I owe Sen. Jim Hill of Nashville an apology.
Monday morning, I sat in on the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee, where a seemingly unending list of tax exemptions and other corporate welfare compete for attention in the final days of the legislative session.
Hill called me over and said he wanted to take exception to something I’d said. He couldn’t recall what it was at first, but I guessed correctly. “Painting with too broad a brush?”
“That’s it,” he said.
He’s right. I apologize to those legislators who work more for the public interest than for narrow special interests. Sometimes, my criticism is overly broad. But it is also true that you can just about tell whether a bill is worthwhile by its sponsor (e.g. Sen. Bob Johnson) and an uncommon number of stinkers seem to be passing this session. Nonetheless, moments after Hill admonished me, I was an eyewitness to proof that he had a point.
The Senate committee turned down just about every single bill it considered Monday — from a sales tax exemption on airplanes purchased for a Fayetteville museum, to a tax break for insulating rental properties, to an increase in the income tax exemption for members of the military. These were piddling tax breaks. But imagine. Even uniformed Iraq war veterans days back from the battlefield got turned down.
This committee recognized its duty. The state is short of money. It is falling short of delivering what it promised the Supreme Court on school equity. More tax cuts will only make matters worse. On Wednesday, after this paper goes to press, the committee will meet again. If Monday was any guide, it might be a graveyard for more and bigger tax giveaways, including ones sought by the timber and wireless telephone industries. I know better than to be too optimistic, however.
I was particularly happy with the committee Monday for beating the Tax Increment Finance bill on a 3-3 vote. (Hill, who wasn’t present when the vote was taken, had already told me he opposed the bill, too.) Sen. Bobby Glover was a very quiet “no” and he’ll come under enormous pressure to switch when the bill comes up again. Sens. Paul Miller and Steve Higginbothom also sided with the schools against the revenue raid.
Glover and the others should hold fast. The TIF bill has been amended, but only cosmetically. Amid many words about blight, it still allows money to flow to new developments on previously unimproved land. An “absence of structures” is even a qualifier for a handout. And, while sponsors claim TIF benefits are win-win propositions, the list of agencies exempted from carrying the burden has grown to include libraries, community colleges, county hospitals and police and fire pension funds. If it’s a win-win deal, why has everyone but schools been protected from it?
Nobody has yet made a case why the government should be in the business of taking school tax growth — which has historically accommodated the regularly growing costs of schools — to subsidize retail development on unsuitable land, such as the swampy Dark Hollow. Nor can they do so, except by blind faith and exaggerated arithmetic. If they persuade this committee otherwise, I reserve my right to take back at least a bit of my apology to Senator Hill.
UPDATE: No good deed goes unpunished. Wednesday, after this column went to press, the Senate committee took up the TIF bill again and approved it 4-2. HIgginbothom switched sides to pass it.