Up in Smoke 

Lawmakers dissing Bredesen on cigarette tax; governor can’t stop that nagging voice in his head

Like all governors in their second terms, Phil Bredesen is fretting over his legacy. In his second inaugural address, he revealed that he hears the state Capitol speaking to him on this matter.

Like all governors in their second terms, Phil Bredesen is fretting over his legacy. In his second inaugural address, he revealed that he hears the state Capitol speaking to him on this matter. The building actually nags Bredesen for failing to accomplish enough, according to the governor. “That building says to me every day, ‘Phil, you’re not here all that long, you’re called governor for a few years and then your portrait’s up on the wall with the others and you’re gone. But right now, it is your turn; what are you going to do with it?’ ”

The way things stand now, Bredesen will be remembered mostly for dismantling TennCare, the health care program for the poor and uninsured. In other words, Bredesen’s legacy at the moment is that he destroyed the legacy of another governor, Ned McWherter, who created TennCare. That’s not the way Bredesen wants to go down in Tennessee history.

So the governor is pushing legislation to triple the state cigarette tax to raise $220 million, mostly for education. It’s step one in Bredesen’s plan to build an acceptable legacy. The problem is that state lawmakers apparently don’t really care how Bredesen is remembered.

The first vote on the “Schools First!” tax bill came during a bizarre, nearly three-hour meeting of the tobacco-friendly House Agriculture Committee last week. Not since Don Sundquist pushed for a state income tax—and wound up reviled even within his own political party—has a governor been so badly abused in the legislature. The committee maimed Bredesen’s bill beyond recognition.

In a confusing flurry of amendments, committee members chopped in half Bredesen’s proposed 40-cent-a-pack cigarette tax increase, then siphoned all the money from education. So much for putting schools first. Even more audaciously, they stole $15 million set aside by Bredesen for anti-smoking programs and gave it to farmers in the form of grants to build pigpens and such. Another amendment took money from the tax hike and used it to cover the cost of eliminating the state sales tax from canned tuna and other food. Afterward, legislative attorneys—like NFL referees deciding an instant replay—had to watch a videotape of the meeting to figure out what happened.

Even some lawmakers were outraged by the chaotic procedure. Rep. Jason Mumpower, a Republican from Bristol, called it “a sad way to do business” and complained that “it was very obvious that the member running the meeting didn’t know what was going on, let alone any member of the committee, so I think anybody who voted for this can’t really know what they voted for because I don’t think anybody in the room knew.”

For all that, no one really thought any of it mattered much. In the legislative process, the bill goes this week to the House Budget Subcommittee—known commonly as “The Black Hole,” after the weird outer space entities—which will do with the bill as House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh pleases. Its members are carefully chosen by Naifeh for their utter fealty to Naifeh. They couldn’t care less what the Agriculture Committee did. Naifeh supports Bredesen’s bill, so the subcommittee is likely to amend it back into its original form. All bets are off once the bill reaches the House floor. Stay tuned.

The outlook for the legislation is murkier in the Senate, if that’s possible. Before voting on any new tax, many senators want to wait for the latest state revenue projections, so Bredesen’s bill is probably stuck in committee until May. The state is running a surplus that could easily exceed $300 million. It grew another $69 million in March and stands at $185 million with four months remaining in this budget year.

One problem for the governor has been that many lawmakers—Democrats and Republicans alike—want to cut or eliminate the sales tax on food. Bills have been introduced to pay for that by raising the cigarette tax, and they compete with Bredesen’s idea to spend the money on schools. The governor views cutting the tax on food to be fiscally irresponsible, but that’s a hard argument to sell when the state is collecting more money than it’s spending. Which is another obstacle for Bredesen: why raise taxes when there’s a budget surplus?

The governor has been going straight to the public to promote his plan, throwing media events around Tennessee and asking voters to contact their lawmakers. He’s casting the battle as one between schoolchildren and tobacco lobbyists and pointing to a poll showing 70 percent of Tennesseans support what his legislation does.

But in the opinion of a growing number of Capitol insiders, Bredesen has botched his bill’s chances of passage because of his inept relations with lawmakers. By implying that his critics are in the pocket of tobacco lobbyists, he has caused resentment. Even the abrupt way he unveiled his plan without much consultation struck many lawmakers as high-handed.

“That’s the way Bredesen operates,” one insider says. “He just kind of sends it down here and says, ‘Y’all do it because I said so.’ That’s really turning people off. He could have held meetings with legislators and lobbyists and laid out his plan and asked for suggestions. But he just said, ‘Here’s what I want to do and y’all do it and don’t change it.’ ”

To be fair to Bredesen, the tumultuous legislative process sometimes defies management by even the ablest politician, which the governor is not. It hasn’t helped that the governor lost his political brain, chief of staff Dave Cooley, who left the administration in January to return to private PR practice. Bredesen also clearly failed to fully account for the rube factor, the tendency of lawmakers to behave unpredictably out of ignorance or sheer stupidity.

Bredesen himself has expressed surprise at the difficulty his bill is encountering. In an understatement, he told the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents that winning passage was “provinging to be harder” than he thought. He might pass a little of what he wants, but it probably won’t improve his legacy or stop that nagging voice in his head.

Fred heads

In a glowing profile of Fred Thompson in this week’s Weekly Standard, former Sen. Bill Frist seems to let it slip that Thompson is definately going to run for president.

In the article, Frist talks about his discussions with Thompson about when to disclose that Thompson has been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a slow-growing form of the disease. “It’s easy to diagnose, easy to treat and easy to live with,” Frist, a physician, confirms. But because it sounds frightening, Frist says, “We thought we had to get it out early in the sense that he’s going to be announcing.”

Thompson also suggests that he’s running. He says he understands “how hard it is, how difficult it is, how embarrassing it is, how intrusive it is.” He adds, “It’s not pleasant, but it’s not that important anymore because you’re straight with your family, you have a level of understanding and knowledge about your family, and they with you, and with the man upstairs, and that’s that. You know, ain’t really much past that. And it kind of frees you up in a way.”

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