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For an Income Tax

That's the fair way for Tennessee to solve its financial problems.

by Irby Cooper

o one likes new taxes. In fact, no one likes old taxes.

But taxes are a necessary part of our life. They are the fuel that makes the governmental engine run.

However, taxes have to be levied fairly. They must equal a cost-to-citizen level whereby the less advantaged are not taxed so severely that food and decent housing become a problem.

Tennessee is faced with a tremendous problem -- a deficit that totaled $365 million this fiscal year and one that seems sure to grow in years thereafter. All the legislature did in its recently concluded session was put a Band-Aid on the problem and hold the line on necessary improvements.

But in the long run, the state cannot and should not be permitted to do a number on its educational system -- on all levels from preschool through college. Nor can the state make it impossible for the less advantaged to receive good, sound medical care.

Take the example of Memphis, where the legislature has had to ax financial support for several programs, including one for the construction of a "hospitality school"at the University of Memphis, to which entrepreneur Kemmons Wilson had agreed to donate an additional $15 million.

So Tennessee is, in effect, saying no to the largest monetary contribution the University of Memphis has received in its history, and at the same time saying no to a hotel school which fits the educational needs of the city and community.

This and other needless sacrifices are a result of the failure of our state government to deal with the financial emergency which Governor Sundquist laid out in his 1999 State of the State address. Various comprehensive proposals introduced during the subsequent legislative session failed to pass, including one, late in the session, for a state personal income tax that seemed to have a fair degree of bipartisan support.

Governor Sundquist and various legislative leaders have indicated that, after the failure of the regular session and an abortive special session on taxation, another special session must be held later this year to deal with tax reform. Our legislators, along with Governor Sundquist, must step up to the plate and take the kind of bold swing that drives us toward a personal income tax. There is no other way.

At present, the electorate may not be for a personal income tax. But we must understand that this tax, which in all probability would reduce other taxes on the less advantaged (and, in fact, on all of us), is the proper way out. It would certainly allow us to limit, even reduce, the regressive sales tax, and to remove that tax from groceries.

And it would give us the wherewithal to go ahead on overdue measures to improve the state's rapidly worsening educational predicament.

Yes, there will be much opposition to a personal income tax, but the opponents must be converted to support it, and then the people themselves must in no uncertain terms tell their legislators to face up to their responsibilities.

In this nation there are 46 other states that have a personal income tax. Perhaps not coincidentally, most of them are experiencing revenues consistent with the current economic boom. We in Tennessee, which is actually experiencing a decline in revenues, are in the minority. Governor Sundquist has appointed ex-Governor Ned Ray McWherter and ex-Senator Howard Baker to head a committee to educate our citizenry on proper approaches to taxation.

This is a start, but at the finish line there will, hopefully, be a consensus for a personal income tax. That would be real, meaningful tax reform.

(Irby Cooper is a Memphis hotelier, a philanthropist, and an activist in various social and political causes.)

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