A New Era

Control of the state budget shifts from West to East—will the money follow?

Middle and East Tennessee legislators have long chafed at the state government control of rural West Tennessee Democrats. House Speaker Ned McWherter, the emperor of West Tennessee, struck an alliance with the Black Caucus to set up the machinery that has run the Legislature for decades.

It is extraordinary if you think about it. Rural West Tennessee is the most sparsely populated portion of the state. The urban minority Black Caucus was the partner. Two groups least likely to govern in Tennessee have held the purse strings and controlled all legislation for decades. Between them they held most committee chairs and leadership positions.

East Tennessee legislators have complained over the years about their region paying the most taxes of any Grand Division while West Tennessee reaped the benefits.

There was an extraordinary meeting recently in which soon to be ex-Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, McWherter's West Tennessee heir, took state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh to meet with Gov. Phil Bredesen. Fitzhugh is from McWherter's hometown. They met to try to prevent Nashville legislator state Rep. Gary Odom being elected to the position of Minority Leader, the new position of leadership of the suddenly minority Democrats in the upcoming session.

The Democrats ignored the pleas of their governor and (until January) their speaker, and elected Odom over Fitzhugh. Given the growing conservative Republicanism of rural West Tennessee, it probably marked the end of West Tennessee dominance of state government. Any Democratic coalition in a Restoration, of course, will need the Black Caucus and they may again be back in power. But it seems that the sun has set on the West—unless they produce another political genius like McWherter.

Last year, Odom blocked a Bredesen proposal to raise business taxes. It has come as a surprise to the business community that supported Bredesen for governor that he has had "technical correction" bills each year closing tax loopholes and raising millions in business taxes. Last year it was to eliminate a tax break for family-owned real estate businesses. Odom killed it. Bredesen suggested it was a payoff to Nashville real estate developers. Odom says it was not a "technical correction" and didn't deserve a routine pass.

Bredesen has suggested he will have someone else carry administration bills in the upcoming session rather than his Minority Leader, possibly a Republican. There seems to be little likelihood of a united Democratic effort in opposition or to regain the House in the near future.

Over in the Senate, the rural West Tennessee Democrat Lt. Gov. John Wilder has given way to East Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. In the House, the Republicans are poised to elect Speaker Jason Mumpower. Ramsey and Mumpower are both from Sullivan County (the Tri-Cities). So the leadership of both houses has shifted from rural West to far East.

A common complaint of East Tennessee legislators over the years is that East Tennessee pays 40 percent of the taxes while West Tennessee (with 28 percent of the population last time I checked) got a large share of state spending. That imbalance has been righted somewhat in recent years. Gov. Don Sundquist and Bredesen have spent millions on road projects in East Tennessee. Criticism of TWRA spending on wetlands in West Tennessee led to spending in East Tennessee—Royal Blue and Smith Bend wildlife preserves resulted.

But when it's time to divide future state revenues, it is much more likely now that East Tennessee will get a bigger piece of the pie. What else will change with the shift in power?

Memphis Democrats (via the Black Caucus) have long dominated the House education committee and any conservative education reforms like charter schools and vouchers have been killed. These measures have a fighting chance now.

Preoccupation with the state budget deficit will dominate the next session, but in the long run the shift in power from West to East will manifest itself.

It marks the beginning of an era of optimism for Republican East Tennessee.