Upstate's house is a House divided

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

  
The ayes don't have it.
   At least, not unanimously, in the Tri-Cities area of Northeast Tennessee where eight members of the state House of Representatives remain divided in their votes over the latest bill designed to overhaul the state's tax structure.
   "I just don't understand when folks know where the state budget is now they can let this happen," said Ralph Cole, R-Elizabethton on Thursday afternoon.
   Cole was joined by Reps. Robert Patton, R-Johnson City, Keith Westmoreland, R-Kingsport, and Zane Whitson, R-Unicoi, in voting "yes" to House bill 2957 Wednesday afternoon.
   The full House voted 49-45 against the bill that would've implemented a 4.5 percent tax on personal income and upped the "sin tax" levied on alcoholic beverages and cigarettes.
   The bill also repealed the 6 percent state sales tax on most food items, over-the-counter drugs and the firsts $500 on purchases of clothing items.
   Rep. Ken Givens, D-Rogersville, also voted yes for the tax plan, according to the House voting results.
   Area Reps. Jason Mumpower, R-Bristol, Steve Godsey, R-Blountville, and David Davis, R-Johnson City, voted against the bill.
   "My vote is a reflection of the people of my district," said Mumpower who represents Johnson County and a portion of Sullivan County.
   "I think it was very important and a part of the process that we had an accounting of yeas and nays. Now what I think we need to let the votes on the board speak for itself."
   Had 50 House members voted "no", the bill would have been defeated and could not have been re-introduced to the full House. Instead, the legislation was returned to the House Calendar and Rules Committee.
   Mumpower said the weak U.S. economy coupled with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 had sent several states' budgets into a revenue tailspin.
   "We need look no further than our neighboring states of Virginia and North Carolina -- both that have state income taxes -- that have been in actual worse financial shape than Tennessee is in," said Mumpower.
   Virginia has wrestled with a projected $1.2 billion budget shortfall for the state's 2002 budget.
   North Carolina faces a potential $530 to $804 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year based on revenue growth or contraction, according to the state's Budget and Tax Center.
   Tennesee tax plan proponents have said the state needed around $740 million to keep current government programs going and almost another $700 million to fund new programs.
   Mumpower said the state's TennCare program continued to impair the state's revenue structure.
   He said while the TennCare program had been a great benefit to many citizens, the system was "fundamentally flawed" when it came to financial management.
   "If we don't revamp TennCare, it is only a matter of time before the problems with the TennCare system might bleed away any new revenue we might bring into the state," he said.
   Cole classified the debate as a standoff between the state's metropolitan areas of Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga, where pockets of income tax opposition were strong, versus the state's rural sectors.
   He recalled a similar floor debate regarding the Basic Education Plan (BEP) that passed the House in 1992 by a margin of four votes.
   Cole said that K-12 education funding measure championed by then governor Ned McWherter came as a lifeline to some state school systems that were on the verge of closing due to financial problems.
   Legislators who spoke with the STAR expected the bill to be brought back to the floor when the Legislature reconvened next week.
   The Legislature's next session is scheduled for Wednesday.
   Lawmakers have only two days of 90 days allotted that they can be paid for their work during the regular legislative sessions.
   "We've gone through this before and we'll go through it again," said Mumpower of the revenue debate, "and that's something we have to be better prepared to face in the future."