There's viewing with alarm, and there's pointing with pride, and a highly consequential event in the Tennessee legislature Tuesday provided ample occasion for both.
The state Senate finance committee, an influential body that is more than usually on the spot in these days of fiscal crisis and collision-course economics, considered a measure that, as originally drafted, would have extended the state sales tax to all previously untaxed goods and services while lowering the basic overall rate from 6 percent to 4.25 percent.
There was good, bad, and indifferent in the bill as proposed, but the intent behind it was certainly commendable: It was an attempt to find some reasonably progressive way of at least partially cancelling out the enormous deficit -- estimated at well over $1 billion -- that looms over state government and threatens cuts in state services so draconian that few legislators can easily contemplate them.
Unfortunately, it would also seem that few legislators find it easy to contemplate taking positive steps to avert the disaster. For three years now the Tennessee General Assembly has failed to do so. And on Tuesday -- buffeted on all sides by representatives of the special interests that would be threatened by the proposed sales-tax extensions -- the Senate finance committee once again did the wrong thing.
By a vote of six to four, the committee not only rejected the original measure as proposed by state Sen. Jerry Cooper of Morrison but substituted one offered by Senate Democratic caucus chairman Joe Haynes of Nashville. Haynes' measure would leave the exemptions in place and up the sales tax by a whole point, taking the basic rate up to 7 percent and allowing the tax, which carries a statutory provision for an additional maximum of 2.75 percent in local-option sales taxes, to ascend to the level of a near-tithe: 9.75 percent.
As we have said before, the Bible doth indeed command us to tithe ... but not to the state and certainly not at the behest of a state government which has demonstrated itself to be (pick one) feeble, indifferent, or callous at a time of real emergency.
Well, that's the viewing-with-alarm part. We warned of this very possibility in a recent editorial. If we are made to look like prophets by the fact that a jacked-up sales tax -- regressive and counterproductive, too, in that it may wreak much mischief on state businesses -- is now advancing in the legislature, we would just as soon not have to accept such an honor.
We do enjoy the opportunity to point with pride, however, and will gladly do so in the case of Memphis senators Jim Kyle and John Ford, both of whom voted with the finance-committee minority against the sales-tax increase and both of whom have consistently lent their influence to the end of getting a fair hearing for a state income tax instead.
Tuesday's action was not a mixed blessing, however; it was an unmixed disaster. The best we can say of it is that worse things are possible. n