A Moment Of Reason

Speaker Jimmy Naifeh argued in vain for rising above politics and inaction.



Jimmy Naifeh
The 2001 session of the 102nd Tennessee General Assembly, which -- undermined by mob action and its own timidity -- left education and various other state services woefully underfunded, is likely to go down in history as one of the most disastrous of any state. But there were memorable moments in which this or that legislator rose above politics as usual. There simply weren't enough.

Here is state House of Representatives Speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) on Wednesday, June 27th, as he exhorted members of a joint Senate/House Conference Committee to act on tax reform. The bills and personalities he mentions are transitory. His main argument is for principled action over politics as usual:

"All of you here Sunday know I was challenged publicly to let the Senate know what the House could pass. It was a talk to me, but it was said here publicly, from this very podium, which is fine because I'm the lieutenant governor's representative, and [Lt. Gov. John Wilder] can talk to me any way he wants to. I represent him in the General Assembly, and I represent Longtown, Tennessee. And he's my friend.

"We've talked about where we are. Well, I think Rep. [Ronnie] Cole [D-Dyersburg] has tried to put together the best parts of three different plans, plans that were put before us: the Head-Rochelle [graduated income-tax] plan, the flat-tax plan that Senator [John] Ford presented to us, and the plan that didn't get much conversation but the one that Rep. Larry Turner of Shelby County put before us.

"There has been a lot of work put into this. It was not just haphazardly put together. It was something that Rep. Cole has had a lot of thought about.

"I read a quote just the other day, and I shared it with the leadership this morning. It's from J.F. Clarke: 'A politician looks to the next election, a statesman looks to the next generation.'

"Ladies and gentlemen, that's where we are. We need to look to the next generation and not the next election.

"And I told the leadership and the governor this this morning: It is more important for me for us to pass this plan. And people talk about, 'Well, you're going to lose control of the House if you have 40 Democrats vote for that bill.' Well, so be it.

"What does it matter if our state's in the shape it's in today? Does it matter if the Republicans control or the Democrats? Who gives a damn?

"We need to pass the bill. I can work with [Republican leader] Steve McDaniel if he's the next Speaker of the House. That doesn't bother me at all. What is important to me is that we get this state on a sound footing. We have a proposal before us and it's time to act. It's time for us to do it.

"Quit thinking about the next election. What's important are our grandchildren. [Rep.] Matt [Kisber]'s child. I've got a grandchild about the same age as Matt's child. [Sen.] Roy Herron's got twins, plus.

"I'm serious about this. I debated whether to do this or not. I said it to the leadership. Let me assure you. I'm not grandstanding. I mean every word of what I'm saying.

"If it means passing this bill, and there are 58 Republicans and 40 Democrats, that's fine, but by gosh, we'll have a state that's on the way, a progressive state, where we can fund higher education properly, not lose 10 more percent of the staff at the University of Tennessee at Memphis like we did last year. We'll probably lose more than that this year -- 65 staff members left after last year. And K through 12.

"When we passed the BEP [Basic Education Program] and funded it with a half-cent sales tax increase, we had done something not many states had done. Billy Stair [aide to former Gov. Ned McWherter] said it was probably the most progressive educational package that had ever been before a legislature and passed in many years. And it still is working. But it's not going to work if we don't fund it properly.

"And safety. And welfare. Some of you hide behind the [allegation that] 'TennCare isn't right.' Ladies and gentlemen, we've had legislators working on TennCare for more than a year now, working with the governor's office, working with [director] John Tighe and others. And it's probably in better shape today than it's been in for some time, although we continue to criticize the shape that it is in.

"Chairman Gene Caldwell works on it daily. That's where Gene is every day, talking to doctors and talking to providers and talking to whoever he can talk to about making TennCare better.

"Just don't forget what I said. What's important is that we pass a budget that properly funds this state. I get sick at my stomach when I start hearing about a continuation budget, or an 'Armageddon' budget. My gosh, what kind of responsibility is that? If it gets down to it, the same ones willing to vote for an income tax are going to be the ones who have to do that, and that's not right.

"Face reality today. Do what needs to be done. Be responsible. ... Forget about the next election. Thank you."

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