To the Editor:
Last weekend there appeared on this page, as it often has, the weekly self-report of legislative activity by the Republican/Tea Party-controlled Tennessee House of Representatives. No longer adorned by a photo of our own State Representative, Mary Littleton, the report included one or two seemingly benign items but also the usual diet of negative, wrong-headed information designed to distract Tennessee voters from the fact that nothing is being done to address their needs and problems except to make them worse. Indeed, so far this legislative session has achieved nothing of consequence other than (possibly) putting wine on sale (some day) in your neighborhood grocery or convenience store.
First, the March 22 House report bragged that it had voted not to allow the Federal government to impose its “educational standards” on Tennessee, and to delay implementation of the Common Core curriculum designed for the nation’s public schools. A week later, however, the chances of these hare-brained proposals’ becoming law had been dramatically reduced, as even Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey seems to have recognized the foolishness of throwing away all the work that had been done on Common Core. Presumably Ramsey, Governor Bill Haslam, and many others in both parties understood that the Common Core system was not fiendishly devised by Federal bureaucrats to cloud children’s minds, but rather was a grassroots phenomenon involving governors, legislators, and educators in many states, Democrats and Republicans alike. Its primary goal is to equip children with the basic skills needed for citizenship, and to teach them how to think about things rather than what to think. No wonder the Tea Party is opposed.
But the whole dust-up about Common Core is not about its technical merits, which almost certainly will require ongoing adjustment; what it really reflects is the knee-jerk opposition of so many conservative Republicans to any form of external assistance, guidance, or direction. This session has featured Republican-sponsored bills not only to delay or derail Common Core implementation, but also to do away with all forms of Federal gun laws or regulations, and with most if not all utilization of the Federal healthcare exchange—all in addition to the governor’s and legislature’s continued rejection of virtually cost-free Federal health insurance for hundreds of thousands of low-income Tennesseans. (Not to mention an offensive and unconstitutional, but still pending, bill to prohibit school districts from sending families information by any means about the Affordable Care Act, plus denial of most other forms of intergovernmental cooperation.)
We need this outside assistance because we have not demonstrated an ability to educate our children very well, because we have not been able to keep our citizens from shooting and killing each other (and indeed have continued to facilitate such behavior), and because we have not been able to provide our less fortunate fellow citizens with decent health care or with the means to purchase such care. But rather than seek these benefits, Tea Partisans continue to bemuse the voters with legislative and political histrionics, so that our citizens may believe they need protection from the very programs that can improve their quality of life. The prevalence of these “hell no” measures also ignores the fact that as one of the 50 states, Tennessee cannot pick and choose which Federal laws it wishes to observe, what with the doctrine of nullification’s having fallen out of fashion.
Perhaps the most unnerving feature of the House report’s treatment of educational issues is its Republican authors’ expressed determination to “protect Tennessee values” by meddling with public school curricula. What are these “Tennessee values” we are always hearing about, and who decides on their application? If what goes on in the House of Representatives, and appears in its weekly reports, is a reflection of the values to be passed on to future generations, then all is surely lost and Jon Stewart’s TV ratings are guaranteed in perpetuity. What needs to happen instead is that the children of the state be given the opportunity to think their way to their own set of values that will combine with others’ to create a new and better day for Tennessee.
One limiting value held by many Republican office-holders has been that money is more important than human lives—in particular that protecting rich people’s money from taxation is more important than protecting the less fortunate from deprivation of health, well-being, and the possibility of a life of meaning. So it is hard to know what to make of another item in last week’s Republican House report to the effect that Tennessee continues to reduce its bonded indebtedness and has been hailed as “the lowest debt state in the nation.” One’s initial reaction to this news tends to be “So what?” Lower debt, the report explains, means lower interest on State obligations, which “translates into substantial savings for Tennessee taxpayers. … [T]he conservative principles and sound fiscal policies implemented in our state are paying dividends for our taxpayers.”
Yes, but what kind of dividends for which taxpayers? If the report said the state’s frugality was making it possible to provide more benefits and services to individuals for the same amount of money, that would be one thing; but that is not the point the report is trying to make, nor is it the aim of the state, which is to ensure safe, low-risk returns for the investor class or ideally, no risk at all. If the state were doing more for its constituents, more buildings and equipment would be provided which would require more funding and therefore more borrowing, leading to an increase rather than a reduction in the amount of debt. But it would be good debt, both in the sense that it would still be relatively safe and that it would be employed for socially beneficial ends rather than simply to reward the rich and reinforce economic inequality. So the kind of debt reduction the House Republicans are talking about should not be viewed as good or bad but merely as evidence of foregone opportunities.
Finally, the Republican House congratulates itself for passing a resolution calling for a national convention of the states that would adopt a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While the final text of such a radical measure cannot be determined at this stage, the idea would be that federal revenues and expenditures would have to balance each year no matter what. There are already federal laws in place to try to control annual deficits, and of course there are always good old-fashioned self-discipline and bipartisan cooperation (that neither party has ever been able to maintain); but a balanced budget constitutional amendment, unless shot through with exceptions, would be like a movie-style doomsday machine that could not be stopped or suspended even in a dire emergency.
The current Republican push for such an amendment, supported by almost every leading party figure, traces back to the $800 billion stimulus package that the Obama Administration enacted early in its first term with virtually no Republican support, even though the effort had begun while George W. Bush was still president and though the stimulus was needed to stave off the possible collapse of not only the American but the entire world economy. The only substantive flaw in the stimulus, as many Democrats pointed out at the time, was that it was not large enough. Now, of course, with the economy creeping back to near-normal status, no Republican can be found to say a good word about the stimulus’ beneficial effects.
But what if an ironclad balanced budget were in effect and a series of unforeseen catastrophes occurred—such as a major escalation requiring our intervention in the current Crimean crisis or somewhere else halfway around the world, continuing climatological destruction along the lines of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, or another national or global recession necessitating emergency unemployment compensation, other humanitarian measures, and a massive infusion of funds to keep the economy functioning? Such vital responses would not be possible without first undertaking a years-long process of un-amending the Constitution, if possible, by which time untold harm would already have occurred. Almost certainly the Republicans and their corporate clientele, being relatively immune to most of the damage, would not agree to re-balance the budget by giving up some of their tax advantages.
Seen in this light, the proposal for a balanced budget amendment poses much the same danger as the state constitutional amendment on this year’s ballot that would forever ban enactment of a personal income tax in Tennessee. Surely no one thinks that, constitutional amendment or not, any major politician would risk his future by proposing anything now that even sounds like such a tax; so there is no immediate need for such an amendment. But what about the future—who knows what it may bring? Already we see needed programs here being cut to the bone—in mental retardation and developmental disabilities, mental health, children’s services, nursing home care, and of course in the self-inflicted wound of rejecting literally billions of dollars in expanded TennCare assistance—down even to the level of home-visit programs designed to build healthy families and reduce the scourge of child abuse. At the same time, the Republicans have been systematically eliminating major sources of revenue—e.g., inheritance taxes, gift taxes, and (sooner or later) taxes on interest and dividends, all of concern primarily to the rich, while raising sales taxes on everyday items just about as high as they can go.
In another year or two of “no new taxes,” some departments of state government will be virtually bankrupt for all practical purposes and Tennessee citizens will be actually be destitute or dying for lack of basic supports. As Brandon Puttbrese wrote on the “Speak to Power” website last month, “After several years of GOP tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, this year, Tennessee has a more than $200 billion budget shortfall. … For Tennessee Republicans, all the budget ‘balancing’ will be at the expense of the working families and the poor. If Republicans stopped putting millionaires and special interests ahead of everyday Americans, we could have a balanced budget.” But if, as is now the case, Republicans have no intention of changing course—and if, some day, a new leadership emerges to clean up these corrupt arrangements—no possible remedy, not even a state income tax, should be categorically placed out of reach.
MICHAEL S. LOTTMAN