Expressing support for the implementation of a state income tax in the middle of campaign season would be perhaps the most obvious unforced error imaginable in Tennessee politics. It's a guaranteed loser, support for which is generally seen as a significant contributing factor to the Democrats' downfall in the state. The only debate about the income tax in Tennessee these days is whether it should be super-DUPER banned.
For exactly that reason, saying that a Democrat is calling for a state income tax on the stump is just about the most obvious political move imaginable in Tennessee politics. If you can find any way to merely suggest that a candidate would push for a state income tax, you've got the political equivalent of an ugly childhood jeer: Do your parents know you support an income tax?
All of that made this item yesterday from the state Republican Party — claiming that a Democratic candidate had expressed support for a state income tax and that there was tape to prove it — suspect at best.
In a statement Tuesday, the TNGOP claimed that Flo Matheson, who is running against incumbent Rep. Cameron Sexton in House District 25, had “promoted the implementation of a progressive income tax and a living wage, and keeping in place the death tax.”
“Tennesseans have to wonder if the Tennessee Democrat Party has encouraged their candidates to adopt this extremist, big government agenda which would amount to some of the largest tax increases in our state’s history,” said state party chair Chris Devaney, who went on to ask if state House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh would denounce “this radical legislative agenda.”
At the candidate forum where the clip was recorded, however, Matheson said she expressed support for a progressive income tax at the national level, but not in Tennessee, and that the complete quote makes that clear.
Informed of the TNGOP’s version of her remarks, Matheson said her remarks were about the federal income tax, not a plan to push for one on the state level. She sounded stunned that they had been presented in any other way.
“Oh dear heavens, you’re kidding me,” she said when reached by phone by The City Paper.
The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled three times that the state's constitution bans an income tax. Just last year, Republican state legislators were pushing an amendment to the state constitution that would reiterate that point. For a Democrat to express support for a state income tax on the campaign trail would be especially surprising, since the Democratic effort to institute such a tax a decade ago is commonly seen as the spark that led to the overwhelming majority Republicans currently enjoy.
TNGOP executive director Adam Nickas told The City Paper that the state party did not cut or edit “in any way” the audio provided to them, but would not reveal where the audio came from.
The release, which does not identify Matheson by name, included an eight-minute audio recording of some of Matheson’s remarks at the Monday morning candidates forum in the East Tennessee district. In the tape, Matheson can be heard expressing support for a living wage, and opposition to the repeal of the estate tax. However, her remarks about an income tax begin with less than ten seconds left in the tape and are quickly cut off.
"Also, I support a progressive income tax, which would mean, you know, more taxes on the wealthy. I do know that fe...,” she can be heard saying, at which point the tape ends.
Forum organizers told The City Paper they did not have an official video or audio recording of the event. But a copy of Matheson’s prepared remarks, provided by Matheson, seems to provide the rest of the sentence cut off by the TNGOP audio.
“Support a progressive income tax,” her notes read. “Federal Income tax is not an issue that state representatives can resolve, but I can urge voters to remove legislators who work for the greedy super-rich, not for the middle class.”
The GOP line on this is basically: "Hey, we're just asking the question." If that were true, they'd have their answer. When I asked Matheson if she supported an income tax at the state level, she was quite clear:
"Of course not," she said. "Nobody does."
But they're not asking a question. Their release blares definitively that Matheson "promoted the implementation" of a state income tax. How do we know the TNGOP is referring to a state income tax, despite the fact that their release doesn't include the modifier "state"? Because no one has to call for the implementation of a federal income tax — one already exists. How can we know Flo Matheson was talking about the federal income tax, and not the implementation of a new one in Tennessee? Well, if all you have to go on is the partial audio released by the TNGOP, you can't.