Tobacco Tax a Victory for Legislature's Democrats -- But There's a 'But' Clause 

How does it come to pass that state senators Jim Kyle of Memphis and Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, arch-adversaries at the moment, both get what they want in a legislative showdown in which each would dearly love to outdo the other? (Warning: this post is only for the wonky of heart.)

Kyle is the state Senate's Democratic leader -- still mortally offended by fellow Democrat Kurita's pivotal vote in January to unseat venerable Senate Speaker John Wilder and install the first Republican lieutenant governor in the state's history, Ron Ramsey. He and Kurita do not speak, unless it is unavoidably in the line of duty.

Yet they both contributed early this week to the passage of a 42-cent increase in the cost of a pack of cigarettes in Tennessee. This is expected to generate some $230 million annually, allocated mainly to Governor PhilBredesen's education package but with sums earmarked also for agricultural enhancement grants, and state trauma centers.

The trauma-center allocations will come from the two-cent's worth (literally) that Kurita, a nurse by profession, insisted on tacking on as the price of her vote for a bill that was originally the rival to her own version of a tobacco tax, which would have mostly been devoted, not to education, but to health-care issues writ large.

Depending on whom you choose to believe among the various principals who claim to know what-was-what in the jockeying over tobacco-tax legislation, Kurita was either (a) secretly in league with Republicans who wanted to halve the tax package or scuttle it altogether and thought her two-cents add-on would break the camel's back or (b) was sincerely determined that health care get a share of the proceeds.

Something for everybody

Both Kyle and Kurita were smiling afterward, anyhow, and the case was even made that the General Assembly's Republicans, most of whom opposed the tobacco tax in its final form, would benefit politically from fresh money pouring into their school districts without their having the onus of having voted for a tax -- even one so widely dubbed a "sin tax."

Whatever the case, the 17-16 vote in the Senate had been party-line, and the bill would not have passed without Kurita - nor, for that matter, without Democratic senators Jerry Cooper of Morrison and Doug Jackson of Dickson, both of whom were destined to be absent as this week's legislative work began - Jackson on family business and Cooper because his trial for bank and mail fraud in connection with a loan transaction was due to kick off on Monday.

That made the politics of the tobacco tax even more tricky when the House took up the measure on Monday night. Several House Democrats had been beguiled last week by Republican amendments offering attractive embellishments to the bill - ranging from reallocations of state lottery funds to needy school districts to riders that would lower or temporarily eliminate the sales tax on groceries.

But in a caucus session before Monday night's showdown vote, Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington, House Majority Leader Gary Odom of Nashville, and other Democratic leaders characterized the GOP proposals as part of a shell game designed to send an amended bill back to the Senate, where, in the absence of Cooper and Jackson, it would be scuttled.

Partisan maneuvering

The pep-rally-like session, in which various members vowed to "kick their asses" and otherwise stand down the House Republicans, achieved the desired result, a solid front to counter an equally unified GOP, whose members tried to tack on new amendment after new amendment Monday night - all rejected by more or less party-line margins.

The amendments were a veritable grab-bag of high-sounding premises and included one to add another penny's worth of tax for Iraq War veterans. Another would have added money to counter sexual predators, but Democrats like Mike Turner of Nashville, who later called the Republican members "assholes," had gone from resistant to angry at what they considered shameless and "low-life" tactics, and House Republican leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol finally took the floor and, not without complaining in his turn about Democratic rhetoric and tactics, acknowledged it was time to vote.

Ultimately, the tax prevailed with a majority of 59 or 60 votes of the 99-member House, depending on whether or not Republican Jim Coley of Bartlett, an educator, (a) voted accidentally or on purpose against the bill; and (b) was successful or unsuccessful in changing his No vote to Aye immediately afterward.

Coley was insistent that he had pushed the wrong button and equally adamant that he had succeeding in having his vote reversed by the House clerk. Speaker Naifeh, clearly skeptical on the first count and seemingly determined, as he had promised earlier, to afford nay-saying Republicans no cover, was equally emphatic that the right vote total was 59, not 60, and that Coley's No vote remained unchanged.

Coley got some backup from Rep. Mike Kernell, one of two Shelby County Democrats (the other was Rep. Larry Turner) who voted against the tobacco-tax bill on grounds of its regressivity. Kernell said he would have voted for the tax had the proceeds been rerouted back to health care, where, he said, it would have been "tripled" by matchups with federal grants.

"Coley had told me he was going to vote yes, and he mistook a 'call-for-the-question' vote for the vote on the bill itself," Kernell said in defense of his colleague.

A Regressive Tax?

Meanwhile, Kernell took time out afterward to make an extended defense of his own attitude (and, by implication, Turner's, who called the tobacco tax 'yet another regressive sales tax and one whose proceeds are non-renewable').

"I wouldn't have voted for the bill even if my vote had been the one necessary for its passage," said Kernell, who seemed to be echoing Kurita's concerns that health-care issues should take precedence over Governor Bredesen's plans for updating the state's Basic Education Plan (BEP).

From that point of view, Kernell found much that was agreeable in a speech Monday night by Rep. Beth Harwell, a Davidson County Republican, in favor of her amendment to use the tobacco-tax proceeds to reduce or eliminate the sales tax on groceries. "It was a great speech," said Kernell, who acknowledged, however, that any amended bill returned to the Senate for action would probably have expired there.

"I kept my commitment to the caucus in that regard," said Kernell, who had voted against Harwell's amendment and all others offered by Republicans.

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