published Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

The gubernatorial kickoff

In announcing his decision not to run for governor in 2010, former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist opened the gate for other Repub-lican gubernatorial hopefuls to jump in the race. Three quickly did so: Chattanooga’s 3rd District Rep. Zach Wamp, Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons and two-term Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam.

Democrats did not leap off the fence as fast. Former state House Majority Leader Kim McMillan, of Clarksville, confirmed her long-standing intention to run for gov-ernor when Phil Bredesen’s tenure is up, but other potential Democratic contenders stayed mum.

Republican interest is high because many GOP politicians assume that the state’s increasingly strong Republican turnout in recent statewide elections bodes well for the party in the next gubernatorial race.

That history does appear to favor the GOP. Tennesseans voted Republican by strong mar-gins in the past three presidential elections. In the November elections, Republicans also gained control of both chambers of the state Legislature for the first time since 1869. They expanded their one-member majority in the Senate to five, taking firm control with a 19-14 margin. And they won a net gain of four seats in the House to take a slim 50-49 majority.

How Republicans use their new power to refashion legislative priorities over the next two years, however, is likely to become the more pertinent factor in the 2010 election. GOP legislative leaders are already suggest-ing they will focus on contesting Gov. Phil Bredesen’s policies and budget priorities.

If they create exaggerated partisan reasons to do battle with the popular Democratic governor, as they have been prone to do the past six years, they won’t do their guberna-torial chances much good. Gov. Bredesen’s excellent fiscal and policy stewardship has simply been too outstanding for Republicans to make points by picking at his administra-tion.

Yet it seems almost certain that will be their path. Business groups, moreover, are already giddily lining up to press their agen-da. They want breaks on the state’s excise and franchise taxes, tort and medical mal-practice changes, further dilution of worker compensation and labor laws, and reduced contributions to the state’s unemployment fund.

How Tennessee’s vast majority of working families, who are scrapping to stay in the realm of the nation’s middle class, will take such assaults on their interests remains to be seen. Certainly the Republicans’ legisla-tive agenda in favor of big business will get more scrutiny when the Republican-con-trolled Legislature is finally able to push it forward.

Republican legislators already have ardently protected unfair franchise and excise tax exemptions on family-owned, noncorporate entities — known as FONCE exemptions. These businesses unfairly enjoy big tax breaks over commercial enterprises that operate similar businesses. A FONCE commercial building, for example, pays significantly less in state taxes than a commercially owned business exactly like it next door. Elimination of that baseless business-welfare tax break would add another $20 million to $45 million in badly needed revenues to the state.

Democrats also have been amenable to business lobbies for tax breaks. There was some bipartisan opposition to Gov. Bredesen’s proposal last year to eliminate the FONCE exemptions, for example. But Dem-ocratic support was also designed to dilute the appeal of Republicans’ strong support for such favoritism for such businesses; for Republicans, catering to business interests seems to be their core value.

Republicans can be expected, of course, to play their so-called values card in support of amending Tennessee’s Constitution to make it neutral on abortion in the event Roe v. Wade is ever overturned. As it now stands, the Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s Constitution alone protects the right of choice for women, independently of federal mandates. And they may press for school vouchers, which undermine public schools but are popular with evangelicals.

How the state Republican agenda plays against the larger Obama administration’s push for a fairer break for the middle class may well set the tone for the 2010 election. Certainly it’s too soon to call the next gubernatorial race for the GOP.

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