Thursday, June 28, 2001

Getting In Front

Kyle has decided that taking some risks could help in his county mayor's race.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 28, 2001 at 4:00 AM

NASHVILLE -- As the legislature grunts and groans its way toward what may or may not be a finish in this last week before the formal end of the state's fiscal year, one figure from Shelby County has acquired new stature for his efforts, both on stage and behind the scenes, in trying to establish enough revenue to meet Tennessee's budgetary needs.

That is Jim Kyle, the Democratic state senator from the Frayser-Raleigh area who, until recently, had seemed to have come out the public-relations loser in several of his legislative initiatives -- notably in an early call for a countywide referendum on funding a new NBA arena and, most of all, in his sponsorship of a bill inhibiting discount gasoline sales.

The latter bill, enacted just as gasoline sales took another huge upward bump, was later vetoed by Governor Don Sundquist -- a fact which was not necessarily greeted with dismay by the beleaguered Kyle, who saw it as a convenient reason to lay that particular burden down.

Twice bitten did not make Kyle shy, however. When the legislature veered into late May with no agreement in sight on tax legislation needed to finish out a budget that, as of now, threatens to be hundreds of millions dollars out of balance, Kyle volunteered to head the joint House-Senate Conference Committee charged with resolving the issue.

He has received kudos in several quarters for his shepherding of that committee's efforts. The gerund in question is well chosen: Not a day goes by that Kyle isn't quoted in the state press for some drill-sergeant phrase used to keep his reluctant herd moving toward a resolution of the difficult tax question.

"We've been talking the talk, now it's time to walk the walk" was a typical Kyle utterance, and he has done numerous variations on it as he has continued to prod the committee into doing its work. When the choices became clear -- an income tax, a sales-tax-based solution, or simply doing nothing at all other than a possible "continuation" budget that would leave basic questions unresolved -- Chairman Kyle kept the pressure on.

One sales-tax adherent grumbled, "I don't know what he's talking about. I don't have anything ready," but found something specific to propose a day or two later.

By now, with only days left until June 30th, when a choice of some sort will be forced, Kyle has worked to prepare the legislature for a choice which, to many of his fellow legislators, is the most unpalatable (if, in the long run, most inevitable) option of all: a state income tax.

When Lt. Gov. John Wilder, the Senate's presiding officer, made a long, rambling presentation to the Conference Committee on Sunday, it was Kyle who later (by prearrangement with Wilder, he would say) came before the press with a translation: The venerable Senate speaker, who had taken an anti-income tax pledge last year, was willing to accept such a tax this year.

And it was Kyle who, in the wake of the committee's deliberations Monday, formally established the income tax as the question legislators would surely have to hazard a vote on. "I just don't know whether it'll be a flat tax or a graduated version," he said.

When asked whether he isn't taking a risk by being so up front in his efforts, given the fact that horn-honking zealots who oppose an income tax were preparing another set of demonstrations in Nashville as of mid-week, demonstrations that might well be imitated back home in Shelby County during his county mayor's race, Kyle shook his head.

"At this point," he said, "I think I can make the case that I'm not afraid to take on the hard questions. That's what leadership is." And the income tax is an easier albatross to bear, he indicated, than the gas-price issue would have been.

n As of this writing, Shelby County mayor Jim Rout has not exercised his prerogative, secured last week by agreement with his city-government counterpart, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, to name a member of the state House of Representatives to the Public Building Authority that will oversee construction of the new NBA arena.

The county mayor, who was taken by surprise when Herenton unilaterally named state senator John Ford to the Authority, promptly insisted on the right to name a House member. Legislation mandating a member from each chamber went virtually unnoticed through the House and Senate recently and was signed into law by Governor Don Sundquist.

Ford had been recommended, as it turns out, by Lt. Governor John Wilder, the Senate's presiding officer. But his appointment by Herenton can also be regarded as a further sign of rapprochement between the Memphis mayor and the still politically influential Ford family, as well as recognition that Ford has frequently been a confidante for prominent Memphis developers who maintain an interest in where and how the new arena is built. (State senator Steve Cohen, a longtime booster of both collegiate and professional sports in Memphis, had also wanted the Senate appointment.)

Almost as soon as Rout's right to name a House member -- in tandem with House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington -- had been established, state rep. Paul Stanley publicly recommended his House GOP colleague Tre Hargett of Bartlett in a letter to Rout which Stanley made public. Another House member, Rep. Larry Miller, a North Memphis Democrat and an African American, also made it known he wants to serve on the PBA.

Hargett's candidacy has not sat well with state rep. Kathryn Bowers and other Shelby House members who were active in passing enabling legislation to get state aid for the arena. Hargett, as Bowers and others note, was an opponent of the legislation, as he is of a good many other proposals that involve additional financial commitment on the part of state government. (Hargett was recently co-chair of a special House committee looking into budget-cutting possibilities.)

It may not sit well, either, with Rout, who put himself on the line for the arena and worked mightily to work out acceptable funding sources for it.

It surely doesn't sit well with Naifeh, who with Rout will make the choice once the two of them sit down to review possibilities. The senate speaker made a point of walking down the aisle in the aftermath of the unprecedented Sunday session and, clearly aware that Miller and Bowers were discussing the matter with a visitor, saying in a loud voice, "Larry, you're my man! You're my man!"

Since matters of political and racial balance are important in determining the PBA's membership, however, and since Hargett is regarded as unacceptable by Bowers and others, a compromise solution may emerge. As Bowers sees it, Rep. Joe Kent, a moderate white Republican from Southeast Memphis, would be an acceptable member, and she foresees a resolution whereby both Kent and Miller get named to the Authority.

"After all," she notes, "the legislation says at least one House member has to be on the PBA. It doesn't say more than one can't be."

n Rep. Henri Brooks is trying to live down the furor started a couple of weeks back when she failed to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of a legislative session and was asked by House speaker Jimmy Naifeh to remain outside the chamber henceforth until after the pledge.

Brooks' immediate (and defensive) reaction was to justify her act on the basis that the American flag stood for a past that included slavery. And she criticized Naifeh for talking to her "like a master to a slave" -- an interpretation disputed by several nearby legislators, many of them African Americans like Brooks.

What came of it all was a first-class imbroglio with all manner of symbolic content. Talk-show hosts and editorialists throughout the state (including ourselves) thrived on it for a week or so, ringing up every change imaginable on the theme.

It's over with now. For the record, Brooks has dutifully stood at attention for every subsequent Pledge of Allegiance. "I have for every day for each of the six years since I was elected," she insists. "It was just that on that day I was wrapped up in some legislation I was working on at my desk for child-safety restraints."

Brooks made it clear this week that she doesn't want to see the issue revived or to make any more of a case for her actions that she already did.

A wag once said of Brooks that she was so dedicated to the idea of public service that she decided to skip charm school altogether. An unceasing advocate for all manner of civil rights issues -- ranging from her insistence that all state programs funded with federal aid observe Title VI non-discrimination strictures to a recent demand for reparations to the descendants of slaves -- she is aware that she has a reputation as a zealot.

Yet she has another side to her nature, one which is not so unyielding as the familiar portrait. Years ago, she unbent during an end-of-session party and bopped at some length with then Rep. Tim Joyce -- who, as a white and a Republican conservative, was close to being her philosophical opposite.

A photograph, which ran at the time in the Flyer, chronicles the event.

Reminded of it, she made a request. "I wish you would burn that. In effigy!"

But she grinned when she said it.

n State senator Cohen, whose penchant for taking stands on controversial issues was manifested most recently by his vigorous effort – in vain, as it turned out – to turn back mandatory thumbprint legislation for pawnshops in Shelby and Knox counties, is not one to hide his light under a bushel.

But he has made no attempt to publicize one of his more commendable recent efforts. Cohen, along with House Finance Committee chairman Matt Kisber (D-Jackson), pushed through legislation renaming the Legislative Plaza press room for veteran free-lance reporter Drue Smith.

Smith fell ill recently, and Cohen and Kisber wasted little time in rushing the name-change through. Even more gratifying to the sponsors (as well as, no doubt, to Smith) is the fact that her partial recovery now allows her to work in a chamber named for herself, plaque on the door and all.

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