Saturday, May 18, 2002



Posted By on Sat, May 18, 2002 at 4:00 AM

NASHVILLE -- You start with the premise, of course, that Governor Don Sundquist will sign Speaker Jimmy Naifeh‘s 4.5 percent “flat-tax” bill as soon as it gets to his desk.

That’s a slam dunk; it would be the culmination of the sorely beleagured governor’s three years of agonistic (and agonized) struggle to achieve “tax reform.” (That’s a euphemism for an income tax these days, of course, just as the term “flat tax,” which describes one type of income tax -- the non-graduated kind now in play -- also is.)

And you proceed with the assumption that Naifeh, an adroit persuader and head-counter, will ultimately (in practice, that means by next Wednesday, when the legislature reconvenes) be able to distill the 50-vote majority he needs from the fluctuating number of possible House Ayes that everybody agreed Wednesday, when the Speaker chose not to bring the bill to the floor, hovered between 47 and 53.

What about the legislative Black Caucus’ supposed threat to hold up the bill pending satisfaction of its demand that Naifeh arrange the appointment of a black member to the Tennessee Regularatory Authority, whose membership is up for renewal?

The general belief in the Senate, which (as we shall see) holds the balance, is that the threat is more apparent than real, that, when push comes to shove (as it may this next week, both figuratively and literally), black legislators as a bloc will not want to stand in the way of an outcome desired so intensely by the great majority of their constituents, who see the income tax as the best of all possible non-regressive revenue sources.

Certainly, Kathryn Bowers, the Memphis Democrat who is a physical bantamweight but a legislative heavyweight and can usually speak for the Caucus, carefully measured her words when asked about the subject Wednesday night, avoiding words like “threat” or “deal.”or any syntax, for that matter, that came within an unabridged mile of an ultimatum..

The root of the problem has been that Melvin Malone, the African-American appointee who was Lt. Governor John Wilder‘s choice for the TRA last time around, has been substituted for on the new list by Pat Miller, the Wilder confidante who in recent years has served as his Chief of Staff. Any action that attempted to arm-twist Wilder out of Miller would blow sky-high the gathering income-tax consensus in the Senate, where the wizened Lt. Governor famously presides.

So be assured that Miller stays. And Wilder remains a key member -- the key member, perhaps -- of a 16-vote Senate bloc that will vote for Naifeh’s bill if and when it arrives safely from the House. “I will be responsible,” is how Wilder describes his intentions on the flat-tax bill, and this is widely taken to mean an Aye vote, however tentative. As Wilder explains, such other former key Senate holdouts as Democratic Caucus chairman Joe Haynes of Goodletsville and Finance chair Doug Henry of Nashville also mean to be “responsible.”

Henry put it this way Wednesday night: “I’ve generally opposed an income tax, but we’ve gotten ourselves in serious trouble. We’ve got to do something to assure that state government has enough money to operate.”

Also generally counted in this tacit list of last-ditch converts is House Republican Leader Ben Atchley of Knoxville.

But even with all these reluctant eminences accounted for, the total of Senate votes still stands at only 16 -- one shy of the number needed to pass the flat-tax bill. Where will it come from?

Not, word is, from Republican Bobby Carter of Jackson, who is on some people’s list of potentials. Certainly not from the GOP’s Mark Norris, the conservative Memphian whose current congressional bid would be compromised by an income-tax vote. And not from another Memphis Republican, Judiciary chair Curtis Person, a longtime Sundquist intimate who insists nevertheless (almost in the manner of one of the current tax protesters), “No means No.” To which a Democratic senator backing the income tax says, “Damn that D’Agostino [Memphian Anthony D’Agostino, a Democrat who filed against Person this year, thereby becoming (along with independent Barbara Leding) the august GOP senator’s first formal opposition of any kind since 1968]! Without him, we would have had Curtis’ vote.” (For the record, Person insists that this is not so; both he and Norris are backing a Constitutional Convention bill.)

Not from Democrat Lincoln Davis, another congressional hopeful who knows that his 4th District bid would likely be doomed by an income-tax vote. (“That ‘Profile in Courage’ stuff works both ways,” Davis notes, a la the specter of intraparty resentment of his stand.)

There is the ever enigmatic and elusive Roy Herron, the Dresden Democrat who, on this matter as on many others, just cannot (or will not) be read.

And there is, finally, the pivotal case of Murfreesboro’s Larry Trail, whose 2000 race against Republican Howard Wall may have came down to his pledge (against persistent badgering) that he would not, definitely would not, never ever, vote for an income tax.

As Trail said Wednesday, in a wan parody of that ordeal, “I’ve hated it [the Income Tax] since the age of 12!” When pressed for a more serious response, he keeps his own counsel amid what friends know is a troubling inner discontent.

Trail’s name is invoked almost daily and sarcastically by radio talk show host Steve Gill, who was broadcasting his defiance of the income tax again Wednesday morning from Legislative Plaza. Gill sees Trail as a likely apostate and therefore is keeping the heat on.

“It’s a matter of ratings,” says Trail, who would just as soon not have to contemplate this flat-tax cup, much less drink it.

But contemplate it he must, as will several of the others named above, and if the Steve Gills of the world push from one direction, there is abundant pressure from the other direction as well.

If something or someone gives, anywhere along the line, the income tax is law. It’s that close. Or as they say: So Near, Yet So Far.

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