Jeff Hartline Commentary: In Tennessee, Growing Government is the New Faux ‘Conservative’

By Jeff Hartline

We hear from time to time the graying generation express “Fifty is the new Thirty” or we hear fashionistas tell us that “Red is the new Black”. In trying to piece together the policy “MOAB” that went off yesterday in the Tennessee General Assembly, we have concluded “Growing Government is the new faux ‘Conservative’ “.

How so, you say?

Well, for years conservatives have been hearing that all we need to get Tennessee back on track is to elect more Republicans. So, Tennessee voters did just that. In fact, the voters overachieved by electing a Republican Governor, seventy-four State Representatives (out of a possible 99) and twenty-eight State Senators (out of a possible 33). We heard “It matters who governs” and “We want to right-size government”.

So, how’s that working out for conservative policy?

Well, if you consider conservatism to be standing up for smaller and more limited government, more Constitutionally-focused government, less taxes, limited state spending, more efficiency, more transparency, less cronyism and focused attention on traditional family values, you have been sorely disappointed.

Politically-savvy individuals realize that when you have divided government, you must be willing to compromise on issues in order to get anything done. But in the six years of the Republican “Supermajorities” in the House and Senate, Leadership, the Governor and their reliable minions have done little to make anyone believe that they have one single Conservative bona fide.

While pounding their chests about balancing the budget, they proceeded to vote for six consecutive state budgets that have raised state spending from $28 billion to a proposed $37 billion, a 32% increase. (Would someone please give Barry Doss a new calculator as the one he is using seems to calculate the increase to be only 12%, or so he stated on the House floor yesterday.) Ladies and Gentlemen, this was not Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi jacking up your spending. These were Republicans.

While preaching the gospel of “right-sizing” government, they proceeded to give away free college to anybody and everybody, resulting in a combined University-rush to the nearest architect and contractor to build the buildings needed to handle the rush of new business.

While touting “Tennessee Values” and the faith-based culture that makes our state one of the most desirable in the nation, they ran for the Smokies when presented with legislation to oppose the SCOTUS homosexual marriage decision. (Keep in mind that 81% of voters already codified this in our State Constitution.)

They bellyached about what the NCAA was doing to North Carolina and refused to protect our girls from men coming into their bathrooms and locker rooms. “Too much of a hot potato”, we heard or “The President has changed that Executive Order”. (When pleaded with, the Republican Sponsor refused to give up that bill to another House Member to carry. That ghost is still in the machine.)

We have been inundated with claims of “We have cut taxes over $500 million and have reduced state employment.” Of course, when you outsource to companies upon whose Boards you sit, that tends to sour Tennesseans, especially those members of TSEA.

And about those $500 million in tax cuts, where, pray tell, did Tennessee taxpayers see the benefit? I suppose we’re supposed to get on our knees and thank the Governor for not raising the budget another $500 million in recurring spending, ’cause that’s where the “savings” went!

So, in the wake of the high drama of the Gas Tax Increase Debate we pause to offer some perspective on “Growing Government is the new faux “Conservative.”

What we have heard is that this legislation is the largest tax cut in Tennessee history as it codifies a reduction of $125 million per year in sales taxes on food, a $113 million decrease in Franchise and Excise Taxes (For selected manufacturing entities only.), and a reduction in the Hall Income Tax.

We pause to give the Governor the “Sly As A Fox” award for bundling a massive tax increase with lowering taxes on completely unrelated items.

As stated previously in Tennessee Spotlight, the Governor has been on the record for decreasing F&A, a business-killing tax, for years. For whatever reason, neither he nor conservatives in the Legislature have bothered to bring it forward, until now. It became convenient for purposes of hosing down the working man to attach it to this massive tax increase. Let us re-state: The Franchise & Excise Tax has nothing to do with infrastructure funding.

Regarding the attachment of the Hall Tax reduction, the Legislature has already approved a sunset of this tax. Once again, The Hall Income Tax has nothing to do with infrastructure funding. For some reason, they believe attaching it to this massive tax increase gives them the necessary cover with low-information voters for the next election cycle. Perhaps.

The only true “pocketbook-neutral” reduction in the legislation was the Sales Tax On Food reduction. The actual people who pay the tax at the pumps are the same people who pay the tax at the checkout. What they deserved was a dollar-for-dollar reduction.

But when “Growing Government is the new faux ‘Conservative'”, they came up short.

The biggest sham of this massive tax increase? The same people who voted to hose down the little guy will vote in a few weeks to take the “Surplus” sales taxes that Tennessee Taxpayers have already paid and grow government another $1.7 billion on a recurring basis!

One argument for raising any tax that seemed compelling to us was the fact that the mileage that trucks drive in our state (who also destroy the roads and bridges the most) is monitored and easily quantifiable. Unlike the crazy estimates that say 40% of the gasoline bought in Tennessee is bought by out-of-state drivers (How in heck does anybody know what this real number is? Maybe Big “Volunteer” Brother is actually filming license plates at Pilot Truck Stops!), we have a pretty good idea of what trucks are doing.

So, if the “User-Pays” advocates wanted to craft a legitimate bill, they should have (1) Avoided any increase in gasoline taxes, (2) Increased the diesel tax to account for truck damage to infrastructure, and (3) Reduced the sales tax on food to make up for the remainder and (4) present the plan to us like we’ve got sense instead of loading it up with false justifications. We realize that would have prevented the Governor from spending the $900 million slush fund on more government, but then, we thought Conservatives wanted to keep government small. Silly us!

Then the “Conservatives” could have gotten down to reducing the Franchise & Excise taxes like they should have done all along and continued to allow the sunset of the Hall Income Tax. So, now that “Growing Government is the new faux ‘Conservative'”, we’ll see how well the people who voted for the biggest tax increase in history “wear” their new fashion.

We’re confident that the folks who opposed this massive tax increase, including those who had ever thought about running for Senate or House, will be more than willing to explain to voters how this new “fashion” is passé in 2018.

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Jeff Hartline is the executive director of The Tennessee Spotlight.

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