Lt. Governor John Wilder, avowing that he was "not on an ego trip" and was ready to "do another deal" if the state Senate chose in the near future to elect someone else as speaker, on Saturday defended his "nonpartisan" conduct of the presiding position which the octogenarian and nominal Democrat has held since 1971 and delivered himself of some unusually straightforward opinions.
Addressing attendees at the monthly Dutch Treat luncheon at the Piccadilly restaurant in southeast Memphis, the Somerville lawmaker cautioned at one point that "I'm going to turn some of you off." There was no indication, however, that he did so with Saturday's conservative-oriented audience -- even when he expressed himself bluntly on issues relating to the courts.
"Our United States Supreme Court says separate was unequal," he mused. "It took them 75 years to find out separate wasn't equal. They said it had to be identical. Identical! What did they do? They went to preferential treatment." Wilder segued from the issue of "women and blacks going against white men for jobs" to that of abortion, concerning which the lieutenant governor said, "They discriminated against all men. What about the husband? Ought not it be a unanimous decision to kill the baby? Or does just one of them have the right to kill the baby?"
Wilder was equally adamant about what he considered judicial presumption on the issue of a state income tax -- the controversial and polarizing issue on which the Senate speaker maintained an ambivalent position during the last stormy years of the administration of Republican governor Don Sundquist. Wilder was anything but ambivalent Saturday, though.
"It's unconstitutional!" the speaker thundered at one point, going on to say, "When the court rewrites a constitution, they violate their oath to uphold the constitution. That's an impeachable offense." At another point, he characterized judicial overreaching as violating "an oath to Jesus Christ."
Wilder was also critical of a ruling by the Internal Revenue Service which prevented him from preparing legislation that would redefine the sales tax as a "privilege" tax, thereby making it subject to deduction from one's federal income tax. The lieutenant governor has crusaded for years to achieve such a result on the ground, as he normally puts it, that "Uncle Sam taxes taxes."
During a Q&A session, audience member Jim Jamieson complained of unnamed Senate committee chairmen who were "embarrassing" to the state and Shelby County and were guilty of "political arrogance and unethical behavior." He later identified the main subject of his scorn as state Senator John Ford.
Meanwhile, Wilder evidently divined as much. "We probably don't see eyeball to eyeball. I think I know who you're talking about," he responded, "and he has a lot of ability you don't know about, and he has a lot of honesty and integrity you don't know about. And he knows health care pretty well."
The speaker had devoted much of his prepared remarks to a demonstration that TennCare had proved to be an almost ruinously costly program and was crowding out spending on other state programs. "Our cash flow has been good, but our problem has been TennCare. It has eaten us alive," he said.
Wilder's remarks on the subject were consistent with recent ones on the same subject from Democratic governor Phil Bredesen, a former HMO executive who has promised to unveil plans -- perhaps as early as this week -- to scale back the state-run health-care system for the uninsured and uninsurable."We have a good governor," Wilder said. "I believe he's the best CEO we've had. He knows health care."
On other issues, Wilder suggested that tax reform was a proper subject for the constitutional-amendment process and defended the fairness of recent Senate redistricting. In response to criticism of the latter, the lieutenant governor noted that Sen. Jo Ann Graves of Lebanon had presided over the last effort but said the efforts of her committee had been "fair," pointing out that the districts of Republicans Curtis Person and Mark Norris, both Shelby Countians, had been left independent.
At one point, said Wilder, a self-proclaimed "no-good Democrat" who almost bolted the party in 1986, he was forced to intervene. The Senate speaker, who boasted that "for 30 years, they [Senate redistricters] did what I told them to do," said he took care of a complaint from Sen. Roy Herron (D-Dresden), who lamented that his district had been drastically changed while that of Wilder had been altered to put challenger Bob Schutt "way off in the bushes." Said Wilder: "I told him, 'I'll leave you just exactly where you are and I'll beat Bob Schutt,' and that's what I did."