Views from elsewhere in Tennessee
The following is a roundup of recent editorials from Tennessee members of The Associated Press. In some cases, the editorials have been edited for length and for time references. They do not reflect an editorial position of the AP but represent the opinions of the newspapers from which they are taken.
The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal, Jan. 1
If you’re out shopping for black-eyed peas (assuming you can find an open store), you might notice that you’re saving some money.
Well, maybe only if you buy a lot of black-eyed peas.
Starting this week, Tennessee’s sales tax on grocery food drops from 6 percent to 5.5 percent. That’s not a huge change. For someone who spends $100 a week on groceries, the reduction will only save $26 a year.
Even so, it’s a step in the right direction. Taxes on food hit poor people the hardest, proportionally speaking, because no one can afford to stop eating to avoid a tax bill.
State legislators were able to cut the food tax a bit because they raised taxes on cigarettes. As a long-term solution, that’s financially risky, since cigarette smoking is on the decline. If enough people stop smoking, the loss of tax revenue from cigarettes could be problematic.
That said, legislators will do themselves credit if they can find alternative sources of revenue that would allow the food tax to be cut even further, or eliminated outright.
Taxes may be unavoidable, but it would still be nice to catch a break from them in the grocery checkout line.
The Knoxville News Sentinel, Dec. 26
Officials are not talking pennies when they say Tennessee tax collections could miss projections by as much as $240 million by the end of the fiscal year in June.
The bad news was announced by the State Funding Board, and Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz, a member of the board, said the state will have to cut spending. The Tennessee Constitution requires the state to end the budget year with its books balanced.
When the budget was approved last year, legislators assumed general fund collections would grow by 5.6 percent and total $9.78 billion, based mainly on expectations of strong corporate tax receipts and the hike in the cigarette tax. New estimates, however, show growth between 3 percent and 4 percent.
The State Funding Board, however, now says the state’s general fund probably will end up between $147 million and $240 million below expectations because the growth rate of the economy has slowed.
Goetz said state departments probably will keep vacancies open longer, cut positions and find other ways to save money. Gov. Phil Bredesen is expected to announce how he will trim expenditures by the time he gives his annual state of the state address in late January.
It’s still $147 million to $240 million short in the money that is used to pay for the annual spending of state departments.
It does not include money for transportation, debt service, capital projects and revenue shared with local governments.
So far this year, the shortfall is $135 million.
In the meantime, one of the state’s New Year’s resolutions may involve a bit of belt-tightening.
The (Clarksville) Leaf-Chronicle, Dec. 31
Our state legislators will have a fundamental question to answer in regard to lottery distributions in its coming session: Should the surplus be used as an entitlement program for students whose grades are too low to qualify for scholarships, or should the $400 million in profits go to school systems for construction projects?
Given a choice between the two, we favor the latter approach.
When the people of Tennessee approved a constitutional amendment legalizing the lottery, it came with strict restrictions on how the proceeds could be used. They can’t, for instance, be applied to the state’s general fund. Both scholarships for college students and capital projects for public schools are permissible.
Last year, Democrats and Republicans bickered over the lottery surplus. The Democrats favored lowering the current academic standard of a 3.0 grade point average to a 2.5 or C-plus and weigh the help for lower-income students. The Republicans want to maintain the 3.0 GPA and use the surplus for construction needs.
Both sides wanted to open the scholarship program to veterans, and that’s a good idea.
A bad idea, however, is directing money to an estimated 30,000 students who aren’t making good grades in high school. The cold reality is that college isn’t for everyone.
If the best they can do is a C-plus in high school, how are they possibly going to keep their scholarships in college with its more rigorous academic requirements?
Across the state, including in our community, school systems are struggling to keep up with growth in their capital projects. Let’s help them — and by extension, the taxpayers — rather than students who haven’t earned a place in college.
The (Nashville) Tennessean, Jan. 2
A Wilson County school has become a focus in the always-contentious debate over church-state separation and First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom.
Activities at Lakeview Elementary in Mt. Juliet, including the school’s connections with a group called the Praying Parents, sparked a federal lawsuit by parents of a former Lakeview student.
The resulting trial ended earlier last month, but U.S. District Judge Robert Echols will not issue a ruling until later this month.
The former student’s parents, identified only as John and Jane Doe, cited examples they said show the school endorses Christianity, such as participation by teachers and administrators in a National Day of Prayer event sponsored by the Praying Parents, as well as regular meetings of the parents group at the school.
In testimony before Echols, other examples including posting of the Ten Commandments in the school hallways, playing of Christian music during classes, allowing the Praying Parents to distribute cards to teachers letting them know they had been prayed for, and advertising the parents group on the school Web site.
The fact is that, in the United States, religion cannot be banned entirely from public schools — students may voluntarily pray or read scripture, and church groups can have their summer-camp brochures distributed along with those of any secular group, for example. However, anything that gives the impression that the school is promoting religion is prohibited by the Constitution and by precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
Some say the guarantee of free exercise of religion and the prohibition against establishment of religion, both embodied in the First Amendment, are in conflict here.
But that need not be the case. There is room at Lakeview, and any public school for matter, for individual or student-initiated worship activities, so long as the school or its staff does not appear to give preference to these activities or those of a particular religion.
In fact, the less the staff has to say about these activities, the better.
Some of the activities, such as meetings of the Praying Parents on campus, had ceased before the case went to trial. In the wake of the Judge Echols’ ruling, however it turns out, it is hoped the two sides will sit down together to make the school environment better.
Each side wants civil liberties. If they have coexisted in our Constitution for more than 200 years, they can continue to do so, in Wilson County schools and elsewhere.
Published in The Messenger 1.4.08