A Budget That Won't Do 

A Budget That Won't Do

The regular session of the 2001 Tennessee General Assembly is now history, in more senses than one. For the first time ever, a session of the legislature went overtime, with no budget ready in time for the next fiscal year.

For the first time, also, the Assembly finally emerged with a budget that everyone knows is only temporary ("stopgap" is the going term) and will most likely need to be repaired in some kind of reconvening later this year.

For the first time in memory, vital services are likely to be cut rather than held even or expanded. And -- almost certainly for the first time since the Civil War -- the process by which law was made in Tennessee was directly influenced by a mass of aroused individuals standing watch over proceedings and basically dictating the outcome.

Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that the crowd that overwhelmed the Capitol grounds, laid siege to the building itself, and essentially held the members of the state Senate and House hostage in their chambers did not, so far as we know, possess weapons. But they smashed windows, roughed up legislators, and kept up a torrent of abuse that effectively prevented negotiators on both sides of the political spectrum from reaching a mutually satisfactory agreement.

Last week's mob outburst may provide some explanation for why the men and women whom Tennesseans elected to send to Nashville behaved so fecklessly and fearfully for so long -- wasting not only the six months of the super-elongated 2001 legislative session but spending most of the previous two years dodging the fiscal realities that Governor Don Sundquist and a few legislative leaders in both parties have pleaded with them to deal with.

The problems remain, however. And they will worsen with time. The basic reason why Tennessee is in the fix it is in, having to restrict services -- basic medical and educational ones among them -- while trying to fend off enormous deficits is that, as Sundquist and his advisers have said, time has passed the state's tax structure by.

No longer will the sales tax -- a revenue device designed for the retail-oriented 1920s -- serve Tennessee's purposes. Even during the recent economic boom, the sales tax, though pegged to abnormally high levels, did not generate enough revenue to enable the state, now dominated by a largely tax- free service economy, to hold its own. Most legislators had the good sense to resist the lure of another sales-tax increase.

A poll sponsored by the boosters of a proposed state income tax seems to show that a majority of Tennesseans would welcome -- and profit from -- a shift to an income tax as a basic revenue device. But, whether it represented the feelings of a minority or not, the anti-income tax sentiment which culminated in last week's disturbances is quite real.

Faced with unpalatable choices, the legislature this year put off the issue by looting the entire $560 million which was the state's share of national tobacco-settlement money. It was an act equivalent to raiding one's personal savings just to pay the rent.

We urge Governor Sundquist to veto the budget enacted last week and, if overridden, to call the legislature back into special session and keep it there until it decides, come what may, to deal with the specter of an economically threatened future that will soon be upon us.

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