Friday, May 24, 2002

THE SUN SHINES -- BUT NOT FOR JIMMY NAIFEH

THE SUN SHINES -- BUT NOT FOR JIMMY NAIFEH

Posted By on Fri, May 24, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Shelby County Republican state reps Tre Hargett(l) and Paul Stanley, both Nay-voters, rejoiced at the defeat of an historic income-tax bill Wednesday, as state Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Williamson County looked on.

NASHVILLE -- Nobody could have been more surprised than state House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh when the vote on his carefully shepherded 4.5 percent income-tax package was taken Wednesday.

Even as others were puzzling out the pattern of green (for Aye) and red (for Nay) votes on the House chamber toteboard, Naifeh had got his answer from the special counter mounted in his Speaker’s nostrum. What it said was: 45 Aye, 53 Nay. (There was no dot by the name of Nashville Democrat -- and income-tax opponent-- Sherry Jones , injured in a recent auto accident and therefore absent.)

Naifeh then said, “Does any member want to change their vote?” Most members were still counting, but the Speaker’s uncharacteristically soft and lamblike, even hurt, tone was a giveaway. And the eyes of knowledgeable legislators, media types, and gallery spectators sooner or later fell on the names of the apostates -- Buck, Windle, Fraley, Pruitt, Phillips, and one or two others -- who had promised or otherwise indicated they were on board with Naifeh, who had let it be known two weeks ago that he wouldn’t bring the bill up unless he had the 50-plus votes needed for passage.

In the general milling-about that followed (which turned into a two-hour wait while the board stayed open and Naifeh and other members of the House leadership desperately pleaded and arm-twisted and looked for other ways to get some votes changed), some of the bill’s supporters made it clear what they thought had happened.

One was Kathryn Bowers, the diminutive Memphis Democrat and influential Black Caucus member whose conversion to the bill’s temporary-sales-tax provision on Monday had been interpreted as a sign that the votes were at hand. “Seven folks told a real big [pause] you-know-what!” she said.

Others were not so dainty. Said Carol Chumney, another Memphis Democrat: “Some people lied and left others out on a limb to get beat!” That was a thought. One such had been Zane Whitson, the soft-spoken representative from the far Republican East, who had pleaded with his colleagues to vote Yes so as not to let the state’s educational systems fall further into disrepair. There were others.

Democratic Rep. George Fraley, the Korean vet and Winchester farmer whose name had been on everybody’s list, happened to pass by Chumney, who asked him, in so many words, whereof he tucked tail. Fraley replied sternly, “I told you this morning. I wasn’t going to vote for it!”

(So much for that turnaround prospect!)

Meanwhile, Naifeh, Speaper Pro Temp Lois DeBerry, Democratic Caucus chair Randy Rinks, and others were doggedly beseeching the membership. Viewing the scene from afar were Shelby County Republicans Tre Hargett and Paul Stanley, two Nay votes from the get-go. “They’re working Buck and Windle and Newton pretty good,” observed Stanley of the leadership’s unyielding ministrations with Democrats Frank Buck (Dowellton) and John Mark Windle (Livingston) and Republican Chris Newton (Cleveland).

Hargett and Stanley joked about guarding their vote buttons to keep somebody from changing them to Ayes while their backs were turned.

It never came to that, of course; as the word was passed from somewhere that Missouri’s legislature had once kept a vote open for three days before certifying it, everybody settled in for a long siege of sorts, an internal one corresponding to the external one being kept by noisy anti-tax demonstrators outside the Capitol.

It never came to that, either. Ultimately, Naifeh et al. persuaded Reps. Buck, Fraley, Mary Pruitt (D-Nashville), and John Tidwell (D, New Johnsonville) to “blue-light” their votes (change from Nay to “present and not voting) so as to hold the negative votes under 50 and keep somebody from moving to certify the Nay vote as final, making it impossible to revive the bill during the current session.

“The sun is still shining,” said Rep. Don Ridgeway (D-Paris), a partisan of the bill, afterward, but there was little of that sunshine left for the bill’s prospects.

“It’s over,” was the reported sentiment from Sen. Larry Trail, a Murfreesboro Democrat who had been counted by some as a last-ditch prospect to become Aye vote Number 17 for the bill if it should reach the Senate, where 16 votes, one short, had supposedly been gathered to second a favorable House vote.

Several of the senators had lined the back wall of the House chamber before and during the voting, waiting to see if the burden of decision would come their way or not.

“There’s Number 17!” somebody had jokingly said to Sen. Lincoln Davis (D-Pall Mall). “No, I’m Number 235,” responded Davis, a candidate for Congress from the 4th District and one who had long made it crystal-clear that he would not be found on the incriminating side of a Senate tally.

The bottom line was that, while Speaker Naifeh would probably try again (didn’t say he would, didn’t say he wouldn’t), the kind of opposition that had been mounted to this bill from outside the Capitol made it likely that, for it to pass, somebody in both legislative chambers -- several somebodies, in fact -- would have to be persuaded to write a new -- and self-dooming -- chapter or two into Profiles in Courage.

It wasn’t just that radio talk show hosts Phil Valentine and Steve Gill were just outside exhorting their multitudes against the “cockroaches” (Gill) and “scum” and “commies” (Valentine) inside. As free-lance broadcaster Sherman Noboson, a Capitol veteran, pointed out, running back Eddie George and other millionaire members of the NFL’s Titans had been lobbying hard against the income-tax measure, too. And that’s what you call resistance!

A glum Jimmy Naifeh and other members of the House leadership (including Speaker Pro Temp Lois DeBerry of Memphis) confront the press after defeat of income-tax bill Wednesday.

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