What may be most striking about Republican Gov. Don Sundquist’s tax reform bombshellnow in its second month of a furious critiqueis the extent to which it alienates his core constituencies.
For the politically curious, the question right now may not be so much the obvious one or the bottom-line one. That is, what variation of Sundquist’s plan will ultimately pass? Instead, supporters and detractors alike have found themselves asking a much different question, one that ponders the human condition rather than the policy details: What is he thinking? Or, alternatively, what is he thinking? What, in other words, is motivating a supposedly conservative Republican governor to alienate his most loyal supporters? What is it that has sent him on this quest for his vision of tax fairness?
After all, business people, chambers of commerce, and generally conservative Sundquist supporters have found themselves saying unusually nasty things about the governor and his idea to make taxes more equitable. Taking the state sales tax off groceries and making up the difference by putting more of a tax burden on Tennessee businesses is not, after all, a frequently heard Republican refrain. The country club set is not clamoring for tax equalization and for aiding the working poor by removing sales taxes from food.
The same group also staunchly opposes the governor’s latest proposal, revealed earlier this week at the beginning of the Legislature’s special session on taxes. The new plan makes tax reform somewhat more palatable to legislators, if not to the businesses that would be paying a collective $800 million more a year in taxes. More than two dozen business lobbying groups formed the new Tennessee Jobs Coalition to fight the plan, saying it would mean job layoffs across the state.
Meanwhile, those who have tended to be Sundquist’s archenemies since he was elected in 1994the state employees’ union and the generally liberal consolidation of interests called the Tennesseans for Fair Taxationhave embraced the plan and its ideology. It took them a little while because they were so busy scratching their heads in bewilderment.
In early March, for example, Sundquist got a letter from the state employees’ union that began like perhaps no other from the organization to this governor. “The Tennessee State Employees Association commends you for courageously proposing a reformed tax structure that is broad-based and responsive to economic growth of our great state,” the letter read.
In short, Sundquist’s tax planeven his modified oneis wrapped up in irony. On the one hand, it would make businesses currently using legal loopholes to skirt paying state taxes reach into their pockets and pay their fair share. The additional $400 million a year in revenue, which comes after offsetting the loss of state sales taxes from food, could go to fund such worthy items as higher education. That seems fair enough. It just doesn’t happen to be an idea generally associated with Republicans.
Outcry has been overwhelming since Sundquist first introduced the idea of tax reform at the annual State of the State address Feb. 9. But he has stood by the notion that the state’s tax structure is in dire need of reform. And while he says he’s willing to compromise on most details, his stance on the issue of repealing state sales taxes on food is “non-negotiable.” Initially, his proposal included a payroll tax that sent fiscal conservatives through the roof, criticizing it as hastily considered. “It makes you wonder who he’s playing golf with,” one said.
But while the governor may be having the most difficult ride of his political career, he is not, after all, going to run for any other office in the future. That much he has said. And, while he may be affiliated with the political party that more often identifies with the elite, he may be quietly proud of winning support in Democratic circles.
Sundquist grew up in a family of Democrats, in a Midwestern blue collar town, and was the first of the Sundquists to go to college. The governor is, after all, a man who vacations in a doublewide trailer in Destin, Fla., a man who prefers to play nine holes at a public course rather than a private one, a man who despises police escorts, and one who will never break in line.
“He believes this is the right thing to do,” one senior aide says of Sundquist’s tax reform ideas. “You know, it’s really that simple.”
Whether or not the technicalities of the governor’s proposal are the exact right ones to accomplish his mission for tax equality are debatable. But as for the governor’s motivations, it could just be he’s trying to do the right thing.
“These are difficult issues, and I know better than to imagine that I have the perfect solution,” Sundquist said earlier this week to a joint session of the state House and Senate Monday. “But I can echo the little boy whose letter is included in the book, Letters to God: ‘Dear God, I’m doing the best that I can.’ “
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