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VOL. 41 | NO. 20 | Friday, May 19, 2017

Haslam credits GOP ‘experiment’ for Tennessee’s success

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If you ask Gov. Bill Haslam, Republican government is the best thing since sliced bread.

Not only is GOP leadership responsible for a myriad of tax cuts leading to record surpluses and a $37 billion budget funding better K-12 and higher education, shoring up the rainy day and TennCare funds, shrinking state debt and building an economic environment for job creation, Haslam says. It’s even bringing us the cleanest air since before the industrial revolution.

Pointing out he’s probably the first Republican governor in state history to serve with Republican majorities – supermajorities – in the House and Senate, Haslam says, “So we started this experiment in Republican government six and a-half years ago. These are the results.”

The governor says making a difference in people’s lives “always comes back to the budget and how you use resources.”

This year’s budget, through the IMPROVE Act, has a little something for everyone, reducing grocery, Hall income and franchise and excise taxes on businesses and manufacturers, removing $500 million annually after everything takes effect, while putting roughly $300 million into the transportation fund through fuel tax and vehicle fee increases – the dratted gas tax – to expedite the sluggish road construction schedule on $10.5 billion worth of projects.

Yet Haslam doesn’t buy the idea this budget favors more affluent people over poor folks. He points out the grocery tax, which will drop to 4 percent from 5 percent, “is the one that everybody pays.” And, he contends, cutting taxes on employers will enable job creation, the best way to serve the middle class and low-income families.

Lest he forget, he wanted to drop the food tax by only a half percent. And while he is correct that everyone pays for groceries, only a small percentage of the population pays Hall income taxes on interest and dividends, which was to be phased out by 2021 regardless of the IMPROVE Act.

Cutting taxes is good, too. Just ask anyone who avoids paying inheritance or gift taxes. All tax cuts feel good until you run out of money, and a lot of legislators say they believe the IMPROVE Act cut a whole lot of taxes simply to justify raising the gas tax.

They contend the fix was in with more than two-thirds of the House and most of the Senate voting to raise the tax – even with about $2 billion in extra money in fiscal 2018, the result of a tax overcollection.

Tennessee should be OK as long as Lt. Gov. Randy McNally is in charge of the budget. He and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris keep a pretty close eye on the pennies. But they better put a whole lot more in reserve to weather an economic crash, because some people are buying their “reallocation of resources.”

This argument could stretch to infinity and beyond, and it’s likely to be a sore point for conservative legislators during the 2018 session and as they go back to voters seeking another term.

The other side

Democrats, meanwhile, are willing to concede the governor a win on the gas tax, even going along with him in return for a bigger cut in the food tax and potentially an agreement to set up a K-12 education trust fund.

Yet the minority party, which is so badly outnumbered it has to work triple overtime to win votes, contends the picture isn’t quite as rosy as Haslam paints.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat who chairs the Minority Caucus and does most of the talking to stem the Republican tide, points out the Legislature may left plenty of “unfinished business.”

The Legislature did little, if anything, to deal with unstable insurance markets across the state and “left undone for another year” any hope for Medicaid expansion, he says, stranding more than 200,000 people with no hope of affordable insurance.

He also says he believes the Legislature “largely punted” on the state’s opioid epidemic, throwing some money its direction and creating a task force but failing to act decisively.

“The 2016 election was very much about the people that are left behind, people whose towns are shrinking, who are having trouble keeping up, making a living, doing as well as their parents did. And it’s hard to identify the things that this Legislature was able to get done this year that really made a meaningful difference in those people’s lives,” Yarbro adds.

“When it comes down to it, this year had some good, some bad and some downright ugly.”

Some of the good for Democrats, besides pushing for a bigger cut in the food tax to offset the gas-tax hike, meant making changes in criminal justice statutes to trim expungement fees, shine a brighter light on the state parole board and require TBI investigations into police shootings be open to the public once the case ends.

Democrats – and Republicans – also teamed up to postpone a Shelby County voucher bill, delay legislation dealing with transgender bathrooms use in public schools and to kill an anti-gay marriage bill.

But while Yarbro and Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat who chairs the Minority Caucus, say even though they managed to kill some “terrible” bills, the Legislature “also passed some laws that are downright unconstitutional.”

The Legislature passed, and Gov. Haslam signed, bills criminalizing abortion procedures by doctors after 20 weeks and codifying the “natural meaning” of words, which clearly targets same-sex marriages and partners who have or adopt children.

Yarbro says the Legislature also put state courts in the position of determining federal immigration status, which has “severe constitutional problems.” The bill would allow more severe sentences for illegal immigrants convicted of breaking another law.

Norris, the bill’s sponsor, says state law already sets forth a process for determining legal status, in addition to requiring judges to consider it when determining the flight risk for an offender when setting bail.

He also criticized legislation enabling third-party lawsuits against municipalities, mainly Nashville, that try to restrict handgun possession on city property, primarily places such as buses and the downtown bus terminal.

The bill would allow the National Rifle Association to come in and file suit on behalf of a person who says his right to carry is violated and to collect up to quadruple attorneys’ fees. It was one of a slate of gun-related bills lawmakers considered.

In the final minutes of the legislative session, Stewart also defeated legislation allowing both the House and Senate to nearly double the amount of money they can accept for campaigning, including the money flowing from political action committees.

The Senate, which has a 28-5 Republican supermajority, was the first to amend the bill, which initially was designed to let legislators raise money when they take a break during the session.

The House at first balked at the Senate’s effort to increase campaign donation limits dramatically, but then they came out of a conference committee with a compromise allowing everyone to accept more money. Just what we need in politics: more money.

“So, you have all these really bad ideas pushed by the supermajority for years and years and years, and once again they have not made it into our code books. Those are very significant achievements,” Stewart explains. “You hate to keep score of the bills you kill. But let’s face it: In terms of how this body affects people every day, those are very significant matters.”

The analysis

With the budget in a strong position and a record $1 billion in the rainy day and TennCare reserve, it’s hard to argue with the Haslam-McNally-Norris bean counting.

Of course, I’ll be cussing them when I have to write a bigger check to renew my tags this year. And if the air is so damn clean, they ought to get rid of these vehicle emission tests, which are a $9 tax and a lot of wasted time sitting in line with idling cars producing more pollution.

As for higher education programs, the Drive to 55 is commendable. Everyone needs more learning. But while we’re giving every person in the state free community college through the Tennessee Promise and Reconnect, students going to state universities are still getting hammered by tuition, fees and living costs. They graduate in the hole financially and are struggling to find a job to pay off the debt.

This isn’t quite what Congressman Steve Cohen was thinking about when he sponsored the lottery amendment and creation of the scholarships as a state senator.

So, as we head toward 2018, we’ll give Haslam some credit for getting close to sliced bread. If the IMPROVE Act had fallen, he would be a two-time loser, counting the dismal failure of Insure Tennessee in 2016.

But as one friend said when I told him about surviving the state Legislature this year, “It’s about time they went home so we could quit hearing about where people go pee while they’re carrying a gun in their favorite bar.”

That’s not exactly sliced bread, whether you’re eating white or wheat.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.