When was the last time you remember a governmental body rejecting a motion to adjourn, as the Shelby County Commission did Monday? Parallel question: When was the last time you remember a legislative body hitting an impasse but staying at its task long enough to overcome its members' fears and prejudices in order to pass a piece of useful compromise legislation?
The answer to the first question may be "never." The answer to the second most certainly is not any time during the last three sessions of the state General Assembly, all occasions when the legislature failed abominably in its charge to come up with a budget sound enough to pay for basic state services.
The commission has been wrestling for some months with a funding dilemma similar to that of the state. In the county's case, the immediate issue was that of school funding, but the dimensions of the commission's overall problem were the same as those confronting state government -- how to find a fair and adequate revenue basis to deal with undeniable long-term needs.
The county commission's superiority to the state legislature in this respect is amplified by the fact that the commission was forced to work toward a solution without visible leadership from the county administration of Mayor Jim Rout, while the General Assembly has been pointed in the right direction for three years running by the administration of Governor Don Sundquist (and, of late, by state House of Representatives Speaker Jimmy Naifeh). Led to the trough, the legislature shied away from drinking; the commissioners, meanwhile, found their own water.
They did so the old-fashioned way -- by sacrificing personal prejudices and political protection and looking for a middle way to solve an apparently intractable problem. Specifically, Commissioners Buck Wellford, Tommy Hart, and Morris Fair deviated from the shibboleths of their conservative Republican base and embraced, albeit reluctantly, the concept of a higher property-tax increase, than they were originally prepared to settle for. Similarly, Democratic commissioners Walter Bailey, Bridget Chisholm, and Chairman James Ford jettisoned their absolutist opposition to a wheel-tax increase as a component of a funding formula. The commission then voted with near unanimity to back a Wellford proposal whereby the county's municipalities would waive the use of an expanded local-option sales tax for any purpose except that of school funding. Not only that, the commission was able to enlist county school officials in the service of this radical departure from accepted political form.
By sad contrast, the General Assembly -- cowed by mobs and radio talk-show hosts and mired in old habits of propitiating special interests -- couldn't do squat when the chips were down. During two special sessions and the unprecedentedly lengthy regular session of this year, more bucks were passed than at a counterfeiters' convention and the General Assembly ended with the profligate gesture of using the state's share of tobacco-settlement funds to pay for a year's worth of recurrent needs. Next year, as a result, state government will face an estimated $225 million shortfall.
Our congratulations to the commission members for reminding us what self-government is capable of at its best; and shame upon the General Assembly for its abject flight from the very premise of governing.