insights (2006-43)

Harry Tindell: Consensus Builder

State Rep. Harry Tindell is living proof of the old maxim that it’s much easier to get things done if you don’t care who gets credit for them. His unassuming manner and avoidance of the limelight make it easy to underestimate the influence that Tindell wields in shaping legislation, especially when it comes to determining how state funds get spent.

It’s taken the eight terms the Knoxville Democrat has spent in the House of Representatives for him to grow into the pivotal role he now plays as chairman of its budget subcommittee. But seniority and experience alone are by no means the only attributes Tindell brings to the post. His mastery of a host of issues and of the legislative process has earned him the respect of members of both parties and contributes mightily to his effectiveness.

“Harry is very knowledgeable and very fair as chairman”, says Rep. Steve McDaniel, the ranking Republican on the budget subcommittee. “It’s one of the hardest jobs in the Legislature, and I have nothing but compliments for the way he handles it, working with members of both parties to build consensus.”

Indeed, his consensus-building skill is the attribute in which Tindell takes the most pride. “You have to deal with a lot of concerns from a lot of sources, and you have to be constantly reaching out to the members of the House and Senate and the [state] administration and business groups to find out where everybody’s at so we can craft a compromise on a consensus position,” Tindell says.

While balancing a state budget means reconciling all manner of competing claims for funds, Tindell’s personal predilections always put education funding in the forefront. “I’ve always made education my number one priority,” he says. In this year’s legislative session, he’s particularly proud of collaboration with Republican Sen. Jamie Woodson, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, on getting a $19 million increase in higher education funding—the first in several years. Gov. Phil Bredesen’s original budget hadn’t provided for any such increase, but state revenue growth in excess of projections allowed for it.

Looking to next year, Tindell assays a host of education initiatives that he believes have merit. These include extending Pre-K funding to cover all 4-year-olds on a voluntary basis, rectifying inequities in the state’s complex K-12 funding formula that have disadvantaged Hamilton and Knox Counties especially, and boosting high school graduation rates and bridging the gap between high school and college for more graduates.

Still, caution is another Tindell watchword, and he puts a premium on fulfilling commitments to existing programs, especially making Pre-K universally available before embarking on new ones.

“We’ve got an awful lot on our plate, and it’s not clear that we’re going to have the money to do all of that and also increase operating funds for higher education and also treat higher-ed employees the same as other state employees in terms of their salary increase. We didn’t do that this year, and I think that was a terrible mistake which I hope to correct in the next session.”

Tindell’s continuation in his pivotal position will depend on the Democrats retaining control of the House. Their present 53-46 majority is a narrow one, but most observers don’t foresee a swing of more than two seats in either direction in the Nov. 7 election. On the other hand, Republicans are widely expected to solidify their control of the Senate, which will place yet more of a premium on Tindell’s bipartisan consensus-building skill.

In any event, Bredesen’s all but certain reelection will keep him in the forefront of shaping the legislative agenda and the state budget. Tindell is a Bredesen loyalist, but he’s by no means a rubber stamp for the governor and can be expected to buck him on at least one pending issue: namely, reducing the sales tax on groceries.

Bredesen opposes such a reduction, but Tindell favors cutting the present 6 percent grocery tax at least in half. “It’s outrageously high, and we’re out of step with the nation; that’s hardest on the neediest people,” he asserts. When it comes to covering the $200 million cost of cutting the rate to 3 percent Tindell says, “ I’m open to the possibilities of how to do that,” including an increase in the state’s 21 cents a pack cigarette tax to the national average of 72 cents.

Tindell is also known to doubt the efficacy of Bredesen’s Cover Tennessee plan for offering low-cost, state subsidized health insurance to the lower income workers of small employers—but with limited benefits. “I’m skeptical of the benefits package that’s been discussed, “he says. Moreover, he’s frustrated by how long it’s taking the Bredesen administration to fulfill a long-standing pledge to reopen enrollment in TennCare to people classified as medically needy. “When the Legislature reconvenes, it’s going to demand some answers on how this is unfolding”, he states reproachfully.

While Tindell should be primarily viewed by Knoxvillians as an asset to the state, his knowledge and effectiveness in Nashville are also important assets for the community. “Harry understands the issues very well, and he’s been very helpful to us not only in explaining the ins and outs of things but also in advocating for the city, “says Mayor Bill Haslam’s director of government relations, Margie Nichols.

By now, I trust, you get the point of this column, which is that Harry Tindell should be reelected.