10 06 2007

It’s survey time up here in Tennessee House District 50, and the first thing that I have to tell you is that the numbers are up. Last year, about 700 people participated in Representative Gary Moore’s survey—this year, more than double that many—1,635—responded, from a voter base of 22,000. I have no idea how representative this sample is—the results could be skewed several different ways –but it’s the only sample I’ve got, so let’s take a look around….

The first question is about the details of a recently passed state ballot initiative that allows local governments the option of providing tax relief to older, low-income landowners. Representative Moore asked his constituents what the definition of low-income should be, and got a widely scattered response, with $60,000 a year getting a plurality at 20%, followed by 50K at 14%, and 40K at 12.5%. This is very…generous, shall we say?–the federal definition of “low-income” is someplace around 20K for a couple, and everybody knows that’s too low. As someone whose annual income has never passed the twenty-thou mark, I have to say I find defining $60K a year as “low income” a bit breath-taking, especially in a global perspective. Most places in the world, a $60K a year income would make you one of the wealthiest people in the country; here, it might qualify you for tax relief. Of course, land taxes in this country are pretty crazy, driven as they are by development pressure. I say, make it easier for people to hold large tracts of undeveloped land. This is the GREEN Party, right?!

Question two was on raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour. Last year, this idea won approval from the 50th district by a 75-20 margin; this year, the proportion was 84-12. Meanwhile, the Tennessee Legislature failed to pass a badly flawed bill last year, and a different flawed bill this year. In another flawed bill story, the federal minimum wage was raised as part of the Iraq War funding bill that the Democrats cravenly passed. We’re going to kill thousands of innocent people in Iraq and bankrupt the United States; here’s some crumbs from the table for you poor folks. Thank you Rahm Emmanuel. Thank you, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. Thanks for nothin! Anyway, the Tennessee legislature’s failure to act has been superceded by the federal government, but at least it was a good idea and it got passed—and the poison-pill estate tax linkage that last year’s federal minimum-wage hike was saddled with was nowhere to be seen. In some small way, perhaps, reason is returning to America.

Gary’s third question is whether hospitals should be required to report “all cases of any kind of staph infection” to the State Health Department. Well, duh! 88 to 8 on that one! This ties in to the increasing incidence of antibiotic-resistant staph. Hey, all you people who don’t believe in evolution—this is evolution happening right here and now! In your body! Eating you alive! What we really need to do is revise our antibiotic prone medical model, but there’s more money in drug sales and research than there is in alternatives based in non-patentable procedures, so a faith-based approach is still called for: pray that you don’t get an antibiotic-resistant infection.

A whopping 82% also approve giving Tennessee residents who are combat veterans free education in state colleges, funded by the Tennessee lottery. I’d say so—the skill they learned in the military will, hopefully, not be much use over here—and how about throwing in therapy, too, for all the post-traumatic stress victims that the VA turns down?

Moore then asks if the fine for parking in a handicapped spot should be raised from one hundred to one hundred and fifty dollars. This received a 70% yes, 28% against, response. My response is, why are you asking such a trivial question?

Next came another repeat question from last year—should kids in school buses be required to wear seat belts? This question, only approved by a 45% plurality last year, now rates a 60% approval rating. with all the movement coming from the undecideds—a solid 30% still oppose this measure. Must be Bush supporters. Survival of the fittest, eh, guys?

Moore then returns to the public smoking question, which he referenced last year in a query about allowing municipalities to limit smoking in restaurants. That got a 72-22 pass; this year’s question, about the state banning it across the board, did not get nearly so enthusiastic a response—64-34. Nevertheless, it’s happened. Smoking is now prohibited in restaurants across the state—but not bars.

Question eight asks if the general assembly should “pass a resolution requiring the governor…to develop a long range comprehensive energy conservation plan for Tennessee,” and a good solid 77% of the respondents agree, with only a 15% “no” vote. In my commentary on Representative Moore’s poll last year, I noted that this was one of the missing questions, and I’m happy to see it not only included, but approved so solidly. Maybe there’s hope for Tennessee, after all. Of course, there are really awful energy proposals out there—ethanol, coal gasification, nuclear—so the devil will be in the details on this one. But it’s a start.

Question nine asks peoples’ opinions about allowing selected tax rates—on motels, hotels, car rentals and taxi fares—to to be raised to finance a new convention center in Nashville. This was shot down, 56-34, which again, I think, shows some sense on the part of the electorate. The days of hordes of high-rolling tourists are coming to a close, and there is no point in trying to lure more of them. Building a new convention center would be like starting a cargo cult, and people sense that and don’t want to put their faith (and hard-earned money) in a losing proposal. Here’s hoping it doesn’t happen.

The tenth question of the survey (last year Moore asked sixteen questions) asks what should be done with the tobacco-tax increase that, in truncated form, made it through the legislature. The governor’s idea, using it to fund education, was only the choice of 39% of respondents; the majority, 61%, wanted to see it used primarily to cut food taxes, which is not going to happen, leaving Tennessee’s sales tax one of the highest and most regressive in the country. Well, that ties in to the final question, “What are the most important issues you feel need to be addressed by the Tennessee General Assembly?” “Taxes” was the most common response, followed by health care and illegal immigration.

Just citing the importance of “tax reform” is an ambivalent statement—do people want to see taxes cut across the board, or rationalized? Is there an understanding that, in order to cut the crazy sales tax, we will need a state income tax (on the wealthy)? And health care is a difficult issue for a state to tackle—we need to not just make Medicare available to everyone, we need to reign in the pharmaceutical industry and the for-profit health-care system, and these are issues that will take courage and consensus at the national level. The Democrats are no doubt just as subservient to the medical special interests as they are to the military-industrial special interests, so it will take a real political revolution to make this happen.

People want it, the question is whether we can elect politicians who won’t be bought off—and that may take real election finance reform, another great idea that’s not likely to become reality any time soon. And immigration reform at the state level? Please note that Rep. Moore didn’t ask any questions about it this year. There’s a reason for that: it’s a federal question. Sometimes the best thing you can say about state government is that it doesn’t take any action on the big issues.

And “energy conservation,” while important, didn’t make the top three. “Energy conservation” is a code word for a whole can of worms that includes the bogeymen of global warming, peak oil, and the End of the American Way of Life As We Have Always Known It. In spite of some stirrings, most people in this district, at least, are still solidly socked into our cultural treadmill. They want it to go slower, or faster, or to have a wider tread or better safety rails, or they don’t want so many brown-skinned people on it, but it doesn’t seem to occur to most Americans to question the treadmill. That’s what the Green Party is doing. We’re questioning the treadmill—questioning the need for it, questioning who benefits from it, questioning how much longer it will be until it flies apart of its own inherent instability. Questioning how long it will be until Representative Moore, or his successor, asks those kind of questions when he or she queries the fiftieth district. Let’s hope that day comes soon.

music: Will Kimbrough, “Pride” 4 min




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