Opposing budget views divide local legislators

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   They were once affectionately known as Ralph and Rusty.
   It seemed like only yesterday Rep. Ralph Cole, R-Elizabethton, and Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, were appearing everywhere together. They touted new state projects for Carter County and talked up the importance of issues such as TennCare and improved funding for public education.
   Today, the two upstate lawmakers are estranged by the ongoing battle over how the state government should be funded.
   The schism between the two lawmakers appears to revolve around Cole's support of a budget that included a state income tax and Crowe's opposition to a state income tax.
   In the latest chapter, the House shot down Senate Bill 349 by a vote of 18-43 Sunday night, with 32 members abstaining. The vote came after the Senate voted 17-14 to pass the tax plan.
   The bill would have raised the state's sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent until Jan. 1, 2003. The constitutional convention would have been held in November where citizens would have voted for two prospects: a 1.5 percent increase in the state sales tax that would've raised around $940 million or a flat-rate 3.75 percent income tax, which would've generated $1.2 billion, according to the tax plan's summary.
   Upstate lawmakers Cole, Reps. Robert Patton, R-Johnson City, and Zane Whitson, R-Unicoi, voted yes for the bill as did Sen. Ron Ramsey, D-Blountville.
   Crowe and House members Reps. Jason Mumpower, R-Bristol, Steve Godsey, R-Blountville, and David Davis, R-Johnson City, voted against the bill.
   If voters had rejected the income tax, the state sales tax would've increased to 7.5 percent. This would push the combined state and local sales tax rate to as high as 10.25 percent in some parts of the state.
   "This is a critical time and it shouldn't have ever happened," said Cole of the partial state government shutdown. "I've known for four years where we were headed, because of the economists that were testifying that the sales tax was not going to hold up."
   Cole alluded that the upstate lawmakers who voted for the bill did so to prevent a state shutdown.
   Crowe said he voted against the tax plan because the "so-called convention" gave citizens only two choices of raising the state sales tax 1.5 percent or enacting the income tax.
   "It is a catch-22, Trojan horse situation," Crowe said. "If you are a voter who does not want an income tax, you have no choice but to vote for the sales tax, and 1.5 percent is the largest sales tax increase at one time in the state's history.
   "From my perspective, those in the House are pushing to force the income tax they want," said Crowe.
   The issues fueling the Ralph and Rusty rift has not gone unnoticed by two Republicans who are seeking to unseat the incumbent legislators for the Republican nomination in the state primary on Aug. 1.
   Crowe will face Kevin Cole of Johnson City in the Republican primary for the Senate's Third District seat. Elizabethton attorney Jerome Cochran has challenged Cole in the Republican primary for the Fourth District house seat.
   Their opponents' political ads have taken both lawmakers to task for their responses to the state's budget woes.
   In a press release issued Monday, Cochran faulted Cole for the state government's partial shutdown saying Cole "chooses to blame our local legislators instead of his taxing and spending friends in Nashville."
   His release stated that Cole had been unwilling to consider any other budget option and that he had continued to support a state income tax.
   Kevin Cole has claimed in political advertisements that he believed Crowe did vote for an income tax when he voted for House Bill 3364 on June 7.
   Crowe told the Star there had never been an income tax vote on the floor of the Senate. In a letter to the editor, he also said the vote to which Kevin Cole referred was to close a loophole on excise taxes, not implement a tax on personal income.
   Whoever wins the Republican nomination for the Third District Senate seat will likely face Democrat Richard D. Gabriel of Gray and independent candidate Charlie D. Mattioli of Elizabethton in the state general election come November.
   Whoever wins the Fourth District Republican primary will run unopposed in November.