Republican gubernatorial candidates at a forum in Williamson County Thursday expressed confidence in the state’s current tax structure and emphasized the need to improve the economy to put the state on better financial footing.
There was unanimity that there will be no personal income tax in Tennessee.
The candidates seemed very aware that Williamson County will be a key battleground in their primary battle. The forum was hosted by the Brentwood Cool Springs Chamber of Commerce at the Brentwood United Methodist Church.
The state operates heavily on a sales tax base that, when coupled with a local option, can reach 9.75 percent — which makes any increase in the sales tax unlikely in the near future. Therefore, candidates spoke of other ways of improving the state budget without raising taxes. Those focused mostly on creating jobs, generating the state’s economic engine, or by shrinking and redesigning state government.
“An income tax is not going to happen,” Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam said flatly. “I don’t think anyone on this panel is for it. The Legislature is not for it. We don’t have any choice but to restructure state government. It’s one of the reasons I decided to run.”
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, recalling the attempt to establish an income tax under former Republican Gov. Don Sundquist, said, “I battled the governor of my own party. I remember sitting beside then-state Sen. Marsha Blackburn. There is not going to be an income tax in Tennessee. I like the tax system in Tennessee. When you look at what other states are going through right now, all I can say is thank goodness we live in the state of Tennessee.”
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga focused on the size of government. “We need to remember, in 2000, 42,000 people worked for the state of Tennessee. Last year, 48,000 worked for the state of Tennessee,” Wamp said.
Then, referring to the fact Democratic candidates are scheduled to speak to the same group next month, Wamp said, “We need to shrink the footprint of state government. The people who are up here today are much more likely to do that than the people you’re going to see here next month.”
Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons said it’s a matter of efficient government.
“We have a consumption based tax,” Gibbons said. “The answer is to grow the economy. As you grow the economy, our revenue will grow.”
Gibbons provided the only real sharp jab at another candidate when he criticized Haslam for raising property taxes as Knoxville’s mayor.
Gibbons said he has a consistent record as a former city council member and county commissioner on balancing budgets.
“I want to talk about Mayor Haslam’s record, because frankly I think he has an ad on right now that is misleading,” Gibbons said. “The most important decision he made as mayor was his first year in office when he faced a budget shortfall, and rather than cutting the budget he decided to raise property taxes by 15 percent and increased the budget. That’s the most important decision he’s made.”
“Knoxvillians are paying 15 percent more in property taxes today as a result of Mayor Haslam’s management of the city,” he added.
Haslam responded, “I’m the only one sitting up here who’s ever had to prepare, propose and implement a budget, and the property tax rates in Knoxville are now the lowest rate in over 50 years. We don’t have the records before that. So it does have something to do with executive leadership.”
Gibbons took a later shot at Haslam on a question about privatizing roads.
“I’m certainly not in favor of Pilot Oil taking over any of the roads,” Gibbons said, a remark that seemed humorously intended, but inspired little response from the audience.
The most successful laugh line in the forum came from Ramsey, who, in response to an environmental question, said, “I saw the other day in Washington D.C. they were measuring the depth of snow by using Al Gore’s books.”
The biggest applause line came when Wamp said, “Global warming needs to be based on solid science, evidence and consensus. We’re not there yet.”
The candidates made several references to the needs of small businesses.
Ramsey said, “We’re not going to tax our way out of this problem. We’re not going to spend our way out of it. We’re going to grow our way out of it, and to do that it means making jobs our top priority. When I’m governor, I want every department in state government every day to ask before they leave their office, ‘What have I done today to help small businesses thrive?’”
Haslam said, “Thirteen months ago, at the time we announced, it was almost an innocent time. Unemployment was almost 8 percent, and now it’s almost 11 percent. We said the budget could end up $500 million-$600 million short, but it ended up $1.3 billion short. The issues are fairly obvious. Tennessee has a lot to sell. I know how to make hard choices.”
Referring to the Republicans’ standing against the Democrats, Wamp told the crowd, “I can assure you, you just had lunch with the 49th governor of the state of Tennessee.”
The primary is Aug. 5.