Along with his agenda for this year’s legislative session, Gov. Bill Haslam should have handed out Republican election campaign fliers: Vote for State Rep./Sen. [Fill in the blank]: Cuts Taxes, Fights Crime.
That beats the alternative at this point for the state’s new Republican majority, which might read like this: Vote for State Rep./Sen. [Fill in the blank]: Strips Teachers of their Rights, Makes It Harder for Grandma to Vote.
Republicans hoping to solidify their large legislative majority in the 2012 elections have been salivating at the prospect of running on broadly popular accomplishments — not those of last year’s session, which were aimed at appealing to the rabid base of their supporters.
As the legislature convened last week, the governor made the GOP’s dreams come true by proposing reductions in the state grocery and inheritance taxes along with an array of anti-crime bills cracking down on domestic violence, street gangs and meth cookers.
Only a couple weeks ago, Haslam was cool toward the tax cuts, saying the state’s finances weren’t strong enough, but he said an improving budget picture changed his mind.
Doing away with the inheritance tax — or the death tax, as Republicans love to call it — has been a staple of party platforms for decades. Haslam wants to raise the exemption from $1 million to $1.25 million. He called it the first step toward ending the tax on estates worth up to $5 million, the level of the federal exemption. The first year will cost the state treasury $14 million. Annually, only about 200 estates pay this tax.
Adopting the mantra of economic supply-siders, Haslam sells the estate tax cut as win-win for Tennessee, claiming it actually will increase state revenue in the future. Republicans insist the tax hurts Tennessee’s economy, chasing away job-creating capital, although they have yet to offer evidence of that.
“There’s a whole lot of people who used to live in Tennessee who don’t anymore because it’s cheaper to die in Florida,” Haslam said. “I can tell you a whole lot of people who spend less than half their year in Tennessee to avoid that estate tax specifically. They’re taking capital and creating jobs other places. It truly is small businesses and family farms that are impacted by this, both of which we want more of in Tennessee, not less. I honestly think this creates more revenue for the state in the long term.”
The governor proposed decreasing the state sales tax on food from 5.5 percent to 5.3 percent this year, and he said he wants to drop it to 5.0 percent in the next three years.
While the cost to the state treasury is $18 million this year — no small amount — the tax cut will go unnoticed by all but the most penny-pinching of consumers. On a grocery purchase of $100, you will save 20 cents. Toss an extra packet of ramen noodles in your grocery cart!
Politically, the dividends are greater. It gives Republicans a way to counter the argument that their inheritance tax cut proves all they care about is the wealthy. Cutting the food tax also pulls the rug out from under Democrats. They have been demanding that Haslam do just what he’s doing, figuring
he wouldn’t, and they could run on this issue in 2012.
“If we’re going to lower taxes for Tennesseans, that’s the only way to really touch every Tennessean in a significant way,” Haslam said.
The governor’s legislation is something of a snub of Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, the Tea Party conservative who ran against Haslam in 2010’s GOP primary. Ramsey is against a grocery tax cut but favors phasing out the state’s Hall tax on income from interest and dividends. House Speaker Beth Harwell — a Haslam ally — had been pushing for the inheritance tax cut, and she won. She was by Haslam’s side at last week’s media event to announce the governor’s proposals. Ramsey didn’t attend, and he said later he will continue to push for Hall tax cuts.
“That fight’s not over yet, OK?” he said.
On the crime issue, Haslam called for tougher sentences for gang-related crimes and for gun possession by offenders with prior felony convictions. He wants to mandate prison time for repeat domestic violence offenders.
His legislation also includes requiring physicians and pharmacists to check the state prescription drug database before writing or filling painkiller prescriptions. The administration is developing a real-time database to track purchases of pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in meth. There’s also a proposal to send nonviolent drug offenders to drug courts across the state, not prisons.
The anti-crime legislation is projected to cost the state $6 million in the first year, but Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons said there are savings in the future — including $4 million a year to stop locking up nonviolent drug users, and $10 million to cut in half the number of children who are taken into state custody from homes where the parents use meth.
Also as part of his legislative package, Haslam called for revamping the civil service system to make it easier to hire and fire state employees, for restructuring the state’s 22 boards and commissions to eliminate inefficiencies, and for changing the law to let school systems give merit pay to teachers.
“These bills reflect my priorities in moving Tennessee forward by focusing on issue that make a difference through performance, accountability and efficiency in state government,” Haslam said.