KINGSPORT - Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey explained to Kingsport Kiwanians Friday why he opposed a 42-cent-per-pack cigarette tax increase to pay for education funding reform.
The Blountville Republican said many lawmakers had reservations about the tax hike advocated by Gov. Phil Bredesen after state revenue collections in May showed "more money than we were ever expecting" - $330 million over budget projections.
"There were some of us, and I was one of those, who said ‘Why do we need the tax increase?'" Ramsey told Kiwanians. "It was just a philosophical question we had. I get it that a cigarette tax ... if there is such a thing that is a palatable tax ... most people have polled it, we polled it ... it was in the high 70s that say ‘We need to raise the cigarette tax.' ... The philosophical question is raising it in a year when you have more money than you ever thought you were going to have or hold that in reserve ... knowing that if you need it, it's there. That's the dilemma we had. That was maybe the only disagreement the governor and I had this year."
The tax hike passed in the Senate 17-16 and in the House by a larger margin.
Ramsey indicated that dealing with the state's budget situation this year was tougher than in 2002 when lawmakers battled over a proposed state income tax during an economic downturn.
"It is even tougher when you have more money. You have a dangerous situation when you have a bunch of politicians around a pot of money. It's scary. Everybody has an idea on how to spend it," Ramsey said.
Still, Ramsey pointed out lawmakers were able to put an additional $250 million into the state's Rainy Day Fund, bringing the reserve account to about $750 million.
He also said the Republican-controlled Senate was able to kill bills to establish a higher state minimum wage, allow collective bargaining for firefighters and undo workers' compensation reforms while putting accountability measures into education funding reform.
Ramsey, who owns a Blountville auction and real estate company, continued insisting that "things have changed" on Capitol Hill since his Senate election unseating former Lt. Gov. John S. Wilder of Mason last January.
"People tell me every day they are watching Channel 42 to see us presiding," Ramsey said of the Senate sessions being televised on local cable TV. "I had somebody at our auction this morning say ‘I love to watch that. I could watch that for hours.' I said ‘You are a sick human being.'"
Ramsey said he is getting along with Democratic House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington but noted Wilder is not dealing well with his new role as being one of 33 state senators.
"At the end of session, he continued to walk the halls saying ‘Nobody is listening to me,'" Ramsey said of Wilder, now 87 years old.
Before being unseated by Ramsey, Wilder had served as lieutenant governor and Senate speaker since 1971.