Friday, February 28, 2003

A Wonderland of Dishonesty

Friday's lead editorial in the Commercial Appeal takes new governor Phil Bredesen to task for attempting to make cities and counties share the pain with regards to State budget cuts. It really is a piece of work, a wonderland of dishonesty. We're going to go through it all and look at the lies and distortions and panderings and politics.
Tennessee voters elected Phil Bredesen governor last year because, among other things, he promised to manage state government on existing revenue and give the quest for a broad-based state income tax a rest.
Bredesen promised, under all but the most dire of circumstances, to avoid the income tax if at all possible. Probably. He didn't say anything about "giving it a rest," which is something else altogether, something a lot like what the CA would like to do -- revisit the issue after most folks have had a chance to forget, and the paper has the chance to rewrite your memory. Notice, too, the not-so-subtle slipping in of the phrase "broad-based." No opportunity for propaganda missed!

And "quest?" It was a full-force ramming down the throat, a cooperative venture between Sundquist, Naifeh, some State employee and teacher unions, and the papers. There was nothing searching, as a quest implies, about the process. Dishonesty and deception reigned; every ugly trick was used.
As it turns out, Bredesen plans to accomplish that mission in part by shipping red ink to Shelby County and other localities across the state.
Or, looked at another way, he plans to make sure that every level of Tennessee government feels the pain. Maybe he wants local leaders to see that he's serious, that they'll have to join him and not expect money to flow as it did in the past. But the CA has never seen government as something that loses funding, so it's only logical that they wouldn't see the lesson, only the paddle.
Tennesseans who thought they would escape being asked to pay higher taxes with Bredesen in office may be in for a surprise. Most city and county government officials are not bound by a no-new-taxes pledge.
How interesting. First, Bredesen didn't make that pledge. Folks like Frank Cagle, Bill Hobbs, Tax Free Tennessee and myself pointed that out pretty regularly; heck, even SouthKnoxBubba would probably agree there!

Second, the CA's true colors are nailed to the mast once again. It hasn't even occurred to them, apparently, that city and counties might also cut spending. It's like every step you take away from the abyss, the edge crumbles a bit more and there you are again -- right on the edge again. The money train must always roll; last year's budget is always the minimum for this year, never just a number.
The governor has instituted broad, across-the-board cuts in state spending.
Currently seven percent, maybe nine. I'm still amazed to see this, and the apparent seriousness of his actions. I'm still in the "cautiously non-pessimistic" category, though. I'm a deeply suspicious person by nature (You're surprised, right?) and I still think it's entirely possible that this isn't good faith on Bredesen's part. Naifeh and the unions that depend on State money have been far too compliant and quiet here.

I think it may also be possible that this is the setup. Bredesen will make cuts and then sit back. As the complaints roll in, as the evidence piles up of people being "hurt," as "services" are cut, he'll slowly begin to make the case that he tried, but real solutions will only happen if we put the income tax back on the table. In other words, this is the "cover your ass" period, to be followed by the "look over there!" period, then to be concluded with the sad, head-shaking "we have no choice" endgame.

I could be wrong; I worry that I'm not.
But he has not shown much of an inclination to take on Nashville's powerful road lobby by leading a charge to divert gasoline tax money from Department of Transportation projects to such necessary state spending as state police highway patrols.
This is true, but where does the CA get off saying so? When Bruce Saltsmann told the governor that he wouldn't relinquish the funds, inverting the boss-employee equation with complete impugnity, the paper let that pass with no fuss. TDOT has been sitting on one billion dollars in unspent funds, and the paper has pooh-poohed the idea of raiding those funds, or of the proposal to divert one penny from the gas tax. For them to trot this out now is the most base hypocrisy. Coming from this lot, that's saying quite a bit!
And he has left it up to the legislature to join an effort to persuade the federal government to authorize sales taxes on Internet and catalog purchases that are not now taxed by the state.
Bill Hobbs, again, is doing fantastic work documenting this power & money grab, which is unconstitutional besides. But in this context it's a red herring designed to make you think the State would be better off pursuing mythic money sources than "stealing" from the cities and counties. It's a distraction.
Bredesen's plan to put some of the state budget burden on the backs of local governments is not a new idea, but it is a bad one.
Again, that's a matter of point-of-view. An equally valid argument can be made that he wants all levels of government to share in the budget cutting, especially as the money all comes from the same source: the State's coffers.
The governor told officials of the Tennessee Municipal League and the Tennessee County Services Association that he plans to keep local governments' share of revenues from the state tax on dividend and investment income.
That would be the legendary Hall tax. It's interesting to note that of all the multiplicity of plans put forward during the Income Tax Wars, coming from every angle and every point on the political spectrum of our State leaders, there was only one common feature. Every single plan eliminated the Hall tax! Who would have benefitted most? Those who make their living from investment income -- retirees and the ultrawealthy. Guess who has the ear of our Legislature.
Bredesen now says he is reconsidering the idea, but has not backed off. The money, about $50 million, would be earmarked to help the state keep promises it has made to local governments to help fund public schools.
Notice: "would be earmarked." Oh, suddenly, promises to taxpayers mean so much! Using this "future promise" tactic has long been a favorite of the paper's editors.
To make sure the pain of the state fiscal crisis is fairly distributed, he said, he also plans a 9 percent cut - an estimated $56 million - in other tax revenues now shared with local governments. Memphis would lose $14.7 million next year as a result, the municipal league estimates.
While not an inconsequential amount, don't forget that the City Council recently had to make up a $12 million shortfall and did so with some alacrity, in belt-tightening. Note, too, that the 9 percent figure is precisely in line with the Governor's demands for State departments. What's good for the goose and all that.
Faced with a projected budget shortfall of $480 million this year and $780 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1....
Remember, this was the largest tax increase in State history and already we are deeply in debt. Had the proposed income tax gone through, only 40% of Tennesseans would be paying that, and now that same 40% would be shouldering the $1.26 billion immediate "shortfall." This is fair?
...Bredesen essentially is instituting D.O.G.S. (Downsizing of Governmental Services), a budget-slashing plan the General Assembly flirted with but rejected last year.
"Flirted?" Again with the rewriting. This was the "doom and gloom" budget, to use the CA's own term, that Sundquist and Naifeh threatened the Legislature with! This was the Apocalypse that the paper warned readers of. Now, it seems, it's a budget option, albeit a bad one.
Lawmakers also rejected a proposal to cut local governments' share of state tax receipts. Instead, they raised the state sales tax rate by a penny as part of the largest tax increase in state history.
See my comments above. The paper, as they've done since this budget was passed, seems to like to repeat this phrase without seeming to understand that the largest tax increase in State history was instantly insufficient. There are problems far, far worse than revenue shortfalls when that happens.
Now many Tennesseans are burdened with the country's largest combined state and local sales tax rate, and they're anxiously waiting to see how state services will be affected by spending reductions.
Many? Heck, all of us! And a good number of visitors to our fair state. But compare that burden with the combined sales/income tax burdens others face and Tennesseans are down at the bottom of the tax burden pile. Tennessee, sounds good to me.

Besides, I'm not waiting to see how "state services will be affected," I'm waiting to see how State spending will be reduced! The lines are drawn; don't color outside them.
Some of those cuts will affect local government resources indirectly. Under the governor's proposal, local governments also would try to maintain services despite $100 million in direct state revenue cuts.
The numbers keep piling up, don't they? Oh, I meant the taxes piled on taxpayers, not the $100 million. Sorry....
All this is occurring after the legislature underwent two years of down-to-the-wire budget brawls...
Brought on by a governor who seemed hellbent on spending money he didn't have and a Legislative leader hellbent on bullying his compatriots into submission. Alternative plans were suppressed by Naifeh, and ridiculed by the papers; efforts at compromise were squashed by everyone in a hell-bound train wreck intended to cause such a mess that, odious as it was, the income tax was the least unpalatable option.

But here's the most astonishing passage:
...that had crowds of horn-honking protesters circling the Capitol, and on one occasion rioting within it, to discourage lawmakers from confronting Tennessee's systematic revenue problems in a meaningful way.
Unbelievable, if I hadn't already lived with the CA's unashamed, bald-faced past lies.

Naturally, they don't pass up the chance to repeat the tired "horn-honkers" slur, but to claim that protesters rioted inside the Capitol is a plain, pure lie! There is nothing to support that claim but the cold reptilian minds of the editors. Every television station in the State played video of that protest and the crowds inside were loud and barely respectful, but they were merely an angry, aimless, milling crowd.

Seeing the CA pass along this kind of complete falsehood, with impugnity, makes me despair. Their public power is quite hefty, but now we have to ask for whom they wield it. It sure isn't for truth or for you and me.

Bredesen deserves credit for opening up the budget process and being candid with constituents about the depth of the state's fiscal mess.
It's an improvement over the Sundquist administration, which lied with numbers at every opportunity. We are still stuck with the newspapers which happily repeated the lies. It would be nice to see the paper practice the kind of candidness and openness with their own internal processes that they praise Bredesen for. But I'm not holding my breath.

The harsh truth, which he has shared with Tennesseans, is that state jobs as well as the level of services that citizens can expect are in peril.
"Peril?" Only to those on the public teat. For the rest of us, it's welcome relief. The Socialists in our newpaper editorial and reporting pools wail and moan, but the publicly-expressed unhappiness we've been seeing the past four years is a powerful argument that they're wrong.

The governor's pledge of better management is more difficult to judge, although the fruits of that effort will start showing up soon enough.
It'll be interesting to see what the Legislature does with the budget. You can bet that the CA will be in there pitching for them to throw it out and adopt their own, one that satisfies the bureaucracy- and money-addicted cravings of the paper.

If essential state employees and programs have to be sacrificed, and local property taxes have to be raised...
They don't. Government will do just fine with fewer people, as long as legislators don't keep passing new laws. If they take their lead from Bredesen, and let him take the heat, then taxes don't have to go up either.

Note that the present makeup of the bureaucracy is "essential." I cannot honestly recall a single investigation by our paper of the waste that lurks in State government, other than their John Ford-driven vendettas. They've shown some ability to find it, lots of it, on the City and County levels, so why not go higher? Because if they do, they'll find it and then they can't argue for more money!

...while non-essential projects favored by powerful legislators and fat-cat state contractors survive, Tennessee's budget crisis is far from over.
Oh, wait! So there is money to cut? Now I'm confused....

And again, they blame others but can't seem to actually investigate them! Now who's falling down on the job?

I've read some really astounding editorials from the shameless bunch at the Commercial Appeal but I think this one takes the cake. Lapses of responsibility on their part laid bare but ignored, past lies and distortions repeated with embellishment, dismissively rewriting history on the fly, refusing to see things from the point of view of the people they supposedly serve, flogging the very idea that everyone else claims died last goes on and on.

If ever there was reason to toss the paper into the trash bin of history, this is the clearest, most persuasive one of all.

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