- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn — It's 7:39 a.m., and Steve Gill is just heating up. . "Did you pick up the Tennessean this morning?" he bellows into the mike, referring to the local newspaper. "They're beating the drum in another attempt to deceive people that the income tax is dead. It's not dead. It's taking a nap. And like sleeper cells, it'll come back to life."
This is after he has monitored the morning commute and read through an announcement about a peace workshop at Vanderbilt University.
"Why," he asks, "don't the liberals at Vanderbilt ever have a workshop on security?"
Dressed in a screaming-yellow sports shirt adorned with a WTN-FM 99.7 radio logo and flanked by a Tennessee state flag, Mr. Gill, 45, is a down-home Rush Limbaugh doing morning drive on one of Nashville's most popular talk stations.
He even holds a countdown 113 days left until the end of Gov. Don Sundquist's term. Mr. Sundquist is a Republican who campaigned on a pledge that he would not support an income tax, then reneged.
Mr. Gill and kindred spirit Phil Valentine, an afternoon talk-show host on WLAC-AM 1510 radio, have become shapers of social policy in what may be the nation's wackiest tax revolt since the Boston Tea Party.
Last year, their combined efforts led to a near-riot during raucous demonstrations at the state Capitol against the state's 20-year effort to impose an income tax.
The crowd's storm-the-barricades approach especially terrified lawmakers the afternoon of Thursday, July 12, 2001. It all started when Republican state Sen. Marsha Blackburn sent a frantic e-mail to Mr. Valentine, who was on the air at the time.
Legislators were negotiating an end run around tax opponents by voting for the state's first-ever income tax, she told him.
Word went out on talk radio: It was time to storm the Bastille. Within a short time and in the midst of rush hour 1,000 to 2,000 demonstrators had filled the legislative plaza at Sixth Street and Charlotte Avenue, waving signs, honking horns and screaming, "No means no," "Tax revolt," and "No income tax."
They then rushed the Capitol. Three windows were broken. Those who managed to get inside the building proceeded to berate legislators in the hallways. One demonstrator hurled a rock through the office window of the governor, who was not there at the time. More than 100 state and local police were called to the scene to quell what some legislators called a "mob scene."
But the protest persuaded legislators to halt their plan, leaving Tennessee as one of eight states without an income tax, along with Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Wyoming and Washington state. But Tennessee's sales tax is as high as 9.75 percent in some counties, when local-option taxes are included.
Vigilance is the price of tax liberty, and the battle, says Mrs. Blackburn, is far from over.
"This has been a four-year fight," she says, "and the predominant public-policy issue here. We've had to win this fight over and over. The pro-tax crowd only fights this once," she said, because once passed, an income tax is almost impossible to repeal.
For now, the issue is on simmer, as the state is relying on tobacco-settlement money to meet its needs. But some legislators say they still need an income tax to shore up the state's low education spending, its faltering TennCare health system and other looming economic problems. State parks were closed for several months this year owing to lack of funding.
"States that don't have the [income] tax have huge oil or mining reserves," says Brian Miller of Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, a pro-tax group. "In Florida and Nevada's cases, they get so much tourism, they can do without it."
Tennessee would have long ago gone the way of Connecticut, which got an income tax in 1991, were it not, Mr. Gill says, for the Paul Revere-like role played by talk-show hosts.
"It's truly the battle our ancestors fought 200 years ago," he says. "We're saying, 'The taxes are coming, 'the taxes are coming.' It's the same battle: Is the government telling us how to spend money, or are we telling the government?"
Mr. Gill, Mr. Valentine and their allies decided it would be the latter.
"You have Rush Limbaugh and others at the national level parodying national politics, but you don't have as much local talk-show hosts working on local issues," Mr. Gill says. "David Letterman and Jay Leno don't make fun of state legislators.
"Because now of the immediacy of talk radio, e-mail and Web sites, people have been involved in government as it's happening.
"On this issue, we had the mainstream media and political parties against us. But technology changed the parameter of these debates. First, there were cell phones, which allowed people to interact. Then [broadcasters] reported on things as they happened."
And sometimes for 12 hours straight. Mr. Gill has often transferred his studio set to Legislative Plaza to hawk the news straight from the seat of government. Anytime a rumor of a possible vote seeps out, the "troops" often supporters pushing baby strollers, carrying flags and dressed up in Colonial costumes appear from the suburbs.
Once, when legislators were refusing to answer phone and e-mail messages about the income tax, several other talk-show hosts, including two from country and rock 'n' roll stations, also stationed themselves on the plaza, then instructed anyone opposing taxes to honk as they drove by.
"The theory was that [legislators] might not want to listen," Mr. Gill says, "but we can force them to hear."
He estimates he has spent 50 workdays broadcasting from the plaza, so to liven things up a bit, he engages in street theater. When state troopers were called out at one point, WTN played the Darth Vader theme music from "Star Wars." Mr. Gill dubbed himself "Obi Wan Gill," after one of the heroes in the movie, and talked of legislators retreating "to the Death Star."
Anne Demo, a politics and media professor at Vanderbilt University, credits Mr. Gill's effectiveness to his law degree in business and international law, a stint in Washington as a White House fellow and his experience as a congressional candidate in 1994, when he came within 900 votes of winning a House seat.
"That makes his show more credible because of his stance as a Washington insider," she said. "By getting their small group of listeners to make the scenes they do in front of the Statehouse, the local media then covers them and the talk-show hosts become a story in themselves."
However, both the Valentine and Gill shows get top ratings, and Mr. Gill appears on cable-TV each morning as well. As for pro-tax groups, they have taken an if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them approach by setting up their own tents on Legislative Plaza.
"They found a confrontational issue, they took a strong position and made money off of it," Mr. Miller says of Mr. Gill and Mr. Valentine. "But we have a wonderful group of citizens who are not willing to let talk-show hosts bully the people of Tennessee around."


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