Courtesy of Republicans who run state government, voters might have to decide whether to amend the state constitution not once, not twice but three times in the 2014 election. Democrats say it’s all aimed at arousing conservatives and bringing them en masse to the polls.
The proposed amendments would ban the state income tax, strip abortion rights from the constitution and enshrine the state’s yes/no retention elections for Tennessee’s highest judges. All are issues conservatives are excited about, but Democrats point out each amendment arguably is unnecessary — except as a mechanism to increase Republican turnout.
No one has gotten behind the income tax in a decade — not since Gov. Don Sundquist tried it and was publicly vilified along with just about every politician who sided with him. Besides, the constitution already seems to prohibit that tax.
Even if voters approve the anti-abortion amendment, abortions will remain legal as long as Roe v. Wade is the law of the land. And judges have been selected in up-or-down elections since the 1970s, so why amend the constitution now? The answer is politics, said state Democratic Party chairman Chip Forrester.
“You have to question the timing and motivation behind these efforts, because these ideological issues aren’t even on the radar for most voters. The top priority throughout the state is creating jobs, but that’s barely a footnote on the majority’s agenda,” Forrester said.
“Republicans are in charge, they control what gets debated, and the simple truth is that they’d rather resurrect a tired old boogeyman than lift a finger to put people back to work.”
“We do two things up here,” said House Democratic Party chairman Mike Turner. “We play politics. Then after politics, we get around to governing. The GOP majority hasn’t gotten around to governing yet. They’re still playing politics.”
Republicans insist there are legitimate reasons to amend the constitution now on all three issues.
The state Supreme Court has ruled three times — most recently in 1964 — that the constitution already prohibits an income tax. But the state attorney general issued an opinion in 1999 saying the tax was permissible. Republicans say a constitutional amendment is needed to resolve the issue.
“I’ve got my state constitution out, and even though it clearly says there’s not to be a state income tax in Tennessee, we know we don’t have to go very far to find a judge who will say it doesn’t say what it says. That’s what has happened before,” House GOP leader Gerald McCormick said this month when the House voted 73-17 for the resolution to put the question to voters.
McCormick noted acidly that the last income tax debate — which attracted angry protesters to the Capitol — is “a good part of the reason Republicans have 64 seats in the Tennessee House right now.”
Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, warned Republicans the state might wind up without any means of financing core services unless Congress starts letting states tax Internet sales. The inability to tax online purchases from outside-the-state retailers already is knocking an ever-growing hole in Tennessee’s finances.
“I’m standing before you today telling you that if they do not do this in just a very short period of time, probably in the next decade we’re going to have smaller government, all right, because we won’t have enough money to run this government,” Curtiss said.
The Senate adopted the income tax resolution last year. Now it needs to pass the next General Assembly by a two-thirds vote — a sure bet — and it will go on the 2014 ballot.
The abortion resolution already has been placed on the ballot. Amending the constitution would nullify a 2000 Tennessee Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Sundquist. The court ruled the state constitution affords stronger protection for abortion rights than does the U.S. Constitution.
According to pro-lifers, this means that certain restrictions on abortion upheld by the nation’s highest court can’t be imposed in Tennessee. They say they want to enact what they call common-sense regulation of abortions. But federal courts surely would strike down laws that trample on abortion rights. Examples are attempts to force women to look at ultrasounds of their fetuses or to obtain death certificates after abortions. A waiting period probably is the strongest restriction that could withstand a court test, legal experts say. A parental consent law already is on the books here.
Gov. Bill Haslam, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell joined together to propose the third amendment last week. They want to amend the state constitution to delete language that seems to require contested elections of judges. They say they hope to put to rest questions about the constitutionality of the current yes/no elections as our system. The amendment would, in fact, establish the current system in the constitution, knocking the legs out of the argument made by social conservatives for contested elections of judges.
“I believe the current process has worked well during my time in office, and I’ve been pleased with both the quality of candidates and the process for choosing them,” Haslam said. “The judiciary is the third and equal branch of government, and we are here to make this recommendation because we believe it is important to our constitution to clearly reflect the reality of how we select judges.”
Haslam, Ramsey and Harwell pledged to campaign for the amendment with voters, making approval likely. Haslam said he expects the vote to give “clarity and finality” to the debate. But there’s some risk. What if voters reject the amendment? Haslam isn’t ready to say that would force a switch to contested elections.
“Who knows what would happen then?” the governor said. “I don’t know what I would say at that point. I would still be of the opinion that doing it the way we do it now is the best system.