One of the cardinal rules of politics is never to propose a tax increase right before the elections. Evidently that is a rule little understood by The Knoxville News-Sentinel and the Chamber of Commerce. Of course the two have long been in lock-step together and now might as well be Siamese twins, co-joined at the hip. In fact, now the new head of the Chamber is Patrick Birmingham, none other than the publisher of the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
For the past year, the Sentinel and the Chamber have been busily telling the rest of us what we should do; pay more taxes to prop up the administration of Superintendent of Schools James McIntyre, and allow the Chamber to do as it pleases, when it does anything at all.
A new poll published by the Sentinel and paid for by Randy Boyd, a special advisor to Governor Bill Haslam on education, and a few other Chamber types, purported to show some 57% of registered voters in Knox County were willing to pay more taxes if it all went to education. As you recall, it was some Chamber members who paid $50,000 on a failed advertising campaign to persuade the Knox County Commission to pony up 35 million new tax dollars at the request of School Superintendent McIntyre last year.
Few people believed the numbers in the poll recently published by the Sentinel, so The Knoxville Focus asked the very same question of more than 1100 likely voters and the results were astounding. Almost three quarters of likely voters responded they did not support any tax increase even if every penny went to support education. Clearly, the Chamber poll was conducted and run to set the table for a another run at a tax increase to meet whatever request McIntyre comes up with this year. The poll would gently indicate County Commissioners would have some cover with a public sympathetic to needs for schools. Unfortunately, the exact opposite is true.
Mayor Tim Burchett was an implacable foe of increasing taxes, proving to be a bulwark against any tax increase. Burchett even went so far as to threaten to veto any tax increase the Commission might pass. Not a single member of the Knox County Commission made a motion to increase taxes following a flood of angry emails and telephone calls from outraged citizens. That left both the Sentinel and Chamber looking politically impotent after having done everything in their power to influence the Commission on behalf of McIntyre.
Infuriated, Burchett became an opponent of the Sentinel and the Chamber elite, with the Sentinel retaliating by siding with the Mayor’s ex-wife in a supposed investigation of Burchett’s campaign finances. That went nowhere and the Mayor, largely because of his refusal to knuckle under, is more popular than ever.
The campaign season is already underway. Members of the Knoxville City Council will be running again this year and candidates for county offices will be planning their campaigns for the primaries in May of 2014. Dr. Richard Briggs has already announced his candidacy to challenge State Senator Stacy Campfield in the Republican primary. Every move Briggs makes for the next year will be scrutinized. Briggs will almost certainly not hop on to the Chamber bandwagon for a tax increase as it would give Campfield a potential lethal issue to save himself in a reelection campaign. Briggs likely knows the Chamber-types have nowhere else to go and will almost certainly contribute to his campaign. If Briggs tried to cater to the Chamber-types, he risks giving Campfield perhaps his only feasible path to victory.
Those Commissioners with other aspirations or even the desire to be reelected will all likely shy away from any request to increase taxes so close to an election.
Two failed attempts to go to the tax well with every public advantage isn’t going to do much to add to Superintendent Jim McIntyre’s luster; in fact, even the politically challenged members of the Board of Education might finally deduce if they want more money, they likely will have to find a different public face to ask for it.
The political reality is most contests will be decided in the Republican primary and hard core GOP voters aren’t going to be sympathetic to the Sentinel-Chamber partnership. Governor Haslam isn’t going to recommend a tax increase to the solidly Republican General Assembly for education or anything else.
The political atmosphere has changed locally, yet neither the Chamber nor the Sentinel have caught on to it.