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Seeing Bottom

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One of the more promising moments of the new Congress in the dawning Age of Obama occurred last week during discussion in the House Appropriations Committee of various formulas for the stimulus package which, in one form or another, will soon be coming our way.

That moment occurred when Republican congressman Zach Wamp of Chattanooga made his pitch for additional funding to deal with the catastrophic coal ash spill in East Tennessee.

Wamp, who is taking his leave from Congress to hazard a run for governor next year, then made what amounted to a courtly introduction of his Middle Tennessee colleague Lincoln Davis, Wamp's de facto successor on the all-important committee. Davis — whose district had suffered most of the environmental damage from the overflow — then continued the argument for a $25 million addendum to help cope with the disaster. What made that moment of comity all the more significant is that Davis, a Democrat, is an almost certain candidate for governor himself and is at least hypothetically destined to wind up throwing the usual campaign invective at Wamp — and receiving it in turn — in next year's gubernatorial race. That the two potential opponents meshed for common cause was a good omen for the session to come.

So was the announcement later in the week by Memphis congressman Steve Cohen indicating that $167 million in public education allocations could be on its way to Shelby County for a variety of long-overdue renovation projects affecting the schools. But, as Cohen pointed out, the money, intended both to rehabilitate infrastructure and provide employment, may not be enough to do either job fully. The economy is in such a shambles that, as the congressman put it, "We can't see bottom."

One factor that could carve even deeper into the ongoing fiscal misery is potential competition between governments — state vs. local and city vs. county — over disposition of such federal money as could come our way. That's what happens at a time when all area governments are equally needy and when the temptation to patch and fill budgetary deficits could divert the federal outlays away from their intended stimulus effect.

State government, dependent on sales tax revenue, is hollowing out financially because consumption by citizens in Tennessee, as elsewhere, is down, way down. Paradoxically, one of the primary purposes of the federal stimulus program is to encourage more spending at a time when people are inclined to hold on to their resources. Local governments are equally ensnarled in a condition of diminishing returns, dependent as they are on property tax revenues when the housing bust has caused a decline in home values that shows little sign of abating.

At such a moment, political partisanship is literally unaffordable. So is bickering between governmental jurisdictions — like the still unresolved dispute between city, county, and state over funding the Memphis public schools.

We may not see bottom, nor do we want to, but we may get there unless we learn to suspend obsolete rivalries and figure out how to work together to stem the current economic reversal.

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