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June 07, 2006

Vote for the Newcomer in 2006 - End social promotion for legislators

The 2006 legislative session ended on Saturday, May 27. In order that we voters make the most informed decisions in the upcoming elections, it’s good to review what did and did not happen in Nashville. The most generous take on the proceedings would demand no less than a leadership change. The challenge will be to convince y’all to take a look around, without the aid of your partisan blinders, and find the most appropriate replacement.

First, the good news

State employees are now no longer involuntarily subjected to the dangers of secondhand smoke, thanks to a ban on smoking in state buildings. Low-income seniors are granted a property tax freeze, as are veterans and those who have lost a family member to war. Education received a boost at nearly all levels. There was something passed to try and tighten up Eminent Domain law, though this column has covered just how anemic that something really was. Health Savings Accounts were created, as was a Financial Literacy curriculum for high school students (because parents, in amazing numbers, are apparently incapable of imparting such knowledge). Last but not least, Cover Tennessee passed and was signed into law.

Immigration inaction

On the super-hot topic of illegal immigration, there might have been an expectation for a slew of new laws. Instead, only one bill made it through the haggling process. It seems like a no-brainer: it prohibits (for one year) any contracts with the state or a state entity for anyone who has been found employing undocumented workers. (There’s no word on whether there will be an effort to actually discover the offending employers.) It’s probably a good thing that we avoided getting the Tennessee Highway Patrol into the immigration business, but there were sensible reform measures that lacked support (read: well-heeled lobbyists).

Nicotine is a vegetable

Could you use a tax break on food? Some hapless soul (Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson) chose to ignore the muscle in the tobacco corner and introduced a measure that would have traded some of the burden from food to tobacco purchases. The bill died by one vote in committee. Cartoonist Charlie Daniel (Knoxville News-Sentinel) reacted this way, using parent-child dialogue: “I’m hungry, Ma; what’s for dinner?” “Shut up and smoke your cigarette.” As cut-and-dried as it looks, there are three possible explanations for the swap’s demise. One report was that the aforementioned tobacco lobby was too powerful. Two, the political rumor mill has it that Governor Bredesen already plans for a stand-alone cigarette tax, and the swap would have reduced that idea to ashes. The third – this columnist’s favorite – is that the numbers just wouldn’t add up, since the proposal meant a decrease in how we tax all the poor, and replacing the revenue loss with an increased levy on just some of the poor.

Do not let them get away with this

The session that started with a special ethics conference ended with a day of “blatantly corrupt self-aggrandizing,” to paraphrase a recent local opinion letter. Go team. Multiple accounts of the final, extra day of lawmaking in the House of Representatives describe a scene ruled by nothing other than an arrogant political machine.

A self-term-limited State Representative (rarer in these parts than an ivory-billed platypus) honored his fellow citizens with the truth about the bandits’ banner day. Chris Clem (R-Lookout Mountain) is to be held in high esteem, despite sundry philosophical differences, for providing us the report from his membership vantage point. And though it’s likely that Clem would not follow, others have opined that approving assorted pension and salary increases for themselves and the governor, after failing to pass a minimum wage hike, made the act particularly grievous. Regardless of what one’s position may be on an artificial wage floor, the rush job done on this pension increase speaks to its aversion to sunshine. And as respected blogger Randy Neal (KnoxViews.com) pointed out, it’s interesting that the minimum wage bill was said to have been introduced “too late for review,” yet this self-serving raise (contained in an amendment by Rep. Frank Nicely, R-Knoxville) was passed without any review at all, and on the last day.

And that’s not all. The last-minute legislators also approved a change to election rules regarding write-in candidates. This General Assembly thumbed its nose at the nationwide (albeit snail-paced) trend toward more open ballot access and voted to increase the minimum requirement for a write-in candidate to advance to the general election from 5 percent of a primary vote total to 5 percent of an entire district’s registered voter count. Given our typical primary turnout, that’s HUGE. Widely called the “Incumbent Protection Bill,” this legislation has prompted calls for a veto, but we’ll see how that goes, since Democrats pushed it through. The bill’s sponsor was House Majority Leader Kim McMillan (D-Clarksville), who, conveniently enough, is not seeking re-election in the Fall.

No letup in lavish lobbying

Speaking of the comprehensive ethics package: it doesn’t seem to have stemmed the flow of wine nor diminished the mountains of free food given to the legislature. Though one-on-one and small group dinners are strictly taboo, the big boys can still legally entertain lawmakers, so long as they merely invite all 132 of them. And they have, this session, spent nearly a quarter million dollars doing just that.

Contemplating the outright electoral coup that’s needed this November may make some Democrats uncomfortable. Could it be possible to trust a member of the opposing party who promises to clean up the place? After all, that’s what the 1994 federal midterm elections were all about, and it has taken a shockingly short time for some serious erosion to occur on that lofty Hill. What’s more, one cannot wisely substitute brand loyalty – even if switching – for intense individual scrutiny of each candidate. Still, the problem remains: Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and Lieutenant Governor John Wilder, with their cohorts, utterly disregard the power vested in the citizenry to boot them onto their butts. And, sadly, they get away with it unless or until we use it. It’s time to take a chance on new members, new leaders: not because of the party to which they belong, but because of the establishment to which they do not.

[This column appears in the June 7, 2006 Pulse.]

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Government , Pulsations | By joe lance | 07:45 AM