The Fourth of July, the great celebration of national self-assertion and independence which is the centerpiece of the current week for most of us, must have a wholly different feel this year to the members of the Tennessee General Assembly.
After all, the 132 men and women who have been elected to uphold the best interests of our state are obliged to go back to work in Nashville on the day after the holiday this year -- in the full knowledge that they have upheld nothing of consequence, have failed to assert themselves significantly, and have done no justice whatsoever to the name of independent self-government. The Fourth of July was surely experienced as a reproach by the members of the 102nd General Assembly.
In half a year's work so far -- and with plenty of advance notice, given the fact that each of the last several regular and special legislative sessions had highlighted the problem -- they have utterly failed to produce a budget -- their Number One constitutional mandate -- to pay for the basic needs and services of state government.
They have failed to do so because a majority of them clearly do not possess the sense to grasp the obvious or the guts to face up to it -- or the sense of duty to their constituents to do either. All they could bring themselves to do before the end of the fiscal year was enact the most rudimentary stopgap budget, one that can last only a month or two before it must be supplanted by a real one. Hence, the unprecedented return to work in July.
One legislative veteran, Rep. Shelby Rhinehart of Spencer, went so far as to call this Legislature "dastardly" for its neglect of duty.
As things stand, the state will be short of necessary funding by as much as $800 million. Education, health services, and the state's bond rating (which took a hit last year when the Assembly also ducked its obligations), are all at stake.
At least the Legislature has held back (so far) from imposing yet another sales tax increase, one that would bring this outmoded levy to the dimensions of a 10 percent tithe. Most members of the Assembly have come to understand that tax-free Internet sales, plus the drain of retail business to establishments across the border from Tennessee, have made the sales tax no option at all.
And even a patchwork budget employing ad hoc taxes here and there, plus use of tobacco-settlement funds and the state's "rainy day" emergency account, has proved impossible to attain. The special interests that dominate these less-than-independent legislators have seen to that.
Some members of the General Assembly have performed responsibly, to be sure. Senators Bob Rochelle and Gene Elsea and Rep. Tommy Head have proposed a common-sense graduated income tax that would constitute real reform, pay for essential services, and save most Tennesseans considerable money. Our own Senator Jim Kyle, chair of the House-Senate conference committee, has done his best to move the Legislature to make sensible decisions. And Senator John Ford, in his firebrand way, has both proposed a feasible flat-tax alternative and challenged the Assembly's leadership to resign if it cannot act responsibly.
Who could disagree? If this Legislature cannot face up to its duty, it will both bankrupt the state and dishonor the traditions of democracy.