Most Northeast Tennessee lawmakers liked Gov. Phil Bredesen's focus on education in his "State of the State" address Monday night but were wary of the governor's call to triple the state's tax on cigarettes to 60 cents a pack to pay for education programs.
"I'm not sure that amount is realistic," Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Blountville Republican, said of Bredesen's cigarette tax increase proposal. "We are lower than our surrounding states and one of the lowest in the nation. ... There is room for compromise there, I'm sure ... (but) when I gave my acceptance speech for lieutenant governor, I said it's time for a world-class education system."
Bredesen said he needed the cigarette tax hike to fully fund a number of education measures, including the state's share of costs for at-risk students in K-12 education; additional pre-K classrooms statewide; and to keep tuition increases modest at state colleges and universities and fund operating increases in Tennessee's higher education system.
House GOP Leader Jason Mumpower, a Bristol Republican, said Kingsport Director of Schools Richard Kitzmiller joined him on the House floor to listen to Bredesen's annual address. Mumpower said he wanted more details about the cigarette tax hike proposal.
"The cigarette tax is thought to be an unstable revenue source. ... If people quit smoking, that kills your revenue source," Mumpower said. "We need to determine the stability of that revenue source. I think lots of people have always thought that if we did increase a tax on cigarettes it would go toward reducing a tax somewhere else like the tax on food."
State Rep. Nathan Vaughn, however, said he believed the cigarette tax hike was realistic.
"I was very proud of what I heard," Vaughn, D-Kingsport, said of Bredesen's education proposal and how to pay for it. "I think it's very doable. The challenge, as he put it out, if we're going to complain about the state of education in Tennessee, we need to be prepared to do something about it. And that means we have to make the fundamental changes that need to be made in this state."
Vaughn added Bredesen appears to have abandoned a major overhaul of the state's K-12 education funding program.
"I think the governor eliminated this Robin Hood approach of trying to take money away from some school districts to give to other school districts, and I think that was essential for Northeast Tennessee," Vaughn said.
State Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, didn't think the cigarette tax increase has a chance.
"I don't think you're going to hear anybody, and I am not one, say they are against education," Hill said. "I'm also very disappointed the governor, to put it lightly, has a cool reception to eliminating the sales tax on groceries. I think (the cigarette tax increase) will die in the Senate or die in the Agricultural Committee in the House. To say that it has a tough road ahead is an understatement. No one wants teenagers smoking, but we have $500 million in our Rainy Day Fund, we're bringing in over and above $200 million what was budgeted in this fiscal year, and yet there is no talk of reducing the tax burden on Tennesseans."
Freshman state Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said he wanted to hear about performance-based pay increases for teachers.
"If you focus just on taxes, I'm a little disappointed that I didn't hear anything about reducing a tax," Lundberg said. "I didn't hear anything about reducing a grocery tax."
One policy group that scrutinizes state spending, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research (TCPR), was critical of Bredesen's plans to increase public school funding by more than $100 million for at-risk and English language learners in the state.
TCPR contends targeted voucher programs from New York to Arizona have produced better-performing school districts.
"Pumping millions into a failed and bloated public education system is like rewarding a child for bad behavior," said TCPR's Nicole Williams in a prepared release. "The governor would do better to give these students instant access to a better education in the form of vouchers for private schools."