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Area lawmakers complain about ethics straightjacket, Tennessee's childish politics

April 22nd, 2007 12:18 am by Hank Hayes



JOHNSON CITY - Ethics worries and "childish politics" are keeping Tennessee lawmakers from doing a better job for the state, according to two Northeast Tennessee House members.


State Reps. Dale Ford and John Litz aired their political concerns during a taping of "Legislative Chat," a public affairs talk show produced for public television by East Tennessee State University.


Litz, D-Morristown, said last year's landmark ethics legislation restricting contact between lawmakers and lobbyists has been bad for the legislature.


"A lot of our problems that we're having now is we're never seeing each other outside the legislature," Litz explained. "We never build a bond between each other. I blame a lot of that on the ethics legislation we passed. I think we jumped the gun on it."


Litz claimed that actions by arrested lawmakers two years ago during the "Tennessee Waltz" federal bribery sting were illegal before ethics legislation was passed.


"Lobbyists were not allowed to take any of us individually out and buy dinners before. ... We would have committee dinners and (groups like the Tennessee) Farm Bureau would be the sponsor, ... we need to go to full disclosure."


Ford, R-Jonesborough, indicated partisanship is negatively affecting the legislature.


"I don't believe in going to Nashville, as a representative, and voting against things just because I can," Ford said. "If I vote against a bill John brings up, I want to think in my mind that I have a better solution. We have guys down there on both sides of the aisle that just vote against things because they can. That's just ridiculous to me. That's not moving Tennessee ahead, ... that's childish politics."


But Ford and Litz were on opposite sides of a key House Agriculture Committee vote on April 10 regarding Gov. Phil Bredesen's proposed 40-cent per pack tax hike on cigarettes to fund his education plan.


The House Budget Subcommittee recently voted to undo the Agriculture Committee's decision to reduce Bredesen's proposed cigarette tax increase to 20 cents per pack and to use the money to eliminate the state's 6 percent sales tax on staple food items.


Litz, a tobacco farmer, voted against the increase.


"The last five years we had a $1 billion tax increase," Litz said in referring to a sales tax hike passed by lawmakers in 2002. "I just couldn't go back to the people in my district and tell them that's not enough money to operate government. It's not that I didn't believe in the governor's program, because I do. I think we definitely need to do something with education in this state, but I just didn't see that increasing taxes by $200 million is the way to do that. I also didn't feel that the tobacco tax was a stable source of income."


Litz said lawmakers were advised cigarette tax revenues were unstable during past attempts to trade a cigarette tax hike for a food tax cut.


"Now all of a sudden it's a stable income source to fund education," said Litz.


Ford, a farmer and retired Major League Baseball umpire, voted for the cigarette tax hike.


"I couldn't vote against it and come back and tell my constituents. I did a personal survey and 34 of 36 respondents were for (the increase). ... (The Agriculture Committee meeting) was a little bit chaotic, we spent two and a half hours on one bill. A lot of people came out of there and said ‘What did we vote for?'"


Litz was asked how the new Republican-controlled Senate is affecting the Democratic-controlled House.


"The Senate has the same problems we do," Litz responded. "We have people who are far left. We have people who are far right. Hopefully, there are people in the middle who can get the job done."


Ford, who threw many managers out of the game during his baseball career, was asked what he would like to throw out of Nashville. He responded: "A couple lawmakers who keep asking stupid questions. Some of these guys down here fall in love with the sound of their own voice."


"Legislative Chat" will be aired Sunday at 11 p.m. on WETP-TV, Channel 2.


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