NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Civility on the part of public servants seems to
be wearing thin in Tennessee, as legislators, under pressure from Gov.
Don Sundquist to pass a state income tax, clash with voters who have
shown themselves to be overwhelmingly opposed to the measure.
WorldNetDaily reported recently, Tennessee legislators have been under a constant barrage of phone calls, e-mails and catcalls in the hallways of the state Capitol since a bill that would have implemented an income tax appeared on the verge of passing two weeks ago. Tennessee is one of nine states without a state income tax.
But to many Tennesseans, the most disturbing aspect to the tax battle has been the overt contempt shown them by some legislators for having made their voices heard in regards to the state budget process.
One such incident, reported last week in the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal, involved one the of the leading pro-income-tax legislators,
Rep. Mary Ann Eckles.
According to the news report, Eckles was approached during a legislative recess by tax protesters David and Sandra Brunner, who said they had brought their children to the tax rally for its educational value. When the Brunners asked Eckles to vote against the proposed tax increase, the legislator became agitated and stated, “The people of my district are all for the income tax.”
But when the Brunners stated that they lived in her district and that they and many of their friends and co-workers were against the state income tax, Eckles angrily replied, “The people of my district don’t know what they need. They haven’t studied it like I have.”
Eckles did not respond to requests by WorldNetDaily for comment for this story.
In response to Eckles’ comments, Sandra Brunner stated that it’s hard for legislators to believe that citizens can have intelligent thoughts of their own.
“It seems to be OK when we blindly accept their take on all issues, but then they blame the most outspoken and visible individuals, like talk radio, for ‘leading us astray’ if anyone differs from their viewpoint,” she said.
Republicans are also reacting with dismay at the huge numbers of constituents contacting their representatives through the new democratic medium — e-mail.
During a House floor session last Tuesday,
Rep. Bob Patton derided the efforts of those expressing their opinions on the income-tax issue.
“All those e-mails we get, I just wipe them off. I don’t read them. I’d like them to know they are wasting their time,” he said.
Legislative contempt is nothing new for Tennesseans, who have seen three attempts to pass a state income tax in the past 14 months. During a special legislative session dedicated to the income tax issue last November,
Rep. Tommy Head, one of the leading state budget negotiators, told an audience gathered for an income tax debate sponsored by a local talk radio station that decisions on important state matters shouldn’t be left to the people, but rather to legislators.
“We don’t need a referendum to make our decisions. We’re the ones who are supposed to be educated and know about the issues,” Head said.
The phenomenon isn’t exclusive to just to House members either. After a constituent contacted
Sen. Steve Cohen during last year’s budget battle, Cohen replied with a message left on the constituent’s answering machine inviting him to call back.
Thinking that the call had been disconnected, Cohen turned to an aide and called his constituent an “S.O.B.” and complained that the constituent had used an 800 number that allowed him to connect to legislators’ offices toll-free.
Ironically, Cohen was the Senate sponsor of the legislation authorizing the toll-free line to the state Capitol to increase accessibility to legislators.
However, the constituent’s answering machine was still recording and captured Cohen’s comments, a tape of which was passed off to a local Memphis radio station. When confronted by reporters about his derogatory comments, Cohen replied, “I felt no need to encourage additional comments from this particular person.”
The income tax is not the only issue to have generated legislative ire over the past year. After several state legislators were caught by a Nashville TV station’s hidden camera accepting a free golf trip to the Gulf Coast last year courtesy of a state contractor, Jack Morgan sent a critical e-mail to his representative,
Rep. Paul Phelan, one of the offending legislators.
Nothing could have prepared Morgan for Phelan’s blistering response.
“Dear whatever your name is, I was on the plane with Ron Cooper (the state contractor). Ron and I have been friends for 11 years. I’ve been in the House for seven, you do the math, imbecile,” Phelan wrote.
After letting loose a string of obscenities, Phelan said, “Why don’t you put your name on the ballot since you’re so high and mighty. Thank you for reminding me why it is important to run for re-election to keep our state out of the hands of people like you.”
He concluded his e-mail by saying, “My level of education allows me to tolerate idiots like you.”
However, it was Phelan who was soon getting an education in e-mail technology from Morgan when Phelan’s e-mail was forwarded to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations all across the state. After the Associated Press reprinted the letter in its entirety on its news wire, Phelan was forced to apologize.
In accepting Phelan’s apology, Morgan cautioned state legislators to remember that they were not elected to represent their own interests, but rather those of voters.
“I would never have talked to him in such a manner. They work for us. We don’t work for them. A few of the fellows down there in Nashville need to keep that in mind,” he said.
But as Tennessee’s tax battle winds to a close, relief seems to be in sight for legislators.
Both houses passed a slimmed-down version of Sundquist’s proposed $18.2 billion budget on Thursday without any tax increases. Because the measure doesn’t include the state income tax, Sundquist has threatened to veto it. But unlike most states, a mere 51 percent majority in both houses is needed to override the governor’s veto.
Legislators have to act before July 1, the end of the state’s fiscal year, to prevent a government shutdown. Consequently, final action on the state budget is expected by the end of the week, but that won’t prevent another tax protest organized by Nashville talk radio stations scheduled for later today at the state Capitol.
Only after the conclusion of the legislative session are legislators, who face election primaries in August, allowed to begin their reelection campaigns. All House members and half of the Senate are up for reelection this year. Rather than face voters, several prominent pro-income tax legislators have announced they will not be running again, and many other legislative income-tax supporters have attracted formidable opposition in November.