Of what consequence was last week's commotion at the state Capitol Building?
Since my return from Nashville, it seems people care to know more about what it was like in the midst of "The Mob" than to understand the impact of a budget passed hastily by fearful legislators looking for a ticket out of town.
Chaos is becoming a cottage industry in Nashville. Talk shows set out to enrage their listeners. Those who exercised their right to peaceably assemble fumbled their right to free speech when rocks were thrown, windows were broken, and an elderly senator was shoved.
In the midst of the obfuscation, political climbers demonized fellow conservatives who held out for a constitutional amendment regarding an income tax. Although we stood for the rights of those who had gathered to protest big government, ironically, government got much bigger last Thursday night. Here is how it happened.
Many people do not know that an income tax is unconstitutional in Tennessee. The Supreme Court ruled it so in 1932 and again in 1960. My law partner is Tom Prewitt, and his father was chief justice of the Supreme Court when he wrote, in Jack Cole, "Realizing and receiving income or earnings is not a privilege that can be taxed ... Since the right to receive income or earnings is a right belonging to every person, this right cannot be taxed as privilege."
As an attorney, I am an officer of the Court duty-bound to obey the law. As a senator, I also took an oath to uphold the Constitution of this state. There are other revenue measures I prefer, but the appropriate course of action for those who advocate an income tax is to amend the Constitution through referendum or constitutional convention.
When it became apparent last Thursday that there weren't enough votes to pass a budget bigger than what we put in place on June 29th, Senator Bob Rochelle approached me and several others to see if we could compromise on a revenue bill that would include his long-sought income tax.
Although he was willing to concede his graduated tax for a flat tax (a major concession), and he was willing to include meaningful provisions for TennCare reform, he could not agree to anything more than an advisory referendum after implementation of the income tax.
I could not agree to this. We were at an impasse, and it was time to return to the floor of the Senate to debate whether the "status quo" budget previously adopted should remain in place (which I preferred) or be amended to increase spending for employee raises and other miscellaneous charges which would deplete the state's share of tobacco-settlement funds.
But the crowd had gathered and the Senate lost its resolve to hold down spending. There could be no debate because it was impossible to hear. More than $345 million was appropriated, all the tobacco money was spent, and a deficit of nearly a quarter billion dollars was generated in a matter of minutes.
Where there had not been 17 votes for increased spending earlier in the day, suddenly there were 20, and it was time to go home.
The unintended consequence of the demonstration outside was not to derail a phantom income tax; rather, it was to bloat the budget, balloon the deficit, and leave the lions of conservative spending looking foolish for voting "Yes." I voted "No."
No "11th hour deals" will remedy or recover what has been lost. Determination, details, and a willingness to reform will take time. Time to understand. Time to acknowledge the need for teamwork. Time for talk shows to quit their cannibalism. Time to try again and again until we succeed.
Mark Norris is a former member of the Shelby County Commission, and a Republican member of the state Senate.