It may be, as state Rep. John DeBerry suggested Monday in a moving oration on the floor of the state House of Representatives, that our state's legislature is like a housebroken animal terrorized into tame and lame ineptitude by several years of highly energized protests by opponents of an income tax.
Maybe. It may also simply be that the institution of democracy has, at least at the state level, broken down because it, like the state's tax structure, has developed a structural deficit. It may be that the competing demands of various interest groups are simply so antithetical that opposites cannot be reconciled any longer.
In his latest call for a solution to the state's budget crisis, made two days into a five-day grace period of sorts before total breakdown of state functioning could occur, Governor Sundquist pleaded, "Common ground is the engine of democracy, and compromise is its fuel. My friends, if ever there were a time for compromise, it is now."
But at the legislative level, the normal checks and balances that might lead to a framework of compromise have become unchecked and unbalanced. In a nutshell, the state Senate has made it clear that a majority cannot be found in that body to vote for an income tax -- not, in any case, without built-in provisions for a referendum that, as Sen. Jim Kyle pointed out this weekend, would likely nullify it. Another reality, unattested to publicly but mentioned often in private Capitol Hill conversations, is that the November referendum called for in recent legislative proposals would unilaterally drive Republicans to the polls -- a fact which is obvious anathema to Democrats. The House, for its part, will not vote for a sales-tax increase, as repeated votes in that body on this or that measure have confirmed.
The only other way of making up what is now a billion-dollar shortfall in state finances is to put together a welter of business levies, license fees, sales-tax extensions, and "sin" taxes on alcohol and tobacco consumption. But, as one veteran Capitol Hill aide pointed out this week, there are four lobbyists these days for every legislator, and they constitute a force powerful enough to have defeated every attempt at such a "middle-way" tax policy.
In other words, we have come to a point, literally, at which it can be said: We can't get there from here.
Add to this paralysis on Capitol Hill the obvious lack of consensus in a triangulated society -- equal parts urban, suburban, and rural, with few shared perspectives on anything. Perhaps the "common ground" invoked by the governor has ceased to exist.
Yet another complication is that the government-bashing that has raged in various parts of our society for the last several years has saddled us with an anomaly -- legislators whose primary commitment is to see that government, at least in its current form, is made as impotent as possible. It is an axiom in the state House of Representatives understood by Democrats, Republicans, liberals, and conservatives alike that at least five members of that body are prepared to vote No on any tax proposal that might break the current impasse.
Perhaps the only answer is the one which keeps being proposed more or less as a throw-in or a sop to the unpersuaded in various recent legislative proposals: a constitutional convention. Perhaps we have come to the same point in our self-government that the 13 original states did in 1789. We have to rethink things and redesign the engines of self-government.