Wednesday, July 18, 2001

STATE GOVERNMENT UNDER SIEGE (PART TWO)

STATE GOVERNMENT UNDER SIEGE (PART TWO)

Posted By on Wed, Jul 18, 2001 at 4:00 AM

NASHVILLE -- Later on, it would get said that factors other than the pure intimidation factor of the mob caused the pending budget deal to break down in the state Senate Thursday night, before a vote could be taken on an income tax-cum-referendum package that would fund present state priorities and lay the way for future ones. So many variants got told by this or that key legislator that it's hard to determine which straw might have broken the camel's back. Depending on who was doing the explaining, it was either Lebanon Democrat Bob Rochelle's insistence than an income tax be in effect for at least a year before a statewide vote on it could be taken, or the House Democrats' insistence on the same thing, or Republican Senator David Fowler's refusal to yield on having a referendum (alternately, a Constitutional Convention) come first, or the GOP Senate Caucus' negative reaction to the deal brought them by Fowler, Oak Ridge Senator Randy McNally, and Collierville Senator Mark Norris, or something to do with TennCare, or -- what you will. Or maybe it wasn't a straw at all, but the bludgeoning force of the huge and madding crowd that swarmed into and around the state Capitol Thursday evening as the legislators were, in theory, scheduled to debate the income tax issue, or, alternately, vote on it. Fowler was one of those who, hither and thither in the confusion of Thursday night, would suggest conventional parliamentary snafus as the key to the breakdown, but he expressed himself otherwise in the immediate aftermath of the failure, as Senator Jim Kyle of Memphis, co-chairman of the House-Senate conference committee charged with finding a budget solution and the engine of such progress as could be made, was pressed by Lt. Governor John Wilder to cut his losses and rush through a resolution in favor of a no-new-taxes stopgap budget that would spend Tennessee's entire portion of tobacco-settlement money in one year and still leave the state short of essential services. Said Fowler on the floor to his colleagues (and, of course, to the world at large) even as the final vote was about to be taken: "The activities of the talk-radio people and Senator [Marsha] Blackburn have killed the right of the people to vote. I think the mob effectively killed their opportunity to vote on this issue.'' (Collierville's Mark Norris would say that Blackburn's actions, in e-mailing her Paul-Revere-like alarms to the denizens of the populist right, had been the legal equivalent of "yelling fire in a crowded theater.") Fowler said, "We discussed the possibility of a means by which people could have a say on the tax structure with their votes. Those people outside are protesting not knowing we were trying to give them a vote." The "people outside" were at this point chanting "No Means No!" over and over and literally hammering at the heavy oak doors which -- closed and manned by highway patrolmen and city police, who were called in to augment the normal contingent of legislative door guards -- were all that stood between them and the prospect of some unprecedented (for Tennessee) form of direct intervention. Apologists for the demonstrators, a breed who turned out not to be so scarce, would of course see it all as pure participatory democracy, and, indeed, for all the raucousness and shouting and booing and shoving and door-pounding and (later) window-breaking, most of the protesters kept a decorum of sorts. A case in point: well after the vote was taken and the parliamentary issue was settled in both the Senate and the House, which voted subsequently the no-new-tax budget, this journalist and veteran Tennessean Capitol Hill reporter Duren Cheek eschewed the safety of the interior tunnel which, in the labyrinthian Capitol-Legislative Plaza complex, leads back to the Plaza's press offices and, at a somewhat further remove, to the general vicinity where my car was parked. The unusual reason for this: Duren has a vision quirk whereby he simply sees better out of doors, night or day. The crowd began to bait us almost as soon as we showed up outside, demanding to know if we were legislators as we threaded our way through them down the Capitol steps. I suppressed the urge to say something waggish like, 'What? Don't you recognize Bob Rochelle?' This crowd had, after all, been brought to the emotional edge or it wouldn't be where it was, doing what it was. V. Then came a potentially chilling moment. Of a sudden, Duren, a portly man well into his middle years, went down on the hard concrete of the first landing, and five or six men from the crowd rushed to where he lay, lunging toward him. In one of the alternative, multiple universes that the late French fiction writer Alain Robbe-Grillet might have concocted from such an image, the outcome could have been sinister. The reality was, in fact, quite benign. Cheek (visually impaired, remember?) had just tripped and fallen, that was all, and the crowd members who reached for him did so as good Samaritans. They helped him to his feet, firmly but gently. Earlier, Senator Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) had played comic toreador with the crowd. At the height of its anger, he had entered the Senate chamber brandishing a large-size Planters can with the word ÒNutsÓ in bold and held it high before the crowd, which howled in derision. The experience of the venerable Ben Atchley of Knoxville was not so happy. The fact that the Republican Senate Leader has been an consistent opponent of the income tax had stood him in no stead at all as he tried to make his way through the crowd. There was no mistaking the suited and bespectacled Atchley for anything but a legislator, and he had gotten shoved several times as he made his way through the crowds to get to the Senate chamber. ''I don't mind expression, but that's mob rule,Ó Atchley, a mild man normally given to understatement, would say later. And elsewhere the crowd activity was even less gallant. After all, had these put-upon citizens of the (barely) middle class not heard, over and over again on talk radio, that an income tax would grab up fully 50 percent of their available funds? (And never mind that Senator Rochelle and others had released studies showing, for most Tennesseans, an income tax with corresponding reductions in the sales tax would result in a lesser tax burden overall. At some point, a few people in the crowd had begun throwing rocks and other ad hoc missiles, targeting the first-floor office of Governor Sundquist, who -- with Senate Speaker Pro Tem Rochelle and House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh -- constituted what to the members of this crowd was an unholy trio bent on taxing them into personal insolvency. "Thieves" was a word frequently heard from callers to the incendiary talk shows presided over by Messrs. Valentine and Gill -- which worthies continued to broadcast from the periphery of the Capitol grounds Thursday night, at least one of them suggesting to his auditors such questionable mischief as a nocturnal visit to the Lebanon residence of Senator Rochelle. At some point in the evening, State Rep. John Mark Windle (D-Livingston) was in the Capitol building walking back to his office when he was confronted by a rush of demonstrators. Thinking to find sanctuary, he stepped into the governorÕs first floor suite and sat down on a couch in one of the inner offices. Then, as he would recall: ÒA rock came through the window about half the size of a football and landed at my feet.. . .They were banging their firsts on the windows and hollering. It was bizarre." While all of this was going on, the normal inhabitant of the governor's office, Don Sundquist, was away making a speech at an economic development conference. Several times he was called away to the telephone to get an up-to-date report on the mayhem going on over at the Capitol, and when a tobacco lobbyist in attendance at the governor's speech made ready to go over, out of curiosity, Sundquist bade him stay, advising that it wasn't safe. VI. The governor would eventually issue a statement: "I appreciate the right of all Americans to free speech and peaceful protest. I do not, however, approve of those who advocate violence and I regret that occurred at the Capitol. "State employees, legislators and law enforcement officers should be able to do their jobs in a safe, reasonable way. I am particularly critical of some radio talk show hosts and at least one legislator who encouraged disruptive behavior and destructive acts. I hope the budget debate will continue, but in a calm, reasonable way. My top priority has [been], and continues to be, the welfare of Tennessee's children." If some of that sounded self-serving, it was a fact that Sundquist had, way back in February, proposed a widely admired education initiative. In the stopgap budget that got passed, not only was the plan itself utterly gutted, but short-term spending for the existing requirements of public education was threatened (not even to mention the long-term prospects, since the $560 tobacco windfall, once used up to fill out this year's bare-bones budget, would not be available for the year after. State employees, who had lobbied hard for a cost-of-living pay raise, would get a modest increase of 2.5 percent pay raise. (Noting that the raise was being paid for during the next year with the one-time tobacco money, Norris said the pay raise might amount to so much "severance pay.") TennCare would be held solvent for at least another year (after that, the wolf would be back at the door), and the Department of Transportation's road building funds -- untouchable pork, even in these dire times -- would be preserved. But, all in all, a full $340 million had been cut from Sundquist's budget recommendations, and it wasn't over with. The governor would be required to find ways of paring at least another $100 million over the course of the coming year. The immediate word from Sundquist was that the budget was "a likely candidate" for a veto, and, in preparation for such an eventuality, both houses passed resolutions obliging them to return on August 6th for an override or other action in case of a veto or to come back in January, if no veto occurred. There were also rumors that the governor, should he let this budget pass for the moment, would call the legislature back in special session sometime this fall. Sundquist had already called two special sessions to plead for tax reform, and there was Nothing Doing both times. Even so, and the very real merits of the case aside, a gubernatorial aide conceded that Sundquist, who was being mocked as irrelevant in some circles and whose name, if it was used at all, had fallen to the bottom of news accounts of the budget impasse, might have to do something hard-nosed just to keep his hand in. Whatever it portended for the future, few of the legislators -- exhausted and, in come cases, shell-shocked -- had the heart for any more protracted battles. Late Thursday night, a group of them were licking their wounds at the bar of the nearby Sheraton, a traditional oasis for members of the General Assembly, and Murfreesboro's Larry Trail, who had stood down a protester earlier in the evening, was musing out loud. "I just don't like the way it looked, the way it made us look," he said of videotaped footage of the evening, which had been shown and reshown on TV in Nashville and elsewhere and was even then undergoing another replay in the big TV set overhanging the Sheraton's bar area. "It made us look like we were afraid, that they made us back down," he said, and then looked at the floor, as if contemplating a future that might turn out even to be even bleaker than the mortifying present tense just experienced.

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