Nashville Talk Radio Led Opposition to Sundquist Income Tax But Is Split on Haslam Gas Tax

Tennessee Star - Steve Gill v Ralph Bristol
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When former Gov. Don Sundquist proposed imposing a state income tax on residents of Tennessee in 1999, Nashville talk radio hosts Steve Gill and Phil Valentine led the horn-honking opposition that ultimately killed the unpopular proposal three years later in 2002.

It is a different media landscape in 2017, as political controversy surrounds Gov. Haslam’s proposal to increase the gas tax to fund road construction. Like Sundquist, Haslam is a Republican.

WLAC, 1510 am, is no longer in the local political talk business. 99.7 FM WWTN owns the local conservative talk market, with all local hosts,  beginning at 5 a.m. with Ralph Bristol, 9 a.m. with Michael Del Giorno, noon with Dan Mandis, and 3 to 7 p.m. with Phil Valentine.

The day’s talk agenda is set by Nashville’s Morning News host Ralph Bristol, and he testified before the State Senate Transportation Committee in favor of Gov. Haslam’s plan, provided it is truly revenue neutral, which he says it currently is not.

Former Nashville talk radio host Steve Gill, in contrast, came out guns a-blazing in opposition to the gas tax increase in a commentary posted today at The Tennessee Star.

“17 years ago, talk radio lead the fight to stop a proposed state income tax,” Bill Hobbs, long-time Republican communication consultant who now focuses primarily on photography, wrote on his Facebook page Tuesday.

“It was a tax that I and others who dug into the numbers and claims had shown was, without a doubt, being pushed on a mountain of lies, misleading spin and cooked numbers. It was an unnecessary tax increase,” Hobbs noted.

“Yesterday, one of Nashville’s top radio talkers actually went to the legislature and testified in support of another unnecessary tax increase,” he added.

“Perhaps Mr. Hobbs, or Mr. Gill, should come on the air and present their arguments against my points to me, rather than making points, including some I agree with, that portend to rebut mine, but don’t,” Bristol told The Star Tuesday afternoon.

“I’d welcome a debate with either, or better yet, both, as long as they promise to try to avoid conspiratorial allegations of ignoble motivations on my part, and stick to the issues and the ideology involved. I’ll promise to do the same,” Bristol added.

Gill appeared up for the challenge, telling The Star he welcomed a debate.

“I’m happy to do a reasoned debate on the facts, but not with the guy on the other side controlling the microphone,” Gill said.

“Let’s do it at high noon on the Dan Mandis Show, or if that doesn’t work, after 9 a.m. on Michael Del Giorno,” he added.

And Hobbs pushed back on Bristol’s claim of “conspiratorial allegations.”

“I’m not accusing Ralph Bristol of a conspiracy, just of backing a bad idea. Raising taxes when you have a $2 billion surplus is stupid,” Hobbs told The Star.

Bristol, who has dominated Nashville talk radio for a decade, made the following argument in his testimony at the State Senate:

If I were in charge of a state with 7 million people and I saw a need to rebalance a tax policy that is under-producing in one area and is over-producing in another, I’d have no tactical aversion to increasing the flow from the overfilled lake to alleviate the drought in the transportation valley, through which all the goods and people traverse.

I wouldn’t deny there will be sacrifices by some, for the good of the many, but repair always requires some sacrifice, and the overall sacrifice here, by most standards, is small, compared to the potential benefit of keeping a “user-fee” funding system intact.

The fact that you are debating a rebalancing of the tax portfolio, rather than increasing the people’s overall tax burden is evidence (not proof, but evidence) this body and the governor have exercised sound fiduciary responsibility over the recent past, during a nearly disastrous national recession and an anemic national recovery.

Gill pushed back in his commentary at The Star today:

While Tennessee currently has a surplus of a billion dollars AND an extra billion dollars in recurring revenue, the Governor is fighting against any an all efforts to spend ANY of that money on roads. He prefers to impose higher taxes on Tennessee drivers with a seven cent increase in the gasoline tax and a twelve cent increase in the diesel tax (plus additional fees and taxes) that will generate about $300 million a year more for state and local road projects.

State Representative David Hawk has proposed an alternate plan that would NOT include any higher taxes but would instead shift a quarter percent of the current sales tax to road funding rather than being left in the state’s general fund. The Hawk Plan would also generate about $300 million per year more for state and local road projects. So, either plan generates about the same in additional road funding but one plan raises taxes and the other doesn’t. If the need for more road money is the actual priority, then why would anybody oppose the Hawk Plan? Why would anybody support a huge tax increase to pay for roads when it can be accomplished WITHOUT a tax increase, particularly when the state has TWO BILLION DOLLARS in surplus and recurring revenue to allocate with our current tax rates?

The answer is simple and smoke and mirrors cannot hide the truth: it is not about the roads! The Governor and his cronies see that two billion dollars in extra money as THEIR money to spend on THEIR pet projects and personal priorities. Despite the fact that state spending has grown by about six billion dollars under Governor Haslam he still wants to spend even more to grow and expand government.

Hobbs and a number of other commentators on social media agree with Gill on this one.

“It is utterly immoral to raise taxes – any taxes, on any taxpayers – when the state has a multi-billion-dollar surplus. If the state has unfunded transportation projects, it should use the surplus to pay for them. It should not be raising taxes on anyone right now. It should be lowering taxes,” Hobbs wrote on his Facebook page.

“Ralph Bristol, that is what you should’ve told the legislature,” Hobbs said, adding:

And, yes, the governor’s gas tax plan is a tax increase. He claims it is revenue-neutral because the sales tax on groceries will be reduced, but here’s the thing he’s not telling you: The gas tax, under his plan, would be indexed to inflation – meaning it will continue to rise automatically forever – but the sales tax on groceries will not be indexed to decline automatically to offset it. The gas tax/sales tax tradeoff may be revenue neutral in year one but it is not revenue-neutral beyond that.

None of this is necessary at all. The state has huge revenue surpluses right now – more than enough to pay for a lot of transportation projects, and remove the sales tax from groceries, and not raise anybody’s taxes.

The Hawk plan handles the state’s transportation needs, revenue surpluses, and tax rates in a responsible, moral way. The governor’s plan does not.

Simple as that.

But Bristol disagrees.
“It is true that I have a somewhat nostalgic fondness for the gas tax as the closest thing to a user fee that exists in government today. With the possible exception of water and sewer services, I can’t think of another (or more important) government service that almost all people can afford to, and do, pay for based on how much of the service they use.  If other conservatives don’t think ‘paying your own way’ is a conservative ideological underpinning worth preserving in government, I’m happy to hear their explanation. So far, no one has offered one,” he told The Star on Tuesday afternoon:
 I’m also happy to fully discuss all of the issues Mr. Hobbs and/or Mr. Gill seem to think I’m ignoring. Based on the quotes in this article, it would appear that Mr. Hobbs, at least, has not availed himself of my actual testimony. Either that, or my communications skills are worse than I thought. I’m happy to try again.
If Mr. Hobbs or Mr. Gill, or both, are willing to debate the merits of my (I believe conservative) nostalgia for the gas tax , I would be happy to have them on my radio program, either in the studio, or by phone. Or, if they prefer at a neutral venue, that’s okay too.
If they want to come on the radio with me, I will give them as much time as needed – up to two of my broadcast hours – to fully discuss and debate, if necessary, all other relevant issues.

The two competing views will be on full display Wednesday when the House Transportation Subcommittee convenes to vote on Gov. Haslam’s gas tax increase and the competing Hawk Plan.

Americans for Prosperity will hold a rally Wednesday morning to oppose the governor’s plan.

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