Running On Fumes

Unable to agree on a plan, the General Assembly faced a total government shutdown.



Shelby Countians were prominent actors during the Tennessee legislature's end-of-fiscal-year countdown on the budget crisis -- some by commission, others by omission.

One of the latter was state Senator John Ford, the South Memphis Democrat whose legislative expertise is often spoken to in Nashville -- not least by himself -- but who was AWOL on Monday, the first day of the new fiscal year and the first day in which state services were curtailed for lack of a budget agreement. He was the only member of the Shelby County delegation and the only senator who wasn't on hand.

Ford's whereabouts were a mystery to his colleagues, one of whom was Sen. Jerry Cooper (D-McMinnville) -- author of several late-blooming efforts to break the budget impasse, including a new measure, involving increases in the sales tax, various licenses, and alcohol and tobacco levies, which was being deliberated on by the Senate Finance Committee Monday afternoon.

It would turn out that Ford had departed the previous afternoon, presumably for Memphis (for "a family emergency," supposed Senate Speaker John Wilder, who had reached Ford by cell phone the day before and summoned him back -- only temporarily, as it turned out -- for a key vote on a Senate appropriations bill).

Clearly nettled by the absence of Ford, a Finance Committee member, during Monday's deliberations, Cooper asked the panel's chairman, Sen. Doug Henry (D-Nashville), what he knew of the Memphis senator's whereabouts. "Senator Ford is MIA -- gone for good, I understand?" said Cooper, who went on to wonder out loud what steps could be taken to fetch Ford back. Like many of the patchwork bills being considered in the last several days, Cooper's was one which might rise or fall by a single vote.

Henry pondered briefly. "Well, Senator Ford ," he began absently, in his characteristic Cumberland Valley drawl. Guffaws began around the long conference table at the chairman's inadvertent use of the wrong name, and Cooper made a show of being startled.

"Sir," he said, with feigned deliberateness, "you are the epitome of asininity!" The arch, accented manner in which Cooper spoke was that of John Ford, as was the epithet itself, one which has frequently come to Ford's lips over the years during moments of confrontation on Capitol Hill.

Everybody laughed, including the aristocratic Henry, who smiled and went along with the joke. "All right, then, I'm the 'epitome of asininity.'" And seconds thereafter, with the committee's business concluded for the day, Henry was saying, "This committee is adjourned!"

A different sort of comic relief had been provided earlier during the same committee meeting by two other Memphians -- Senators Jim Kyle and Steve Cohen -- as the panel considered a proposal by Cohen to amend the bill by adding a 3 percent sales tax to gasoline and diesel fuel.

During a colloquy on the measure's intricacies, Kyle said it could be argued that the proposed new tax would compound the existing gasoline levy in such a way that, as Kyle said in a didactic tone that was ever so suggestive of Lt. Governor Wilder, "Why, we'd be taxing taxes!" This was an obvious parody of a favorite Wilder assertion about the nondeductibility of the state sales tax on federal income tax forms. "Uncle Sam taxes taxes!" Wilder says with some frequency, and it is one of the arguments he made again last week during a short-lived boom for his pet "6-0" tax proposal, one which would abolish the sales tax altogether and replace it with a 6 percent state income tax.

Cohen heard Kyle out, smiled in recognition of the parody, and responded simply, with the exaggerated, raspy sound of one hawking up fluids from the throat. This, too, was authentic Wilder. The committee was convulsed.

More was involved in some of these outbursts than merely breaking what was often a quite palpable tension. The invective hurled back and forth in the previous several days between leaders of the General Assembly's two chambers, with the governor's office occasionally getting involved, was unprecedented, and it necessarily undermined both the traditional politeness of parliamentary discourse and the assumed dignity of senior officials.

When House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) and House Finance Committee chairman Matt Kisber (D-Jackson) rejected the budget measure sent over by the Senate during the last several hours before the fiscal year ended Sunday, they had not been dainty about it. Nor did these veteran politicians bother to be politic.

The Senate bill, by Chattanooga-area Republican David Fowler, was but the latest in a series of Rube Goldberg-like concoctions, with a temporary sales-tax increase spliced onto a front-loaded referendum for a constitutional convention concerning the income tax, and it was regarded by Naifeh, who cited what he said were numerous procedural errors in it, as not just unacceptable but as "a piece of trash," as "gamesmanship" designed "to make us look bad."

In subsequent debate Kisber would call it "grandstanding the height of irresponsibility," and both men would denounce a statement by Wilder, who had said, "We are supposed to fund this budget before 12 o'clock midnight -- even if it's fouled up." (Wilder would defend himself by responding that, unlike the House leaders, he had "done a budget -- and it's balanced.")

Memphian Lois DeBerry, the House Speaker Pro Tem, would be even pithier about the Senate measure in an aside. Noting that both Ford and another Memphis Democrat, Sen. Roscoe Dixon, each of whom was normally in sync with her own preferences, had signed onto the Fowler bill, she exclaimed wearily on Sunday, "What are John and Roscoe doing putting in a 10-and-a-quarter-cent sales tax. Doing shit like that!?"

Ford would not stick around long enough to respond, but Dixon's answer to DeBerry's exasperated question was, "Movement. That's all. We're just trying to get some movement."

But, in fact, as the legislature continued into midweek, with members adding their own verbal fire to the seasonal heat and humidity, movement was hard to detect in the waste motion and circumlocutions going on in both chambers and in the committee rooms of Legislative Plaza.

Rep. John DeBerry (no relation to the Speaker Pro Tem), another Memphian, had spoken a passionate memorial a week earlier as legislators mourned the tragic death of Rep. Keith Westmoreland (R-Kingsport), who, facing charges of indecent exposure, had killed himself. On that occasion, DeBerry had raised to consciousness the idea, shared by many of his colleagues, that Westmoreland had caved in to pressures that had built up during four straight years of inability to find a solution to what Governor Don Sundquist, back in January 1999, had first described as a built-in "structural deficit" in the state's tax code.

On Monday, as 22,000 state employees stayed home, furloughed by an emergency "essential services" bill signed by Sundquist just before the fiscal-year-deadline at midnight Sunday, the legislators tried again. Not much got done, not even any new patchwork proposals, though several were rumored. The general atmosphere was laid back.

There was not much sign even of the anti-tax protesters who had honked and hollered and surrounded the Capitol whenever the specter of an income tax had been invoked over the four years of controversy and futility. Some of these had gone on a loud last ride of celebration around the Capitol after midnight Sunday but had not been heard from since.

Why should they, suggested DeBerry to his colleagues on Monday. Had they not achieved their end, in shutting down the government and cowing the General Assembly into permanent ineptitude? Drawing a picture of general suffering to be visited on students, on the elderly, and on all those others who would suffer from a complete government breakdown, DeBerry compared the tax protesters to elephant trainers, who had tamed the legislature by ritual terror over the years.

"Our chains are in our brains," he said, rocking back and forth in physical mimicry of a large, enfeebled, and immobilized animal.

On Tuesday, as both houses made tentative but unproductive efforts to find a solution, Deputy Governor Alex Fischer made a special visit to the House chamber to plead for action.

"We beg for your help to put an end to the madness," Fischer said. "We beg you to come together for a solution."

And later on Tuesday Sundquist himself held a press conference, offering the latest proposal for a solution. Like all the previous ones during these past several weeks, from whatever source, it was almost too complicated to grasp. It involved both a one-cent sales-tax increase and a one-cent income tax to begin immediately, followed by a constitutional convention call, followed by several other graded stages. It might add up to enough -- $1 billion -- to fund the long-looming budget deficit for the coming year.

But, like all the other plans, its sales-tax provision would be a red flag to the House, its income tax would similarly gall the Senate, and, at first blush, it seemed to have no special magic to dissolve the agitation and the impasse.

Sundquist continued to believe that tax reform was possible, though, and concluded by saying, "Common ground is the engine of democracy, and compromise is its fuel. My friends, if ever there were a time for compromise, it is now."

And he set a new deadline for an agreement: Wednesday night. Two days later, the "essential services" provisions would expire, and the state government, with all its services, might be shut down for good.

What may turn out in retrospect to be the semi-official launching of Al Gore's newest campaign for the presidency took place in Memphis last weekend. Meeting at The Peabody with a host of his former financial backers and addressing a crowd of enthusiastic Shelby County Democrats at their Jackson Day dinner, Gore tore into the Bush administration on both the domestic and international fronts. Here he hoists hands with Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr. and the Democrats' consensus U.S. Senate nominee, Rep. Bob Clement of Nashville.

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