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( tax rebellion )


September 2000 / Liberty / Rod Smith

A lame-duck Republican governor decides to leave a very special legacy
to the people of Tennessee: a state income tax. They are not properly grateful.

Lately, it seems that Tennesseans have been governed by Mr. Sundquist and Governor Hyde. After being reelected on the pledge of "no income tax," Governor Don Sundquist quickly turned the ship of state government toward the rocks. In his State of the State Address last spring, he vowed "to repeal the state sales tax on food, and work for meaningful tax reform," by which he meant saddling all Tennesseans with an income tax.

Over the past year, he has been barnstorming the state, in one public appearance after another, trying to sell citizens of the Volunteer State on his theory that they'd be better off with an income tax. But they're not buying it. His quest for fire has been doused with the cold reality that Tennesseans were not only unreceptive to the idea, but downright hostile. So hostile, in fact, that the governor was soundly booed during a speech given at the Tennessee Titan's conference chainpionship celebration held at Nashville's Adelphia Coliseum by the crowd of over 50,000 otherwise elated fans.

This has put state legislators in an uncomfortable spot. They want to keep on good terms with the governor, but they don't want their constituents to boot them out of office. After dillydallying for weeks over the state budget for this fiscal year, they managed to agree on just one thing - self-preservation. Wary of any anti-income tax fallout in an election year, they sought instead to build a political firewall.

First, they moved the election-filing deadline to April 6 from May 16. This would allow lawmakers to know how strong a challenger they face during a reelection bid before deciding how to vote on the tax measure: presumably, those without serious opposition in the fall election could safely risk voting for the universally unpopular proposal. Not surprisingly, this measure quickly became known as the Incumbent Protection Act.

Then they voted to quadruple state-provided funds for "constituent communications," i.e., sending voters campaign propaganda at taxpayers' expense. The Constituent Communications Act provided each legislator with a $8,316 slush fund for the year 2000, up from $1,955 a year ago.

To sharpen the competitive edge for incumbents, lawmakers gutted "The Fair Ballot Access Act of 2000" intended to enable alternative parties to have a party label beside the names of their nominees on the ballot. Tennessee banned such a practice in 1961, which now gives the state's major parties a huge advantage in the ability to effectively use soft-money campaign spending.

All these shenanigans came to naught. The proposed measure remained so unpopular that the governor and his high-tax buddies in the legislature couldn't get the measure through. What to do?

Call a Saturday morning, unannounced, closed-door special session of the legislature to enact the measure without any public scrutiny.

So on June 10, the doors to the Tennessee state legislature were locked for the House to consider the most important piece of legislation in Tennessee history. The legislature passed a measure that would create the state's first income tax out of a Conference Committee on a voice vote, without reporting which legislators voted for the measure.

The result? The evolution of the revolution began in earnest. The state capital came literally under siege. Day after day people from all walks of life came and sat in the sweltering 90-degree heat to let freedom honk. They came from all over the state to circle the station wagons 'round the capitol building, honking their horns in defiance of the state leaders. Talk show hosts Halorin Hill from Knoxville and Phil Valentine from Nashville spent several days broadcasting live from the Legislative Plaza, urging listeners to participate. Jim Coffer, Libertarian candidate for congress, laughed and said, "I blew out five fuses in my car, so for Father's Day my family got me an air horn."

Frank Cagle, the managing editor of The Knoxville News Sentinel, painted a vivid description of the state of Tennessee politics in a recent editorial, "I went to the circus this week. I didn't see any elephants, but there was a parade. Honking horns going around our state capitol. Inside there were various people performing high-wire balancing acts without a net. There was also a full contingent of clowns."

The battle had its casualties. Sen. Pete Springer died of a heart attack. Sen. Ben Atclmley had a bypass. Sen. Gene Elsa had angioplasty. Sen. Curtis Person had a blood pressure attack. House members Kathryn Bowers and Raymond Walker collapsed on the house floor and were taken to the hospital.

Outside the capitol, an unidentified man was fired from his job with a local home improvement chain because someone wrote down his license plate number and called the store to report he'd honked the horn on the store's delivery truck. Nine business owners offered him a job within 24 hours of his plight being broadcast on the radio.

With the mass of phone calls, E-mails and horn-honking subjects, the Legislature finally bowed to the will of an angry public. In order to avoid a government shutdown on July 1, the legislature passed a budget without any new taxes. Sundquist became the first governor in Tennessee history to veto a state budget.

He also became the first governor to commit political suicide. The House voted to override the veto just two hours after the governor's move.

At last, all is quiet at Tennessee's Legislative Plaza. The station wagons that once circled the capital are now gathering groceries. Legislators have gone home to campaign. Reporters have gone back to reporting accidents on the freeway. The dragon of public opinion, spawned by the madness of the Sundquist administration and fed by legislative boondoggles, has gone back to sleep.

Philadelphia has the Liberty Bell, and now Nashville has the Liberty Horns. Reality bites, Elvis is dead, and politicians break promises.