The Referendum Road 

A modest proposal to raise revenue without raising taxes in Tennessee.

Memphis and Shelby County have had their share of referenda to deal with lately, and another one, for a modest raise in the city sales tax, will shortly be upon city residents. Hold your breath, folks, for we are about to suggest yet another way — although there are so many built-in stops on the way to it that it can hardly be styled as an express route.

What we propose is that our representatives in Nashville, who include both the majority leader and minority leader of the state Senate, stir themselves to the end of another constitutional convention, like, say, the one for a state lottery that took former state senator (now Congressman) Steve Cohen almost two decades to achieve. Though it has not been without problems, the lottery seems to have paid off, and so, we hazard, would the one we propose, if enacted.

This one would be for the creation of local-option casino gambling, and, yes, we know that all such attempts to pass such legislation so far have been nipped in the bud by anti-gaming forces. All the same, we recommend trying again, and we regard the ultimate fate of a new bill to allow wine in grocery stores on a local option basis as a model of sorts. The wine-in-grocery-stores bill is a mere statute and does not involve a constitutional amendment, but its major feature, that which likely separates its fate from all the similar (and defeated) measures which preceded it, is the provision for local referenda. By the candid admission of its sponsor, state senator Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, that was enough to take some of the heat off nervous legislators, and it was enough to gain the bill the support and co-sponsorship of the speakers of both House and Senate.

By their nature, constitutional amendments require a referendum process, and, in addition to the case of the lottery, other such amendments have succeeded — like one in the mid 1990s to legalize pari-mutuel betting (again by local option). The only problem with that one was that it came only after racetrack gambling had hit its peak and gone out of style, and attempts in Shelby County to exploit the referendum victory never got properly subsidized by investors.

Two recent speaking appearances in Memphis indirectly underlined the imperative for a renewed effort. Two weeks ago, Convention & Visitors Bureau head Kevin Kane dramatized for Kiwanis Club members the rude fact that Memphis stands to lose tourist and convention traffic to Nashville, attracted by an expansive new hotel/convention center complex in the state capital.

And this week, Troy Keeping, president and general manager of Southland Park in West Memphis, outlined for Memphis Rotarians the dramatic economic benefits that have accrued to our Arkansas neighbor city through gaming upgrades to the track facility.

To employ an obvious metaphor, an attempt to spin the political and legislative wheels to the end of making gaming legal in Shelby County would be a gamble. But the possibility is there, and, as they say, we've got to do something.


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