Thursday, May 30, 2002

Shots Across the Bow

The state's income-tax war heats up again; Democrats have their own civil skirmish.

Posted By on Thu, May 30, 2002 at 4:00 AM

State troopers ringing the Capitol grounds last week.
NASHVILLE -- In case anybody thought Phil Bredesen's "repeal-an-income-tax" pledge of three weeks ago was incidental, accidental, or a sign of political foot-in-mouth disease, they should certainly know better after last week.

Even as Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, surprise loser in a historic House flat-tax vote, was licking his wounds in a public press conference on Wednesday of last week, the ex-Nashville mayor and current Democratic gubernatorial hopeful was having copies of his latest income-tax bashing circulated in Legislative Plaza.

Although the statement contained a grace note about the "good people" who disagreed with him, Bredesen concluded by saying, "The income tax came to a vote today, and it clearly failed. Now it's time to move on. We need to focus on better managing state government, fixing the problems in TennCare, and growing the economy to address our long term budget problems." GOP candidate Van Hilleary, who had made exhortatory phone calls to anti-tax legislators and called the income-tax protest an example of "Americana," had issued a similar statement somewhat earlier.

Inasmuch as Naifeh even then was suggesting he might try and try again to get his 4.5 percent package enacted this week, Bredesen's newest statement was a clear shot across the bow, an even greater challenge to the Speaker than Bredesen's previous seconding of Hilleary's promise to repeal any such income-tax package that got passed in this session.

In the wake of that one-two punch, which had come as Naifeh first set out to build his 50-vote coalition, the Speaker had privately expressed his fury and let it be known publicly that he was not going to be taking Bredesen's phone calls.

In such a context, Bredesen's newest statement has to be read not only as a further repudiation of the income-tax concept but as a purposeful distancing of himself from Naifeh and, for that matter, from the current legislative leadership of his party.

There is already speculation that the ultimate failure of the income-tax bill in this session might mean curtains for Naifeh as House leader (as it almost certainly does for Steve McDaniel of Parker's Crossroad in West Tennessee, the Republicans' leader and a flat-tax supporter); Bredesen's posture can be interpreted as an attitude of "so be it" -- if not something stronger.

During the fallout from his "repeal" statement, Bredesen had explained himself by saying he did not intend to let Hilleary, his likely fall opponent, make the income tax a focal issue in the governor's race. He seems to be saying something stronger now -- that he does not intend to let the party which he hopes to lead into the future be tied to the carcass of a dead issue.

Three weeks ago, some high-ranking Democrats launched an anonymously attributed trial balloon, telling Bredesen, in effect, that he was weakening his credibility by seeming to be in a Pete-RePete relationship with Hilleary on the income tax and that there was a ceiling on how many times he could safely repeat that kind of misadventure.

Bredesen's statement last week can be taken as his answer to that message, as an affirmation that he knows what he's doing and the consequences be damned.

Those who have talked to Bredesen in the wake of the income-tax vote and his response to it suggest that he is indeed aware that he might be, directly or indirectly, accelerating a shakeup in the legislative hierarchy, and, although the initial reaction to his most recent statement among Democrats -- especially those in the General Assembly -- was unfavorable, already some have begun to embrace -- or at least consider -- a newer thought: Maybe, just maybe, Bredesen is right. On the political scale, anyhow.

n 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 on Wednesday of last week.

Even as others were puzzling out the pattern of green (for aye) and red (for nay) votes on the House chamber tote board, Naifeh had gotten his answer from the special counter mounted in his Speaker's rostrum. 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 lamb-like, 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!"

Naifeh went to his Legislative Plaza office, to which he summoned the recalcitrants one by one, while Speaker Pro Tem 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.

State Senator Marsha Blackburn of Williamson County, a candidate for the 7th District congressional seat, talks the East Shelby Republican Club as four local opponents listen. Left to right: Sonny Carlota, Brent Taylor, David Kustoff, and state Senator Mark Norris.
"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 on by some as a last-ditch prospect to become aye vote number 17 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, 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 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 Tennessee Titans had been lobbying hard against the income-tax measure too. And that's what you call resistance!

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