Revolution? Hah

Republican state senate has provided no budget leverage at all

Frank Talk

by Frank Cagle

At this writing, it appears the General Assembly will pass a budget and adjourn this week, though a last minute snag might push them into the weekend or into next week. This is the first legislative session in decades in which each political party had control of one of the chambers of our bicameral legislature. Republican control of the state Senate gave the traditional minority party leverage to counterbalance the Democrats' longtime rule of the House of Representatives.

How did it go? Business as usual.

We told you weeks ago the bill that would allow AT&T to get into the statewide cable business would be the full employment bill for lobbyists this year. An estimated $2 million was dispersed to various lobbyists this session on this bill alone. We also told you no one would kill the Golden Goose and dispose of the issue this year. The bill has been withdrawn and will be brought back next year, ensuring more big bucks being spent by both sides: local cable companies and local governments versus AT&T.

But it was great political theater while it lasted.

We also wondered how legislators could get away with raising taxes with a budget surplus of $1 billion. The House Republicans, led by Minority Leader Jason Mumpower, gamely came forward with a budget using the surplus with no new taxes. It funds education and pay raisesâ"and no one paid any attention to it. Certainly not the House Democrats.

But, not surprisingly, neither did Senate Republicans.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has been traveling the state, attending Lincoln Day dinners, extolling the success of his party and basking in the admiration of the rank-and-file in finally taking over the speaker's chair and control of the state Senate. Ramsey's pitch, and the pitch of Republican legislative candidates for decades, has been wresting control of the legislature from the dastardly Democrats and bringing lower taxes, smaller government and conservative principles to bear.

While Ramsey extols the virtues of Republican rule around the state, he and his Republican Senate colleagues do not appear to be willing to go to the mat to cut taxes instead of raising them. They have not held House Democratic bills hostage to garner support for Republican House members' budget.

In Ramsey's defense the Senate is being the Senate, as former Lt. Gov. John Wilder might say. Party discipline has never been very strong, even when the Democrat Wilder was in charge. The more disciplined House and the governor's office have usually held sway in the end. In the Senate it is often hard for members to even discipline their own behavior, much less cohere to a legislative agenda.

The early session posturing on tax reduction went nowhere, mostly because it was not argued on fiscal responsibility and general tax relief. It was populist posturing on reducing taxes on groceries, or some such. The principle of giving money back to people who are overtaxed never got a hearing. (Except among some House Republican fiscal hawks, whose speeches are trees falling in the forest with no one around to hear. You didn't even know they had proposed an alternative budget, now did you?)

If you want to raise taxes on cigarettes and reduce consumption, that's fine. Though you could make the argument that it is one of the more regressive taxes you can raise. The poor are the majority of cigarette smokers these days.

But there should be a corresponding reduction in taxes elsewhere, and a tax reduction across the board to return most of the surplus.

You can expect them to spend the surplus and raise taxes on cigarettes. It appears a good bet at this writing that they will compromise on raising cigarette taxes by 20 cents a pack, half what Bredesen wants, and raise them again next yearâ"though they may cave on the entire amount. Unless, of course, Ramsey and his forces suddenly decide to listen to their House colleagues.

I also find it passing strange that no one has proposed using the surplus to cover some Transportation Department revenue and reducing the ruinous gasoline taxes in Tennessee that help put the price over $3 per gallon. That's because the road builders would lynch any legislator who proposes reducing the gasoline tax.

The General Assembly has never been responsive to consumers, and we know why. Consumers don't have a lobbyist. Tom Humphrey, the dean of the Capitol Hill press corps, estimates spending on lobbyists this session at between $20 million and $30 million, using the limited information available and making an educated guess

I guess if you want tax relief you are going to have to hire a lobbyist.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville magazine. You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .

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