Both 4th District congressman Van Hilleary, the presumed Republican front-runner for governor, and ex-Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen, regarded as a prohibitive favorite among the Democrats, have done their best -- which is to say their worst -- to prevent the Tennessee legislature from dealing with a state fiscal crisis that is on the edge of disaster.
In the last week or so, there have been fresh signs that the legislature might actually hazard a long overdue solution to a revenue shortfall which is heading toward the $2 billion mark. For three years, legislators have dithered and ducked their duty as emergency funds were raided and basic state services -- notably education -- were cut to the bone. The state House of Representatives made it clear that it would not approve any further increase in the state's already oppressively high sales tax. The Senate contains members who have held the line against an income tax. And special-interest lobbyists have prevented substantial revenue solutions of any other kind.
Finally, it began to appear that both legislative chambers of the General Assembly might agree on a mild "flat-tax" version of an income tax. Such was the word tentatively passed last week on Capitol Hill in Nashville and reinforced later in the week on the grounds of the Covington Country Club, where throngs of influential politicians gather annually for House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh's "Coon Supper."
But that was before Hilleary and Bredesen butted in. In their gubernatorial campaigns so far, both -- no doubt influenced by intense and highly organized propaganda campaigns overseen by radio talk-show hosts and others -- had taken stands against a state income tax. Both were undoubtedly mindful that a virtual riot stirred up by income-tax opponents brought state government to a panicky standstill last July and forced the emergency use of tobacco-settlement funds merely to provide for minimum levels of state services. Even the use of those one-time funds, however, did not prevent draconian cuts forced upon Governor Don Sundquist in the areas of state parks, education spending, and health care.
As Sundquist, an advocate of tax reform, said in Covington, he felt vindicated in that even longstanding opponents of revenue adjustment had admitted the urgency of the moment and had begun to come around. Hence the pending flat-tax vote.
Enter Hilleary and Bredesen, each of whom released statements this week that they would seek to "repeal" a state flat tax if one were to be passed by the General Assembly this year. Nothing could have been better calculated to undercut the last-ditch efforts of the governor and legislative leaders to avert the gathering financial catastrophe.
Hilleary, at least, can point to a substantial number of his partymates who are adamantly opposed to a state income tax. Bredesen can boast of no such groundswell among state Democrats. Both men come off as unacceptably opportunistic. Whatever their personal convictions, each could have -- and should have -- declined to interfere with the legislative process under way.
We do not endorse in election races, but we would be remiss not to point out that Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Henry, while opposing an income tax, has been open-minded enough not to rule it out. Democrat Randy Nichols has been sufficiently brave to campaign in favor of an income tax, while another Democrat, Charles Smith, has accused Bredesen and Hilleary of "pandering" and has promised to make no comments of his own on the legislature's ongoing deliberations.
Illustrations, if you will, of the difference between statesmanship and demagoguery.