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Bottom Of the Barrel

Bottom Of the Barrel

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Perhaps the courts will end up doing what political rhetoric, newspaper editorials, and scores of public demonstrations have thus far failed to do -- find a solution to the state's ongoing fiscal problem. By now, the statutory limit on legislative days has expired -- which, in practice, means no more than that the state is not obliged to pay salary or expenses for any further dalliance in Nashville by the 132 members of the General Assembly who have thus far failed to agree among themselves on how to deal with a looming billion-dollar shortfall in revenues.

Shutting off the legislators' stipends may not matter much, since, presumably, few if any of them got themselves elected for the sake of a state payday (though, arguably, some have developed a taste for various other forms of lagniappe, some of it stemming from the ranks of lobbyists ever ready to dispense advice and, one way or another, aid and comfort).

Here is how things stood at the beginning of the week that, formally, will end the current fiscal year. A state income tax would provide enough funds, on a recurrent basis, to get the state out of its current dilemma, but House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, who is carrying that ball (or cross) these days, stood to have an even tougher time of it than he did three weeks ago, when, to his and everybody else's surprise, he fell five votes short of passage in the House. Since then, his prospects have been diminished by sagging momentum in general and in particular by the tragic suicide of Rep. Keith Westmoreland, a Kingsport Republican who favored the income tax, as well as by the return to action of Rep. Sherry Jones, a Nashville Democrat and income-tax foe who is recuperating from an automobile accident.

The so-called DOGS budget (for Downsizing Ongoing Government Services) is still a specter. Prepared by the legislative leadership as what their opponents have charged was a scare tactic, the draconian budget would eliminate whole departments of government, abolish most state parks, and slash deeply into educational funding. Not even the most reckless anti-taxer will espouse the goals of the DOGS budget publicly, though House Finance Committee chairman Matt Kisber of Jackson and several officials in the administration of Governor Don Sundquist warned last week that, if nothing else intervenes, the dogs might end up barking after all.

There is, of course, the late-blooming CATS budget (for Continuing Adequate [but not excessive] Taxes and Services), which a bipartisan group of legislators has proposed as an expedient. Calling for the maximizing of the local sales tax option across the state while imposing "sin" taxes on tobacco and alcohol and raising various levies on the business sector, the proposal has met with a barrage of opposition, not only from the usual special interests but from those who believe that it would further set back the cause of ultimate tax reform.

Some hodgepodge of all the above may occur, and it appears that an idea that once was dismissed out of hand -- a call for a constitutional convention to revamp the state's fiscal structure totally -- may actually figure in what is finally passed.

As in each of the previous three years, when the state's lawmakers managed to talk themselves out of any kind of resolute action, a run on state government's ever-dwindling reserves is being considered. Even the most optimistic soul in Nashville can see no more than $500 million in the woodwork, however, and to use it up will mean that the cupboard is finally bare. Those candidates for governor who say they can "manage" their way out of the fiscal crisis may have to quite literally start with nothing.

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