July 8, 2002

TENNESSEE’S INCOME TAX BATTLE: A lot of people have emailed to ask me what I think about it. Generally, I refer ’em to Bill Hobbs, who has been covering this issue like a blanket. (Just go there and start scrolling down).

I did write something about this issue for the Nando Times a few years back, and it has held up pretty well. (It’s gone from the Nando site, but thanks to the miracle of Google you can read it here.) The big problem is that Tennessee’s elected leaders have tried to address this problem by sleight-of-hand rather than persuasion. Every time they’ve done that, they’ve hurt their own credibility, and every time they’ve hurt their own credibility, they’ve reduced their ability to sell it in an aboveboard fashion.

It’s a bipartisan problem. Ned Ray McWherter, our last governor, was a Democrat — and perhaps the sharpest Tennessee politician in my lifetime. Don Sundquist, the current governor, is a Republican (and, ahem, not quite as politically sharp as McWherter).

Neither tried running on a pro-income tax platform; both said they were against it until they were in their second and final term, at which point they came out in favor of the tax. (In Sundquist’s case, he was giving anti-income tax speeches until just weeks before he decided to support the tax).

Had someone started pushing an income tax back ten years ago, been consistent about it, and run candidates on it, they might have changed some minds. Instead, all they’ve done is harden the opposition. Sure, they might have lost some elections — but how can you ask the voters to sacrifice when you’re not willing to take any risks yourself?

This ties in with what I say about Karl Rove’s too-clever machinations, below. When people aren’t paying attention, and don’t care much anyway (which is most of the time in politics) you can get away with a lot. But when people do care, and do pay attention — as with the war, or the income tax — then you have to be straightforward and honest or you’ll pay a steep price. Sundquist, who is now despised by almost everyone (a newspaper asked me to write an oped a few weeks ago on the subject of who should hate Sundquist more: the anti-tax people or the pro-tax people) has paid that price.

Bush had better keep Rove on a short leash or he’ll wind up in the same boat.

UPDATE: If you want to know more, visit Frank Cagle’s site. He’s a great source for Tennessee political news generally.

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