Follow the money - your money

Don't you feel sorry for Tennessee lawmakers?

They've been so underpaid for so long while they've worked so hard to write amendments to ban a Tennessee income tax and to whittle at the Hall income tax on rich folks' investment income while simultaneously agreeing to ramp up faux regulations to create a de facto-ban on women's reproductive choice.

But don't worry.

Last week, our lawmakers got a raise.

Unlike other state workers, teachers and, frankly, many Tennesseans who received no raise in 2014 -- Tennessee lawmakers can now look forward to a nearly $700 increase in their annual salaries and a $10 bump in their daily allowance for expenses. And, of course, they still get their $1,000-a-month "office allowance."

The Knoxville News Sentinel reported last week that our part-time legislators' base pay would increase to $20,884 under a state law that ties their salaries to state employee compensation over the last two years. Some state workers did receive a 2013 raise, and that's what bumped lawmakers up this year.

Members of the state House and Senate now will receive $198 in daily lodging and dining allowances for up to 90 legislative days and 15 organizational days in a two-year term. (They still won't have to submit proof that they spent it all on hotels or restaurants. Now, tell us, would that work in your place of business?)

There is one bright spot for taxpayers: Under a new state law, senators and representatives living within 50 miles of the Capitol will no longer be eligible for the lodging portion.

All this comes in the same year that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is asking state agencies to show how they will cut 7 percent from their 2015-2016 budgets. It also comes as the the state's largest teachers union calls on the governor to provide educators with a 6 percent raise next year to begin carrying out his pledge to make Tennessee the "fastest improving state in the nation on teacher pay." Last winter, Haslam promised teachers a 2 percent raise, but he had to renege after tax collections fell $300 million below projections.

Meanwhile, some Republicans still are planning to push yet again to phase out the state's Hall income tax on bond interest and stock dividends -- a tax paid largely by the wealthiest Tennesseans -- at a cost to the state of about $250 million in anticipated lost revenue.

It's a simple plan: Spend more and take in less -- especially less from your most well-off taxpayers.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, have countered the Hall tax phase-out plan with their own idea to reduce the state sales tax from 7 percent to 6.75 percent. That would be a similar revenue loss to the state, but sales taxes affect all of us and arguably hurt poor and middle-class folks the most.

Speaking of distribution of wealth, did you know that in 2013, the Walton family of Walmart fame owned more wealth than all of the bottom 42 percent of American earners? But there's more: From 2007 to 2010, typical families lost 39 percent of their wealth (mostly as housing values fell), according to the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances. The survey, made every three years, also found that in 2007, the median family net worth was $126,400. In 2010, it was $77,300.

Here's another way to look at these numbers: While median family wealth in America fell by 38.8 percent, the wealth of the Walton family members rose about 22 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

But income for the little people fell, too. A September 2014 economic snapshot from the Center for American Progress found that inflation-adjusted median household income in 2013 -- $51,939 -- was more than $2,000 below the 2009 level and more than $4,000 less than the median income in 2007, the last full year before the Great Recession. For contrast, the top 1 percent make about $400,000 or more a year.

But just in case you missed it, Tennessee lawmakers are not alone in coddling the wealthy. Our nation's congressional Republicans put a month's hold on their efforts to make permanent dozens of special-interest U.S. tax breaks known as "extenders" -- but they plan to renew their push in 2015. Extenders are the epitome of our already too loophole-riddled tax code. At a cost of tens of billions of dollars to taxpayers, the 55-item extenders package includes tax breaks for NASCAR race tracks, Puerto Rican rum producers, racehorse owners and Hollywood studios, to name a few.

The pause came after the White House on Tuesday threatened a presidential veto of the original $450 billion tax-credits plan. The president and other congressional Democrats said it is too skewed toward corporate breaks, without similarly addressing tax credits for the middle class and working families.

Thank goodness, somebody is thinking about us ordinary folks rather than just the fat cats. The big question is what will happen after the first of the year.