Waitin for the Bus
The year was 2002, when the General Assembly came within 1 or 2 votes of passing an income tax, temporarily busting the long-cultivated myth that pro-income tax legislators were afraid of committing political suicide. Right wing Nashville talk radio proved itself a ready-made mad-as-hell bugle for rallying mad Cadillac and Hummer drivers to circle the Capitol for weeks, incessantly leaning on their horns whenever the legislature was in session, threatening all manner of revolt and lynching if the income tax wasn't killed dead.
It was on the loudest and most crowded day of all those parades that the burning bus invited itself to the roundup. On a long trailer pulled by a pickup truck, it was just about life-sized, twice as big as any Hummer in the parade. Its primary colors were school bus yellow and painted red flames coming out of the windows. Underneath the windows were the words: “WE DON'T NEED NO INCOME TAX – WE DON'T NEED NO EDUCASHUN.”
It is unclear whether the brains behind the burning bus expected irony, or really couldn't spell. What is clear is that the bus was a big hit with the anti-income taxers, drawing louder hoots from the protestors each time it came around the block.
Though it was a Republican governor who gave the income tax its last best chance, it was the next Democratic governor who put the income tax back in the closet after 2002, where it has remained a distant but nonetheless constitutional possibility ever since. By 2010 Republicans had completely come out, taking control of the House, Senate, and Governor's mansion, for a supermajority not seen in Tennessee since 1871. Finally back in the driver's seat, the Hummer wing of the party wasted little time setting their sights on permanently putting down a tax that might finally have them paying their fair share. So after a couple rounds of votes in both houses of the General Assembly and a gubernatorial signoff, Amendment 3 has been served up for a Yes or No vote on the November ballot.
Bless John Stewart's heart. It's not that this longtime tax reform advocate doesn't make perfect sense. But that is precisely one of his problems. That, and the fact that he doesn't use his car horn
(and no, he doesn't drive a Prius) to get his way.
In a recent op-ed, Stewart makes his case for not burning the bridge to a Tennessee income tax, in a future less friendly to one-percenters and their Hummer-driving horn-honkers. He covers all the rational bases for voting “No” on Amendment 3. This includes pointing out the certainty of every other type of tax being raised if this amendment passes. Most notably this includes raising what is already the highest combined state and local sales tax in the nation – a tax which also applies to food, clothing, and non-prescription drugs. Only five other states soak those least able to pay by taxing necessities of life, but none of them are nearly as steep as Tennessee's “life tax” rate. But then this is a moral argument, and that is precisely the other problem with trying to advance sane public policy in Tennessee.
Not that Stewart does much hand-wringing about the inherent unfairness of the present system. A battle-hardened veteran of many policy skirmishes in Nashville's legislative badlands, he has seen firsthand how worthless moral arguments are when trying to get served in the political saloon that is the General Assembly. Instead, Stewart bellies up to the bar wielding hard-eyed science and economic arguments to counter the classic myth that an income tax will drive business and therefore jobs out of the state. Yet when he says he is backed up by “the vast majority of academic research using sophisticated statistical techniques,” he gets tossed out the swinging doors and lands like a dude in one of the many mud puddles of Tennessee politics.
Welcome to the Volunteer State, where any public figure who acts as if they have more than an eighth grade education is readily targeted as a slick-talking, Obama-loving socialistic terrorist.
If this picture of the ruling party seems extreme, it is because a relatively few but well-financed Hummer drivers and their horns have run over and drowned out the many moderate voices in their party. This full-volume-while-plugging-their-ears approach has worked very well for their various causes, from blowing up mountains for coal to denying climate change to doing away with gun permits.
True, the legislature has been the Last Chance Saloon for longer than the last four years, and some Democrats drive Hummers and some Republicans drive Priuses. Admittedly, with the ascension of the wealthy one-percenters and their legislative wranglers, rodeo clowns, and hired guns (all of much lesser means), so far no actual buses are burning, and some of our best friends are still Republicans.
Yet we now live in a state where laws are passed to encourage teachers to undermine settled science on evolution and human-caused climate change by confusing it with Fox News opinion, oil and coal company PR campaigns, and the sermons of snake handlers. The very mountains referred to in our state song are blown to smithereens because the mountains can't pay as much for lawmakers as coal companies can. Maybe nothing more is expected from a Senate that made their NRA donors very happy by passing the Open Carry Firearms Freedom Act this year, so that gun owners are liberated from the burden of background checks, safety training, or even a permit. (As long as they strap it on their leg. But so far you still need to be 21 to carry it into a bar, or maybe a liberal church.)
So, how far?
As if this was just about the income tax.