STATE GOVERNMENT UNDER SIEGE (Part One)

STATE GOVERNMENT UNDER SIEGE (Part One)

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Jim Henry of Kingston in East Tennessee, who back in the '70s and '80s was a mover and shaker in the relatively sacrosanct Tennessee legislature of that time, was in Memphis Saturday to promote himself as a centrist Republican alternative to U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary, the Gingrich-style conservative who, many think, is close to having a lock on the Republican nomination for governor next year. Henry -- who is cast in the square-jawed, white-haired mold of several other 2002 hopefuls (gubernatorial wannabe Randy Nichols, the Knox County D.A., for example, or State Rep. Lincoln Davis, a Democratic aspirant for Hilleary's 4th District congressional seat) -- talked about a number of things to the members of the monthly Dutch Treat Luncheon at the Audubon Cafe. Among them were taxes (he's for reform and isn't ready either to endorse or to rule out any version of it, including the income tax), TennCare (he's for reforming it, too, but endorses the state-run insurance program as a financial and medical boon for Tennessee's citizens), and fiscal policy in general (he came out for prioritizing state needs, raising enough revenue to pay for them, and then eliminating any excess money -- presumably by tax cuts Ñ before government though up a way to spend it). But the one thing that seemed to preoccupy Henry, both in his public remarks and in private conversation afterward, was the debacle in Nashville last Thursday night, which saw a state Capitol literally attacked by protesters as the lawmakers inside forsook a last-ditch good-faith effort to produce a long-term budget and instead hastily adopted a bare-bones no-new-taxes version which leaves many needs unspoken for and which may be vetoed by Governor Don Sundquist. Not only epithets but rocks were thrown Thursday night by the throngs that turned out at the command of radio talk show hosts Phil Valentine and Steve Gill. Windows were broken out in Governor Sundquist's first-floor office, and legislators were verbally abused and even manhandled. Informed that Republican Senate Leader Ben Atchley, no supporter of the income-tax legislation that the crowd had turned out to protest, had been shoved two or three times as he made his way into the Senate chamber, Henry seemed especially troubled. "That's dangerous for someone like Ben. He's had several bypass operations. We can't be having that," the GOP hopeful said, shaking his head and furrowing his brow. "I don't know how we're going to do it, but we've got to find a way that will let us deal with important questions and, at the same time, return civility to state government!" II. Neither of those goals seems anything but remote after Thursday night. It had become fashionable in the preceding six months to ridicule, even condemn, the leadership of the current General Assembly for failing to agree on a budget that would allow the state to meet its current needs and make a few modest improvements. State Senator John Ford of Memphis, whose legislative achievements are often overlooked because of his sometimes outlandish private behavior, earned the admiration of many observers late in the session as he both tried to break the revenue impasse with a flat-tax version of the income tax and excoriated the leadership of his own party and his own Senate for not dealing with reality. They needed to resign and step down if they wouldn't lead, he said. And, as the Senate bogged down Thursday and seemed likely to timidly accept some version of the bare-bones budget Ñ some $800 million short of estimated needs ÑÊthat they had more or less forced the House to adopt because of their own inaction, Ford had had enough. He stalked out of the Chamber and strode down the long tunneled hallway leading from the Capitol back to his office, anouncing, "I'm leaving. They're not going to do anything worth staying around for." And the flamboyant senator, famous for his fast driving, was, soon enough, hastening down I-40 back to Memphis. But meanwhile, something of a miracle occurred. A group of senators from both sides of the aisle, determined to save something of their chamber's reputation and to get a budget measure passed that would not force the state to gut vital programs (education and health services prominent among them), stirred themselves Thursday afternoon to putting together a workable formula. Senator Bob Rochelle of Lebanon, the Democrat who is the Senate's (nay the legislature's) leading exponent of an income tax, and Republican Sen. David Fowler of Signal Mountain, a conservative's conservative, began working on a compromise that would include Fowler's insistence on allowing a statewide vote before an income tax could be legitimized. True tax reform, as Governor Sundquist had long since recognized, if but reluctantly, could probably not be achieved through any other means. A sales-tax increase had proved unpassable because almost everybody had come to realize that Tennessee's sales tax was already too high relative to its neighbor states, was based on an outmoded economy, and increasingly was incapable of accommodating the state's future revenue needs. For months, various hodgepodge formulas involving other measures -- services taxes, sales-tax extensions, "sin" taxes on alcohol and tobacco, car-tag increases, etc., etc. Ñ had been shopped around and failed. That left only the income tax, and, thanks largely to the tireless helmsmanship of Sen. Jim Kyle, the Memphian who was co-chairman and motive force of the joint House-Senate committee charged with finding a solution, Rochelle, Fowler, and others got close to an agreement. The House had already signaled its willingness to accept an income tax. All the Senate had to do was find a formula. At one point, with 14 votes in the bag for some version of an income tax (of the 17 needed in the 33-member body), Rochelle came off his insistence on a graduated version (Republicans traditionally favor the flat-tax principle) and agreed on a statewide referendum that would either validate or sunset the tax one year after its institution. Fowler, Sen. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, and Collierville's Mark Norris -- who doubled as negotiators and as the three swing Republican voters who could make the proposal work -- then accepted the proposition, according to Kyle, and headed back to their caucus at Rochelle's insistence to get its approval. III. It was at that point that Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who represents the elite Nashville suburb of Franklin and who functions as the poster girl for all populist right-wing causes, sat at her legislative desk and began batting out emails on her taxpayer-provided laptop, informing all members of her ideological network -- including, crucially, Valentine and Gill -- that the pointy-headed scoundrels were at it again. They were about to pass an income tax. The broadcasters -- competitors on the radio but ideological allies -- soon took to the airwaves and, as they done repeatedly every time in the last two or three years that the legislature came close to passing such legislation, called on their audiences to respond. In years before, the response had been caravans of horn-honkers surrounding the Capitol. Now the protest would take a more direct form -- mass invasion of the Capitol grounds and its hallways. The throngs began to gather even as the three Republican negotiators were pitchig the deal to their caucus. On a Senate telephone line, meanwhile, Lt. Governor John Wilder, who had been savaged by Ford for his back-and-forthing on the income tax, was trying to find the Memphis senator. He eventually reached the voice mail on the motoring Ford's busy cell phone, saying into the receiver, "John, this is John Wilder. You've got to be back here at 6:30 for us to vote. This is important. You've got to get back here." Under the circumstances, it was an Offer That Could Not Be Refused from the still powerful Senate presiding officer. On his way up an escalator to the Senate chamber for the contemplated vote, Murfreesboro Democrat Larry Trail was accosted by three tee-shirted youths who seemed to have come out of nowhere and looked out of place in the building (though, to be sure, they had the citizen's right to be there). One of the young men warned Trail, formerly an income tax opponent, not to waver on the issue. "If you do," he said, "I will make sure you lose in the next election. I will work to make sure you are defeated," he said, his tone and demeanor more belligerent even than the words themselves. "It's behavior like yours that makes me want to change my mind," the husky Trail responded in his best down-home Middle Tennessee drawl. ÒI donÕt take kindly to threats.Ó With that, he turned his back and began walking briskly up the escalator steps. The scheduled vote was now only minutes away. Behind Trail, as he entered the hallway leading to the Capitol elevator that would take him to the second floor to the Senate chamber, the three young men seemed almost to multiply. A trickle of ordinary citizens, some casually clad, others in suits, appeared instantly to have become a flood -- almost as if the Capitol building were some stricken Titanic which had suddenly sprung a fatal leak. Tennessee's elected senators and representatives (the House, too, had been summoned by its leader, Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, to stand ready for action) made their way as best they could to their chambers. Instead of facing only the imperatives of an historic vote, though, they would soon be dealing with an unprecedented reaction from a fast-growing crowd which the conservative Republicans Fowler and Atchley would be the first to describe by another name: mob. Tennesssee's elected lawmakers would find themselves literally under siege. (To Be Continued)

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