Several members of the Tennessee General Assembly have crafted what is intended to fall conceptually somewhere between a practical joke and a moral object lesson. This is the so-called DOGS budget -- for Downsizing Ongoing Government Services -- prepared in several slightly differing variants by reasonable legislators like state Rep. Matt Kisber of Jackson and Memphis' own state Sen. Jim Kyle, both Democrats.
Faced with the third straight year of paralytic deadlock over the issue of taxation, the two houses of the Assembly cannot agree on a means to make up a looming billion-dollar shortfall in state revenue. Both a state income tax and a sales-tax increase have determined and steadfast opposition in the legislature, and the other revenue means by which the state could make up the difference (e.g., "sin" taxes, auto-license increases, closing-tax loopholes, etc.) are stymied by well-entrenched special-interest lobbyists.
In 2002, as in the two previous legislative years -- both of which stretched into mid-summer -- the Assembly is headed toward a no-new-taxes budget. The problem is that, having raided most of the state's available reserve funds already, state government would have to undergo major cuts just to stay within budget. Self-proclaimed "fiscal conservatives" (some of them government-bashers who border on being anarchists) insist on enacting such cuts, professing to disbelieve the contention of Gov. Don Sundquist (a bona fide fiscal conservative) that state government is already cut to the bone.
The point of the DOGS budget is to go through the motions of making the draconian cuts that would be necessary without a revenue increase ($1.2 billion is what Sundquist estimates is needed).
Therefore, the DOGS budget would abolish altogether TennCare and the Departments of Tourism and Economic and Community Development. It would cut K-12 public education by 373.2 million, forcing an increase in class size of five students per classroom, and slash another $93 million out of higher education, at a time when professors are decamping for greener pastures elsewhere at an escalating rate. Further, the DOGS budget would close all state parks that do not generate their own revenue and end the funding of a variety of valuable agencies, including law-enforcement training academies and the Tennessee Arts Commission. These, some of the more egregious examples, are but the tip of a huge and chilling iceberg.
A telling commentary on the budget was made by state Rep. Paul Stanley of Memphis, a Republican and a conservative. The budget was "so bad," he said, that "not even I could vote for it." That statement, something of a malapropism, was meant to suggest that the proposed budgets would be so damaging to the state's interests that legitimate believers in belt-tightening would be forced to back away from it in revulsion. That was certainly the concept of the budget's authors.
Would that it were so -- for, aye, there's the rub. The fact is that we have already begun to hear from enemies of self-government (we don't know what else to call them, other than -- as already suggested -- anarchists) that the DOGS budget looks just fine to them. Such barn-burners as state Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Franklin (whose e-mails summoned throngs of protesters to the state Capitol on the unruly last night of the General Assembly last summer) have already begun to propose cuts even more drastic than those contained in the DOGS budget.
What we fear is that the joke is on Rep. Kisber and Sen. Kyle and the rest of the well-intentioned crafters of the DOGS budget. It is dangerous to throw bones to ravenous beasts, and we'll be lucky if legitimate and badly needed state services do not end up being shredded along the lines proposed in the current document.