Here we go again: reliving same day in Nashville

Robert Houk • Mar 4, 2013 at 9:38 AM

I often get a troubling feeling of déjà vu whenever I read about the exploits of the Tennessee General Assembly. Maybe it’s the fact our legislators grapple with many of the same bills year after year.

Or perhaps it is their tendency to engage in much of the same buffoonery over and over again (new faces, same ridiculous non-issues). Whatever it is, I feel as if I have read this book before. And I didn’t care for its ending the first time.

Twenty years ago, I recall state prison overcrowding as an issue that just wouldn’t go away. Passage of a state lottery was another. Many Republican lawmakers in this region flatly opposed a lottery until it was approved by the voters. I remember hearing a number of GOPers from our end of the state argue that the Tennessee Constitution (which barred such a lottery) should never be tampered with.

A decade or so ago, then state House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, said Tennessee was living out its own version of the movie “Groundhog Day.” That was because every year found state lawmakers and then Gov. Don Sundquist tackling the same fiscal crisis — TennCare.

The other big issue for Sundquist during his two terms in office was tax reform. Sundquist, however, could not convince his fellow Republicans to support his calls for a state income tax.

His successor didn’t even bother messing with the issue. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, refused to be lured into the same trap as his two predecessors (the late Ned McWherter, a Democrat, also flirted with an income tax). Instead, Bredesen concentrated on fixing TennCare. As a result, Bredesen did not hear any protesters honking their car horns at the state Capitol.

So the tax issue was settled, right? Wrong. Republicans in the General Assembly are one step away from getting final approval for a constitutional referendum to forever prohibit the creation of a state income tax (even though income tax foes have long said the state Constitution already bans such a tax). Some of the same Republicans, who argued so eloquently years ago that the state Constitution needs no altering, are more than happy to do so now.

Lawmakers still have the wine in grocery stores bill to fret over. It’s the one “Groundhog Day” issue that I hope to see settled (one way or the other) in the General Assembly this session.

The liquor lobby has teamed up once again with the Tennessee Baptist Convention to block legislation to allow local referendums on wine sales in supermarkets. Some folks may see this arrangement as odd, but it makes sense politically.

A friend of mine tells a story about a liquor referendum in his home state years ago. That vote saw a prominent clergyman and a local bootlegger work together to keep legal whiskey out of a dry county.

“Sunday morning found the preacher in the pulpit railing against the sins of demon rum, while the moonshiner slapped bumper stickers on the cars parked outside that read, ‘Vote No on Liquor by the Drink,’ ” my friend told me.

Ah, those were the days when folks really knew how to work together for the common good.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at [email protected]

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