Tennessee lawmakers, voters at odds, poll shows

Tennessee lawmakers, voters at odds, poll shows

December 14th, 2012 by Chris Carroll in Local Regional News

Sen. Bob Corker

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Congressman Chuck Fleischmann

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Tennessee voters recently re-elected a GOP senator and seven Republican House members, but a new Vanderbilt University poll shows everyone is out of sync on key "fiscal cliff" issues.

Of 829 registered voters, 57 percent say they're willing to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire Jan. 1 for families earning more than $250,000 per year. Sixty percent support reducing the value of itemized tax deductions for the same income bracket. And a little more than half -- 51 percent -- oppose a federal spending freeze on nondefense domestic programs.

The poll results come in the middle of a deficit reduction showdown that, if unresolved, will trigger $500 billion in automatic tax increases and federal spending cuts in 2013.

Despite being re-elected with 61 percent of the vote, Republican U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann finds himself in the statewide poll's minority on fiscal issues. A staunch defender of Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge, the Ooltewah Republican opposes tax increases and limiting deductions, and in February he introduced a bill that would freeze all non-mandatory federal spending through 2021.

Fleischmann was unbudging despite the poll numbers.

"Do we want to continue to go down the path of higher spending, which weakens our nation and mortgages our children's future?" he said in a statement. "Or do we want to make the difficult choices now to solve our financial situation and get our budget balanced?"

Other East Tennessee legislators offered similar responses, disseminating what Democrats have described as partisan talking points.

"I will not vote to raise taxes because I believe it will further cripple our struggling economy," said U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Jasper Republican and Norquist pledge signer. "My decision has nothing to do with any pledge."

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan, R-Tenn., co-sponsored Fleischmann's spending freeze bill. The poll question addressing such a bill asked if respondents support a freeze on "non-defense programs such as education, parks and housing" through 2019.

"I find the results a bit dubious," Duncan spokesman Patrick Newton said. "I wonder what the results would be if you listed three unpopular federal programs as examples instead of very popular ones?"

Fleischmann's bill would freeze all nonmandatory programs, regardless of popularity.

Vanderbilt conducted the poll in late November and early December. About 32 percent of respondents identified themselves as Democrats, 30 percent as Republicans, 28 percent as independents and 10 percent as "something else."

The poll was released Wednesday, a day before tea party leader and departing U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., predicted on CBS "we're going to be raising taxes" on top earners.

Medicare, affordable care act

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., recently disavowed the Norquist pledge and proposed a $4.5 trillion deficit reduction package that would limit deductions to $50,000. But he finds himself in the Vanderbilt poll's minority on a crucial part of his plan that deals with Medicare.

To cut costs, Corker's plan calls for gradually increasing the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67. Sixty-one percent of Tennesseans oppose that idea, according to the poll, while 35 percent support it.

"In general, we haven't found that governing by polls is the best or most responsible way to operate," Corker said in a statement.

Corker's senior Volunteer State colleague, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, declined to say whether he supports raising the Medicare eligibility age.

Alexander also disavowed the Norquist anti-tax pledge, but neither senator would say if they support raising taxes for families making at least $250,000.

"I'm still waiting for the president to do his job, which is to recommend a specific plan to rein in entitlement spending, which is where our debt problem really is," Alexander said.

Corker has said that if a deal doesn't transpire, he would support extending the Bush tax cuts for families taking in less than $250,000 annually.

Meanwhile, 73 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of independents surveyed said they want Tennessee to run the Affordable Care Act's mandatory statewide health exchange, according to the poll.

That's despite Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's choice to let the federal government run the exchange rather than take ownership at the state level. Alexander and DesJarlais enthusiastically supported Haslam's decision, which occurred before the poll's public release.

"The support for a state-run exchange may surprise Republican lawmakers," said Vanderbilt professor John Geer, one of the poll's co-directors. "It could give them some pause."

Staff writer Cliff Hightower contributed to this story.