The anti-income tax revolt in Tennessee is over, at least for this legislative session. Thanks to a coalition of dissenting politicians, renegade talk radio hosts, an energized public, and perhaps a Benevolent Deity, Tennessee remains one of the few no-income tax states in America.
Some rest and recreation is surely in order. The last days of the campaign were brutal. Hideous charges were leveled against the no-tax activists, including linking them to the untimely death of a pro-tax pol (who as it happens had also been brought up on charges of exposing himself to little girls). The government was shut down (non-essential services, anyway), making it impossible for regular citizens to visit museums and get driver's licenses.
On the brightest side, surviving pro-tax pols face severe sanction from voters. The two chief candidates in the upcoming governor's race promise not to back an income tax, including the Democratic candidate, who as mayor of Nashville was thought by some to suffer from taxation intoxication.
THE FINAL PUSH
The anti-tax movement has fought off dozens of attempts to pass the state income levy, thanks in large part to supreme agitation by local talk radio host Phil Valentine. Valentine, as reported earlier, broadcasts from the legislative square each time he is tipped that a tax vote has been scheduled. Within a quarter hour hundreds of anti-tax foot soldiers appear on the scene. Within an hour thousands might arrive, many driving around the legislative compound honking their car and truck horns. At times they have charged the building on foot, causing legislators to be removed to the hospital.
Valentine, to no surprise, has the best ratings in town. Indeed, when he put out an anti-tax song it went to number one on the local charts. For his troubles he has been branded a fool, rabble rouser, moron, dervish, menace to children and the elderly, enemy of museum curators and the staff at the DMV.
The final push took place at the beginning of July, and pro-tax advocates took a page from the Valentine playbook: They fielded an army of their own, which established its position on the ground formerly occupied by Valentine and his troops. "There were only about 30 of them," sniffs Valentine, "and there seemed to be a lot of Frisbees flying around." Valentine notes that when the anti-taxers occupied that ground they were forced to bring their own generators, while the pro-taxers were allowed to run ground lines from the legislative compound. "They were sucking up government benefits and begging for more taxes."
Legislators offered various tax-related bills to get the museums and parks open again, including the income tax and legislation to raise the sales tax. The income tax was their highest hope, of course, and on the evening of July 2 Valentine got a tip the pro-taxers were making their move. The hounds of obstruction were immediately loosed.
"I got in touch with Steve Gill, who has been fighting the good fight from his show at WTN, and we both got on the radio and put out the warning. I also sent out a mass email Within a half hour, some 1,000 protesters arrived." House speaker Jimmy Naifeh, his ear to the ground, postponed the vote, promising to bring it up at ten the next morning. Valentine went home and returned at 10 a.m. sharp, leading a protest till four that afternoon. Once again, the pro-income tax legislators failed, though a sales tax increase passed. The museums reopened. According to Valentine, the state's rising number of illegal aliens can once again get their driver's licenses in a timely manner.
VERY BAD BLOOD
But the story is not over. "They'll be back," says Valentine, and it seems the next chapter will be especially poisonous, largely due to acrimony surrounding the death of State Representative Keith Westmoreland.
The trouble began when Westmoreland, a pro-tax legislator, was arrested in Florida for indecent exposure. According to authorities, Westmoreland has flashed his privates at some girls at a swimming pool, and for his trouble he was deeply ridiculed by Valentine and Gill. Sadly, Westmoreland shot himself. Suddenly the talk show hosts found themselves in crosshairs of a different sort.
"One local commentator said I'd gone beyond the pale by calling him a pervert," says Valentine. "Well, exposing yourself to little girls is the definition of a pervert. Besides that, the local police held a press conference and reported they'd received similar complaints about Westmoreland, and had warned him about this. There was a sense that more would have come out. But that didn't matter. During the protests a reporter from the Tennessean (the local Gannett rag) came and asked me if I would be ridiculing Westmoreland if he were still alive. I said yes, of course, but since he's dead, I wouldn't. As my grandfather used to say, the pale face of death is a flag of truce. But the Tennessean reported that I said I'd gladly ridicule him again."
The local alternative paper took a similar tack: "On topics like tax policy, welfare and TennCare, local talk radio personalities like Phil Valentine and Steve Gill are champions of what they refer to as 'personal responsibility,'" it said in an editorial. "On the morning following the death of state Rep. Keith Westmoreland, however, Gill and Valentine vehemently denied any responsibility for Westmoreland's disgrace and suicide. We think their denials carry the distinctive odor of hypocrisy."
The editorial added that the jocks had "cynically attempted to use the Westmoreland scandal as a weapon in their on-air battle against a state income tax" and ended by accusing them of dancing on Westmoreland's grave. To no great surprise, Valentine charges pro-taxers with using the uproar for their own advantage. "They're trying to undermine talk radio to help their cause, which is to pass the income tax."
For now, however, Valentine and his colleagues seem to have the better of the situation. State Senator Bob Rochelle, a leading income tax proponent, has suspended his re-election campaign. "He's blaming it on death threats," said Valentine, "but I've heard that his internal polling shows him trailing his opponent (anti-tax Representative Mae Beavers) by 30-70 percent." The tax is "The Issue" in the governor's race. Republican Van Hilleary, a U.S. congressman, is fully against the tax, and opponent Phil Bredesen, former mayor of Nashville, is also on the record against it. "We're also getting word that the speaker is in trouble over his handling of this last vote, and may not keep his position."
Death and taxes, it appears, remain closely related in the great state of Tennessee.
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