Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Conservative Critique of the State Budget

Posted By on Wed, Apr 24, 2013 at 5:02 AM

"Tennessee's Republican state lawmakers must think we're stupid."

Words you might expect to find here at Pith, maybe more surprising from the Free Press side of the Times Free Press editorial pages.

But Drew Johnson goes on to deliver a harsh conservative critique of the budget state Republicans bragged was "balanced."

At $32.8 billion, the new state budget is the largest in Tennessee's history. It's a full $2 billion more than last year's budget.

But that's not the worst of it for taxpayers.

The state portion of the state budget — the chunk of the budget paid for by revenues from state taxes, such as the sales tax, franchise and excise tax, state gas tax, and the Hall income tax — is limited by the Tennessee Constitution. State spending is limited based on the personal income growth in the state over the previous year. That spending limit, known as the "Copeland Cap," can only be overridden by a majority vote of both houses of the legislature.

With a Republican supermajority in the Tennessee General Assembly, taxpayers must have believed that GOP lawmakers wouldn't dare vote to bust the cap and spend more than they were constitutionally allowed. But they did — by $132.5 million.

As Johnson points out, there's no getting that money back. Next year, they start from a baseline that includes that $132.5 million.

Don't misunderstand me — I think the programs Johnson identifies as pork are awesome and I'm pleased that we're funding them. But I'm a hippie liberal. Not a Tennessee Republican. So, I also think Johnson's right to question just what the conservative philosophy behind busting the Copeland Cap is. I mean, you know why I'd do it — to fund all the cool stuff I want to fund.

Even so, it seems to me that there's something important going on in Nashville right now. People who haven't been in control now have unmitigated control, and they're learning some truths about power that extend beyond partisan politics. Now, I'm sure some of what they're learning is that having power is awesome, and that without any real opposition, they can pretty much do what they want, even if it makes no ideological sense.

But I suspect that some of them are learning some lessons about just how far pure partisan ideology goes before it bumps up against unpopular decisions. And I wish some of them would sit down and talk openly about this — about how everyone wants to cut spending in the abstract, but no one wants to ruin the state museum, for instance. Or how everyone wants to cut spending in the abstract, but when it comes to keeping the state money rolling into their district, they're going to do whatever they can, because they don't want their constituents to be mad.

I think we'd be better off as a state for that kind of forthrightness, even if it doesn't fit easily into our current partisan model. It's got to be better than pretending like you're working conservative miracles with the budget when it's obvious you're not.

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