The spirit of tax rebellions

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TAX REVOLT: THE REBELLION AGAINST AN OVERBEARING, BLOATED, ARROGANT, AND ABUSIVE GOVERNMENT

By Phil Valentine, Nelson Current, $24.99, 256 pages

More than a quarter century ago Californians rebelled against an overbearing political establishment. Property assessments were climbing, state expenditures were rising, the budget surplus was expanding and government officials were lying. Voters responded by passing Proposition 13, triggering tax revolts nationwide. The movement has waxed and waned over the years, but the stories rarely cease to inspire. As does the tale spun by Phil Valentine, a Tennessee talk-radio personality who helped stop the bipartisan drive for a state income tax. “Tax Revolt” offers a delightful read, detailing betrayal and deceit, and big-bucks lobbying and horn-honking rallies.

The story began in 1999, when Republican Gov. Don Sundquist abandoned his anti-tax campaign pledge to push a state income tax. Mr. Sundquist was joined by the legislature’s Democratic leadership and a who’s who of special interests. The campaign was based on two premises. First, only tax increases could preserve vital programs. For instance, the teachers union raised a hue and cry about protecting “children.” Second, tax advocates played the demagoguery card, demonizing their revenue targets. They attacked businesses and wealthy individuals who supposedly weren’t paying their “fair share.”

But the governor made the mistake of challenging Mr. Valentine to read the budget and find programs to cut. The latter started asking questions. Why, for instance, was the state spending $24 million for four new golf courses? As in California in 1978, the fiscal crisis, reflected excessive spending. The objective of the tax increase was not more money to provide critical social services or close a budget gap, but more money to fund more special-interest projects. As popular opposition rose, supporters realized that their only hope for victory was stealth and deceit.

Which is whereMr. Valentine begins his story. On Friday, June 9, 2000, he received a phone call alerting him that the legislature planned an unpublicized Saturday session to rush through the tax. “This Saturday vote,” his informants explained, “was not merely happenstance. It was a concerted effort … to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.”

Mr. Valentine called his producer and arranged a special Saturday performance: “I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t at least put up a fight.” He joined with another talk-show host, Steve Gill, to set up outside the Capitol. Thousands of citizens soon gathered. Hundreds of others circled the legislature honking their car horns. Plans for an immediate vote collapsed, as nervous lawmakers dithered.

The legislature reconvened on Monday, but Mr. Valentine and Mr. Gill, backed by more protesters and horn honkers, also returned. Weeks, months and years of political intrigue ensued. The politicians and interest groups wanted more money. And they stopped at nothing to get it.

Mr. Valentine details the intricate legislative maneuvering. The saga is an entertaining political thriller: sneak attempts to hold a vote, vilification of opponents, brutish police tactics, fearful politicians cowering before their constituents, and political promises broken. The end came on May 22, 2002, when the state House defeated the tax. After plotting for years, Democratic Speaker Jimmy Naifeh thought he had the vote wired. But Mr. Valentine and other talk-show hosts again called out the crowds. A few yes votes quavered, and Mr. Naifeh, after holding the vote open for nearly two hours, finally conceded defeat.

Victory was sweet, but the political backwash was equally impressive. Some supporters of the tax increase retired. Others were defeated. The governor suffered political death — ignored by President Bush when he visited Tennessee in 2002 to campaign for Senate candidate Lamar Alexander.

Although the Tennessee story is the core of Mr. Valentine’s book, he also surveys past tax revolts. He looks at the American Revolution, when the Sugar Act, Stamp Act and Townshend Acts pushed Americans into military action against the greatest empire on earth. Citizen militancy, or at least a willingness to rebel over taxes, obviously has ebbed, but the spirit of rebellion remains. And Mr. Valentine devotes a chapter to more recent protests, beginning with Proposition 13. Not all initiatives win, but Mr. Valentine offers helpful advice on how to organize against the political establishment.

Taxes may be inevitable, but high taxes are not. As Mr. Valentine observes, “Low taxes, a good economy, and a great quality of life can certainly coexist.” But not if politicians have their way with disturbing regularity. Liberty requires eternal vigilance, warned Thomas Jefferson. We can all be thankful that the citizens about whom Phil Valentine writes took Jefferson’s admonition seriously.

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