The Tennessee Republican Party is using an edited audio tape to raise the specter of Democrats pushing for a state income tax.
In a statement Tuesday, the TNGOP claimed that Flo Matheson, who is running against incumbent Rep. Cameron Sexton in House District 25, had “promoted the implementation of a progressive income tax and a living wage, and keeping in place the death tax.”
“Tennesseans have to wonder if the Tennessee Democrat Party has encouraged their candidates to adopt this extremist, big government agenda which would amount to some of the largest tax increases in our state’s history,” said state party chair Chris Devaney, who went on to ask if state House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh would denounce “this radical legislative agenda.”
At the candidate forum where the clip was recorded, however, Matheson said she expressed support for a progressive income tax at the national level but not in Tennessee, and that the complete quote makes that clear.
Informed of the TNGOP’s version of her remarks, Matheson said her remarks were about the federal income tax, not a plan to push for one on the state level. She sounded stunned that they had been presented in any other way.
“Oh dear heavens, you’re kidding me,” she said when reached by phone by The City Paper.
The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled three times that the state's constitution bans an income tax. Just last year, Republican state legislators were pushing an amendment to the state constitution that would reiterate that point. For a Democrat to express support for a state income tax on the campaign trail would be especially surprising, since the Democratic effort to institute such a tax a decade ago is commonly seen as the spark that led to the overwhelming majority Republicans currently enjoy.
TNGOP Executive Director Adam Nickas told The City Paper that the state party did not cut or edit “in any way” the audio provided to them, but would not reveal where the audio came from.
The release, which does not identify Matheson by name, included an eight-minute audio recording of some of Matheson’s remarks at the Monday morning candidates forum in the East Tennessee district. In the tape, Matheson can be heard expressing support for a living wage, and opposition to the repeal of the estate tax. Her remarks about an income tax, however, begin with less than 10 seconds left in the tape and are quickly cut off.
"Also, I support a progressive income tax, which would mean, you know, more taxes on the wealthy. I do know that fe... ,” she can be heard saying, at which point the tape ends.
Forum organizers told The City Paper they did not have an official video or audio recording of the event. But a copy of Matheson’s prepared remarks, provided by Matheson, seems to provide the rest of the sentence cut off by the TNGOP audio.
“Support a progressive income tax,” her notes read. “Federal Income tax is not an issue that state representatives can resolve, but I can urge voters to remove legislators who work for the greedy super-rich, not for the middle class.”
Her opponent, Sexton, said he understood her comments differently.
“That’s not how I understood it,” he told The City Paper Wednesday morning, “because even later in the forum, I told her when we had a question, ‘You know, I’m not like Flo, I’m not in favor of a state income tax.’ She never came back and denied that she was.”
Sexton said he didn’t have anything to do with the tape.
“Maybe she went back now and she realizes, maybe she wasn’t clear enough and she wants to restate for the record, which is fine, if she wants to come out against a state income tax. But you still have the main issue that she wants a state living wage.”
Nickas said he believed the audio provided in the TNGOP release included “the majority of her comments.”
“I think it’s pretty clear that she was talking about state issues,” he said. “I know that she and probably the Democrat party are probably in damage control mode right now, trying to spin it, but I think it’s pretty simple what she said.”
In response to a request for the full audio of the forum, Nickas said the audio included in the release was what the party had and reiterated that the party had not edited or cut the tape. Pressed further about the tape, which cuts Matheson off mid-sentence, he said he thought there was already enough context.
“There’s several minutes of audio,” he said. “I think we provided context that she was giving her campaign stump speech and she was talking about state legislative issues, which included her comments about instituting a living wage, talked about the death tax — the phasing out had overwhelming bipartisan support — and then she went on to mention the state income tax.”
In the tape, however, Matheson does not specify whether she is referring to a new state income tax or just the federal income tax. Asked, for the record, if she supported an income tax on the state level, Matheson responded bluntly.
“Of course not,” she said, “nobody does.”