Tennessee may be most appreciated for country music and whiskey -- and, come to think of it, despised for the same reasons -- but the state is also notable for its politically correct citizenry. Over the course of the past couple of years, thousands of Tennesseans have taken to the streets to stop a proposed state income tax. This is meant literally. When word has gotten out that legislators are about to vote in a tax, these good citizens have circled the legislative compound in their cars and pickup, horns a' blazing. At times they have dismounted and charged the legislature on foot, and in the process have been blamed for inspiring heart attacks in frightened legislators. Over the past couple of weeks, on the 15th, 22nd and 29th of May, they have gathered to practice the politics of intimidation, and they have prevailed. This is political correctness of a high order.
The fight is hardly over. The pro-tax forces pledge to resume their evil campaign a bit later on this month. I called Phil Valentine, a local radio talk colossus and the undisputed ringleader of the anti-tax protesters, to get an update.
Phil, it should be said, is a madman on this subject. He sets up his microphone outside the legislative building whenever inside sources tell him a tax vote is possible and calls in the troops. In his spare time he actually reads the state budget and documents where the government is wasting money. His radio show and website are the rallying points for the anti-tax movement.
"Here's the reality," Phil reports. "We're looking at a grand total deficit of $490 million. Let's say a half-billion dollars. The entire budget is $20 billion. According to my calculations, that means they only have to make up about 2.5 percent. However, Governor Sundquist wants to spend $1.1 billion in new money. Besides that, during the last 10 years of prosperity, they've only managed to sock away $178 million in the rainy day fund. To me, this is the most salient point. It demonstrates that the general assembly has not been a good steward of our tax dollars. Why in the world would we give them more? The solution is to tighten the belt by 2.5 percent and wait for the economy to rebound."
Phil is not merely a theoretician. He has a list of specific budget cuts that will seem reasonable to most people. In addition, he antagonizes his critics, and inspires his troops, by pointing out some of the more questionable projects tax money is earmarked for in this time of economic "crisis":
• Tennis Facility at East Tennessee State University -- $1 million
• Golf Practice Area at ETSU -- $250,000
• Sports Museum at Middle Tennessee State University -- $1 million
• Campus Entrance at UT-Knoxville -- $2 million
• Swim Facility at UT-Knoxville -- $19.3 million
• Athletics Center renovation at UT-Knoxville -- $19.4 million
He also spears some really sacred cows, such as the governor's $90 million "Reading Initiative" program. It takes some stones to attack a program dedicated to teaching every Tennessee child to read by the third grade, but Phil's not backing off.
"In this state," he argues, "our education system is called the Basic Education Program. If learning how to read isn't part of a basic education, what is? They learn everything there is to know about the rain forest -- but they can't read? This is not a problem of money. It's a problem of priorities."
Those priorities, he says, include requiring K-2 students to "name community health workers" and "identify agencies within the community that provide health services" in order to become "aware of and appropriately use health services, practices and products." Other learning requirements for Tennessee tots include "Develop an understanding of dance as a response to experiences and the environment" and "combating career stereotyping."
The past month has seen intense skirmishing between the people and their representatives. On May 22 House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh (pronounced Nay-FEE) called for a tax vote, a process which included the unusual step of leaving the vote "open" for two hours while the speaker privately twisted arms. Meanwhile, the citizens' committee kept its noisy vigil, which in turn inspired the governor to deploy police, which in turn disturbed Phil. "The governor told the TV stations that we were getting ready to riot. We won, for crying out loud. Why would we riot? Plus, these folks weren't the rioting type. We had everything from grandmas to soccer moms to little kids in strollers. The troopers lined up across the street and we all laughed at them. Many of them realized how ridiculous they looked and dropped their clubs to their sides."
All told, the protesters have gathered around 20 times over the past three years. They will probably be mustered again on June 19, for Speaker Naifeh has vowed to bring the tax up for yet another vote.
"In the meantime, the propaganda machine is in full force," Phil says. "News stories abound that all the children will suffer and old people will die if we don't get an income tax. In fact, one of the pro-income taxers labeled the anti-income taxers as the 'do-nothing caucus' and listed them. AP picked it up as a legitimate story and ran the list like it was credible! I doubt very seriously if someone had labeled the pro-income taxers as the 'big-spender caucus' that AP would've run the story. It's amazing what passes for real news."
The Tennessee tax revolt, of course, is real news. And, as Brother Drudge might say, it is Developing…
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