By Phil Schoggen

Tennessee is considering a proposal to amend the state Constitution to prohibit any tax on incomes or payroll. This resolution would render the state forever dependent on our sales tax, now one of the highest in the nation.

Buried deep in the proposal is a provision that would skirt the Constitution and abandon traditional procedure by declaring that posting an internet notice of the amendment on the Tennessee Secretary of State's or the Tennessee General Assembly's web site would satisfy the Constitution's requirement for official public notice. In the past this notification requirement has been met by publishing notices in newspapers across the state. The purpose of changing the publication method is to reduce the cost of providing the notice.

The problem with the proposed method of providing public notice is that 35 percent of Tennessee households do not have internet access at home and 25 percent do not have internet access anywhere. Voters and community leaders are accustomed to receiving notice in the traditional manner, in their local newspaper. No one knows how effective such a notice would be if published on the internet only. If the public remains uninformed about such serious change in the method of providing a notice, it amounts to legislative action without public awareness.

Amending the Constitution is a momentous undertaking with long-lasting consequences. It should not be easy and it should not be attempted without careful consideration. Amending the Constitution in a way that limits the General Assembly's future options for generating revenue is a risky proposition and a statement of exaggerated self-esteem. It says "We, in this General Assembly, know every circumstance that could possibly occur in the future. None of them could justify ever having an income tax and we don't trust our successors in future General Assemblies to not pass an income tax."

It’s not hard to imagine circumstances that would call for an income tax. A depression or another severe recession might reduce revenue to the extent that an income tax becomes essential to the continuation of a state government that serves its citizens adequately.

An earthquake on the New Madrid fault or a severe outbreak of tornados will require funding for relief and reconstruction efforts that exceeds the capacity of the existing tax structure which is so heavily dependent on a very high sales tax. With both of these potential disasters it’s not a question of "if" but "when" they will occur. Even without these disasters, Tennessee revenue is down because an ever smaller part of economic activity is subject to our sales tax. Severe cuts in state services have been imposed in an effort to keep the budget balanced. If the proposed amendment passes, it would take at least three years to amend it out of the Constitution and pass an income tax. How much would Tennessee suffer in the meantime?

This resolution is an insult to the Constitution, its framers and to current and future citizens and their elected representatives. They all deserve more respect.
Schoggen is a Tennesseans for Fair Taxation board member.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the Tennessee Editorial Forum. 3/11