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By Steve Hunley

By this time, readers of The Knoxville Focus realize you won’t find the voice of the political or business establishment inside these pages.  We have plenty of other local media for that.  Yet some folks are mighty slow in realizing the general public is growing more and more restive under the existing political establishment and elite.

There’s an old saying in business about not confusing the customer.  That’s at the bottom of precisely what’s wrong with the state of politics in this country. The difference between Democrats and Republicans is becoming a blur, hence the voter is becoming increasingly confused.  This has helped to lead to extremism in both parties; some can’t be far enough to the right and others cannot be far enough to the left.  Evidently, it’s almost as though one can’t be part of the existing political order without being an extremist.

Confusing the voter exists here in Tennessee and one excellent example is Governor Bill Haslam’s proposed road show to tell folks the State of Tennessee needs to hike the gas tax.  Presently, Tennesseans pay 21.4 cents per gallon of gasoline at the pump in state taxes.  The governor says we need more money to repair and maintain our roads, bridges, etc.  Not surprisingly, the same argument is being made in Washington, D. C. where Senator Bob Corker is arguing that much of America’s infrastructure is falling to pieces and the fix is increasing the national gasoline tax.  That would mean the gasoline tax would be raised on the national level, too. Again, this is confusing to the voter. If voters had wanted to pay more taxes at the federal level, more would have voted for Harold Ford, Jr. and not Bob Corker. And, if voters had wanted to pay more in state taxes, on gasoline or otherwise, more would have voted for a candidate that campaigned on raising their taxes.

In Tennessee, the gas tax is supposed to be a dedicated tax, which means it is solely and exclusively for that particular purpose.  During the administrations of one Republican and one Democrat, Don Sundquist and Phil Bredesen respectively, the governors felt the need, during a so-called fiscal crisis, to raid the road fund.  That raid amounted to almost $300 million; $280 million to be specific from what I understand.  The raid was accomplished with the aid and consent of the state legislature at the time.  Was the money ever paid back into the road fund?  Why, of course not.

Very few voters are ever shocked to learn that dedicated taxes have been diverted to pay for some other, more “pressing need” at the time.  Yet here come the politicians squawking a certain fund is either dangerously low or depleted and we need more money, which means higher taxes.

Some of the leadership in the Tennessee General Assembly has already sent warnings to the governor they don’t intend to hike the gasoline tax.  Some legislators have said so by inference, others have been more direct, but the meaning is the same.  The only Republican in the state who seemed to be surprised when his Insure Tennessee legislation didn’t even get out of committee was Bill Haslam.  Apparently, the governor didn’t take home any lesson from that experience and feels that if he will just go out amongst the people, the voters then will persuade legislators to support an increase in the gasoline tax.  That isn’t going to happen.  A few legislators, like Senator Mark Norris, have stated that they believe the road fund should be repaid the $280 million that was purloined in the first place.  That is a smart start.  Part of the raiding was to pay for escalating costs in providing health care by the State of Tennessee.  It is hardly a coincidence that Governor Haslam is seeking more money now for both roads and health care.

Haslam has presided over a surplus in state funds of some $550 million.  Of course the bigger the surplus, the more vultures it attracts who see a sizeable pile of money as cash they can spend if only they can get their hands on it.  Special interests circle that kind of money like sharks smelling blood.  You have local governments sniffing around, hoping the state government can “find” more money for them to spend as well.  The surplus won’t stay intact for long and it makes more sense to replace the $280 million from the gasoline tax from that same surplus.

Recent elections cannot be much of a comfort to the governor and one can be sure Republican legislators read the results just as well as anyone.  The governor isn’t going to move the leadership of his own party in the General Assembly to support a hike in the gasoline tax, nor do I think he will move public opinion.

Again, I think one reason inexperienced, oftentimes extremist candidates win elections is because people are mad, frustrated and see little or no difference between Republicans and Democrats.  The voter is pretty darned confused at this point.  The end result is like running in a circle; nothing ever gets done, no problem is solved, and the level of anger and frustration continues to increase.

Political sleight of hand is out of fashion and folks just aren’t in the mood to be fooled again. A good businessman can’t raid one aspect of his business and simply make up the difference by jacking up prices and stay in business.

Neither can the State of Tennessee.