeed the stakes are depressingly small. The legislators are trying to close a gap of $300 million between revenues and expenditures in the state’s $19 billion budget. Such a small-potatoes variance is quite manageable, especially since the revenue shortfall might even be smaller if the state gets a little lucky on its final tax collection numbers.
The battle lines basically reflect the different approaches favored by the two houses. Members of the House of Representatives have generally favored stopgap approaches. They want to add a little revenue through nuisance taxes and trim some spending plans.
Senators want a little more spending and some fig leaf of tax reform to validate 18 months of talk about the issue provoked by Gov. Don Sundquist.
It is one of those situations where both sides have valid arguments. House members are correct in asserting that the budget situation is not dire enough to require extreme measures. The future of the state does not hang on the minor budget maneuvers at hand. Senators, on the other hand, are also correct that the longer-term budget trends are more troublesome and that a stopgap solution only delays a harsher reckoning until next year.
Those different perspectives may reflect the fact that all of the House members are up for election in the fall; only half the Senators face the voters.
More broadly, most legislators know that the state’s current tax structure does not serve the state well. In a changing economy with an increasing focus on untaxed services, the state still relies on the consumption of goods as the primary driver of tax collections. Although it will be a long time before Internet transactions seriously dent state tax collections, those purchases could also disappear from the state’s tax base.
As a result, lawmakers know that this is a very good year to take on the tax issue. The spending issues are minor; the crisis is in sight but not at hand. The governor is absorbing a lot of the public heat. It is a low-risk time for lawmakers to ”do the right thing“ (legislative code for passing an income tax or other major tax reform). Almost all lawmakers probably could survive the wrath of voters on election day.
But instead, legislators are beginning to resemble the policemen in Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. They approach the end of the first act by singing grandiosely about their willingness to face death for their duty (”Go to death and go to slaughter / die, and every Cornish daughter / with her tears your grave shall water / go to glory and the grave“) in a song that grows longer and longer as they realize that once they stop singing about bravery they will have to exhibit it.
The wrangling now is all about survival tactics. Each house has rejected the approach of the other chamber to extricate the membership from the stalemate. So the struggle goes on.
This is why the absence of principles is a problem. If the argument between the houses were on how best to restructure the tax code, they could negotiate a plan reflecting a little of the approach of each. But it’s harder to find middle ground when the argument is whether to address the problem at all.
House leaders have lined up stopgap legislation to keep the state operating in the event the stalemate drags on past June 30the end of the fiscal year. The lawmakers will, of course, resolve the issue eventually. There are two competing impulsesthe need to have something to show for all the agony against the need to just stop the pain. The question is which impulse will gain control as time marches on.
Of all things. We must issue more Phony, Lying "Liberal" Alerts.
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