A misguided Legislature

A misguided Legislature

April 23rd, 2011 in Opinion Times

The Tennessee Legislature's overwhelmingly Republican majority took office promising to focus swiftly on job creation, strengthening the state's economy and improving education. It's become clear, however, that Republicans immediately junked that promise in favor of pursuing a raft of random legislation that seems to take the wheels off the notion of responsible governance.

The GOP's legislative agenda provides abundant evidence of that. The party's most talked about bills would: protect vested liquor wholesalers' interests, undermine teachers and education funding, promote anti-Muslim prejudice, exact a poll tax on voters who don't drive, endanger college students by allowing gun-carry rights on campus, and tie the state's hands on revenue issues.

A skeptic would say the wing-nut fringe of the Republican Party has taken over the state GOP's once responsible center. A brief survey makes it hard to argue with that assessment.

Protecting the alcohol wholesalers. The House State and Local Government Committee has apparently killed for the fifth straight year legislation that would have allowed free enterprise for grocery stores that want to sell wine. That is unjust to consumers and grocery stores. It also proves that Costco made the right decision by putting its new store here just over the state line in Georgia, which now will reap the sales tax benefits of Costco general operations and, more specifically, its nation-leading wine sales juggernaut.

Lawmakers must know that barring wine sales in groceries is a public policy mistake and unfair to ordinary consumers. They bent again to the liquor and beer wholesale lobbies, and the retail liquor store lobby, which keeps its monopoly on wine sales.

Given the Internet age of direct sales to retailers from wineries, distilleries and breweries across the country, it's well past time for the state to free the retail stores and bust the monopoly power of the wholesale liquor lobbies. But big lobbyist groups - including those for insurance, banking, alcohol, tobacco and the NRA - have lawmakers so deeply indentured to their campaign funds that meaningful reform in any area is virtually impossible.

Promoting anti-Muslim discrimination. Trouble here lurks behind a bill sponsored by Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, who originally sought to make it a felony for Muslims to practice any part of Sharia law. That overreach would have effectively outlawed Muslims' prayers five times a day, among other religious duties. Matheny has agreed to weaken the bill, but he still refuses to speak to Muslim delegations about their fear that foment stirred by critics of Muslim efforts to build religious and community centers - in Murfreesboro and elsewhere - will lead to the wrongful demonizing of Muslims.

It's hard to miss the irony that just a day after Matheny called on state troopers Thursday to oust the Muslim delegation waiting to see him about religious freedom, many government offices and public agencies across the state were closed yesterday to celebrate Good Friday before Easter.

Guns on campus. Though the Tennessee Legislature refuses to allow guns in the Legislative Plaza buildings - what are they afraid of, an angry constituent with a gun? - lawmakers are seriously considering Rep. Andy Holt's bill to allow faculty and staff at Tennessee's colleges to carry guns on campus if they get a gun-carry permit. Holt thinks that more guns on campus will make students and faculty safer.

University of Tennessee Police Chief Gloria Graham, the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police and higher education officials across the state are reasonably mounting a vigorous campaign to defeat Holt's proposal. Law enforcement officers say they can be anywhere on campuses in three minutes. University presidents and police chiefs in Tennessee, and across the country, have strongly condemned such proposals. Police chiefs emphasize the sheer danger of trying to use a gun in self-defense, and the likelihood of complicating a volatile situation and raising the risks that more innocent people might be shot.

Students themselves largely oppose guns on campus. They say they feel safer if the rules ban guns, rather than introduce them. The Holt bill, HB2016, was moved this week to a May hearing, but the risk remains that Republicans - having opened restaurants and then bars and public parks to gun-carry rights - may yet adopt the measure, never mind what university leaders, students and public safety officials say. Such is their blind allegiance to the national NRA agenda that is sweeping legislatures across the nation.

An unconstitutional poll tax on voters. Both the House and Senate have approved legislation requiring registered voters to present a photo ID in order to vote. The law mandates a photo-driver's license, or a voter ID card obtained at a state drivers' license center. The hardship and expense of obtaining such a ID card would defeat many citizens' right to vote. It would amount, in fact, to an odious and illegal poll tax, the sort of impediment to voting the Supreme Court long ago struck down.

Not every county has a driver's license center, and many registered voters - elderly shut-ins, the impoverished and those without access to transportation - could easily be wrongly prevented from voting for lack of the photo ID.

State Attorney General Robert Cooper has issued a ruling declaring the law an unconstitutional poll tax on the public's core right to vote. Gov. Bill Haslem should veto the Legislature's action. But the governor told this page earlier this week that he would probably sign the law, though it has some legal problems because voter ID cards are not free or easy to get.

Haslem should act responsibly and veto the law, or make photo ID voters cards free and easily accessible. His decision will either prove or refute his basic sense of fairness and decency, and the need for lawsuit against the state.

Banning an income tax. The state Senate has already passed legislation to amend the state constitution to ban creation of a general state income tax. Republicans encountered a hiccup in a similar bill in the House when former House Speaker, Jimmy Naifeh, a Democrat, successfully urged House Republicans to accept an amendment also banning an increase in the state sales tax. The bill is now properly stuck on the challenge of fairness and fiscal vision.

The bill should fail. Republicans know the sales tax is cruelly regressive because wage earners typically must spend all their earnings on goods subject to the sales tax. Republicans also know a progressive income tax would help shift the weight of state taxes to the very wealthy, who save most of their money and thus can avoid spending as large a share of their income on sales taxes as ordinary workers must spend.

Banning the income tax would eliminate the only fair alternative to lowering the burdensome sales tax on ordinary Tennesseans. That would hobble the prospect of tax fairness for average Tennesseans for a long time. For fairness, the tax system should be reversed. It hasn't been, because middle-class Tennesseans have swallowed the Republican Kool-Aid against an income tax, while they get the shaft on the sales tax. One day they will see the light. The income tax should remain available for that day.

Education is neglected. Gov. Haslem has needlessly cut teachers' tenure rights and persuaded the House and almost the Senate to leave a skeletal memory of teachers' union rights rather than trashing them entirely, as Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey proposes. That will do little to improve education, however. Haslem's charter school proposal will further harm schools by prompting the fastest-learning low-income students to transfer out of their neighborhood schools into public charter schools, and allowing their state per-pupil funding (about $4,600) to follow them.

This is likely to further destabilize public schools and accelerate their teaching difficulties and student scores. At the same time, Haslem admits he will not even try to finish funding the state's revamped basic education funding formula, leaving Hamilton County one of the two most underfunded school systems in the state on a per-pupil basis. Time will document the grim consequences.