When Tennessee's 108th General Assembly begins today, Republicans will find themselves in the powerful position of holding super-majority control in both houses of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
For the entire 20th century, thanks largely to ruthless and unreasonable gerrymandering, the GOP was little more than a speed bump for Democratic policy proposals in Tennessee.
Now the tables have turned — in a big way. Republican dominance in the Volunteer State is so absolute that Republican lawmakers could pass any bill they agree on whether or not Democratic lawmakers even show up to vote.
How are Republicans in the state legislature going to use their power? Will they be able to stay united as they work to address the most important issues facing the state?
The following are five topics that will control much of the discussion during the 2013 legislative session -- and the ways that Republicans in the General Assembly should tackle them:
• Taxes — Taxpayers paid $563.8 million more to the state government in taxes last fiscal year than the state expected — or needed. Gov. Bill Haslam seems ready to hand out the surplus to state bureaucracies ready to devour the money. Instead, the state should keep spending at current levels and return the overpayment to taxpayers in the form of lowering the state's sales tax on groceries and reducing the Hall income tax.
The Hall income tax acts as a state capital gains tax, raiding the interest and dividends Tennesseans collect from stocks and bonds, and pushing the rich and the retired away from the Volunteer State. The state's regressive sales tax on groceries is the highest such tax in America.
Cutting both taxes in half would make Tennessee more tax-friendly and refund a portion of residents' hard-earned money, while only reducing the state's revenues by about $337 million. The governor and General Assembly would still have more than a quarter of a billion dollars of the unexpected revenue to blow on whatever they wanted.
• School choice — The state legislature is expected to discuss several voucher proposals that would empower students in Tennessee's worst schools to go instead to the public or private school of their parents' choice.
Any school choice plan to allow children stuck in a school that doesn't educate them well to get a better education would be an improvement on the status-quo. A voucher would be a win-win. Not only would many students end up at a school better equipped to give them the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life, but failing schools would find it necessary improve in order to compete for students — and the funding tied to them.
• Guns in parking lots — Last year, Democrats trapped GOP lawmakers by bringing up a now-infamous bill to let employees store guns in their cars on company parking lots. The legislation became so contentious that it eventually cost one popular state GOP lawmaker her seat and has put Republicans in the bad position of supporting gun rights at the expense of private property rights.
Despite an understandable and valid desire to expand gun rights whenever or wherever possible, the bill -- which will come up again this session in various forms and fashions — fails from the perspective of liberty.
While preventing government from restricting gun rights is of great importance, that's not the issue with the guns in parking lots bill. What is the issue is the government robbing state residents of their property rights -- the most important right of all in a free society -- by telling a business owner that he can't decide what he can and can't allow on his property. It would be best if the bill was buried and forgotten.
• Medicaid expansion — Tennessee legislators will go through a period of soul-searching over the next couple of months as they decide whether or not to accept federal handouts to expand Medicaid, or "TennCare" as our Medicaid program is known in Tennessee.
Under the Obamacare Medicaid expansion scheme, the federal government would pay 100 percent of the increased cost for the first three years and 90 percent thereafter. What sounds like a bunch of "free" money for state governments (let's not ever forget that all of the money was taken from taxpayers), is actually a recipe for financial disaster for Tennessee.
According to Linda Gorman, a health policy expert at Denver's Independence Institute, "The 100 percent federal match through 2017 does not cover the state share of additional administrative costs, for which the national average is an estimated $2.48 for each additional $100 of state Medicaid spending. Once the expansion occurs, there is no guarantee that the federal match will stay the same. The Obama Administration's 2013 fiscal year budget has already proposed reducing the federal match -- a reduction that would substantially increase [the state's] Medicaid expansion costs."
Additionally, state leaders don't even know how much Obamacare will drive up costs on existing TennCare recipients.
Besides breaking the bank, the expansion would lure more Tennesseans away from private plans and into the failed TennCare system. It makes no sense to stick more people in a broken system and make Tennessee's taxpayers pick up the tab.
• Wine in grocery stores — Tennessee's antiquated wine laws, which prevent wine from being sold in grocery and convenience stores, could finally change this year -- and not a moment too soon.
Tennessee wine laws are an attack on consumer freedom, and they kill jobs, hurt the economy and cost local governments millions of tax dollars. A study by Red White and Food, an advocacy group supporting wine sales in retail food stores, revealed that modernizing Tennessee's peculiar wine laws would net nearly 3,000 new jobs and generate as much as $38 million in tax revenue.
Currently, 33 states allow wine sales in grocery stores. A 2011 poll conducted by Middle Tennessee State University found that 69 percent of Tennesseans want the state to become number 34.
Are Tennesseans better off with so much power in the hands of Republicans? The way the General Assembly addresses these five hot issues will go a long way in answering that question.
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