Likely Democratic gubernatorial hopeful and former House Majority Leader Kim McMillan now says she does not believe Tennessee needs a state income tax after previously voting for it.
“I don’t think so now,” McMillan said when asked if Tennessee needed an income tax. “I think a lot of it is because we’ve had a governor like Phil Bredesen who has been able to demonstrate to the people of Tennessee that there are better ways, different ways, to manage our finances.
“And I think at this point in time it’s not even an issue because we’ve been able to establish a type of tax revenue system that doesn’t need that particular type of environment.”
In 2002, McMillan (D-Clarksville) voted for a tax reform bill that included an income tax, a controversial measure that failed on the House floor.
That year and in previous years, angry tax demonstrators had circled the state Capitol, honking their horns and loudly protesting against implementing a state income tax introduced by former Republican Gov. Don Sundquist.
McMillan, who filed papers Monday creating an exploratory committee to seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2010, said she supported the income tax because she was following the will of her constituents, who live on the border with Kentucky, which has no sales tax on food.
“When I had to choose between a plan that would allow us to remove the sales tax on food and make us competitive with Kentucky or increase the overall sales tax with no benefit to anybody, I think that was the choice that I took at that time in line with what the constituents of the 67th District told me that they thought was more appropriate,” McMillan said.
McMillan’s entrance into the Democratic race for governor will provide the first test of how Tennesseans react to a statewide candidate who openly pushed for a state income tax.
Since the great fight over a state income tax from 1999 to 2002, no candidate has run for statewide office who openly advocated for the income tax.
Randy Button, a former state Democratic Party chairman, said McMillan’s “byline” at least early in the campaign would be that she “supported an income tax.”
“She’s got to figure out real quick on how she gets out front on that issue,” Button said. “I don’t think you can ever put it to bed solely, but I think that you do have to address it and you have to either say, ‘at that time I thought that was the best thing to do’ or come back and say, ‘I still stand behind what I did.’”
Button added: “I don’t know that you can run on that issue and be elected. I think that could be a big anchor that could drag you down.”
McMillan’s record through 12 years in the House addresses many other issues that could be planks in her campaign platform, including sponsoring a comprehensive ethics reform bill after the Tennessee Waltz sting, working to improve the state’s educational system and sponsoring Bredesen’s Cover Tennessee health insurance program in 2006.
In addition, she was the first woman ever elected majority leader of the state House, an honor she twice garnered.
McMillan says her early entrance into a primary election 27 months away will give her a chance to speak to Tennesseans about what’s important to them while acknowledging that it also affords her the opportunity to start raising money and putting together an organization for a very expensive statewide race.
On the Democratic side, McMillan may be competing for the nomination with U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Pall Mall), who once announced his intention to run for governor before backtracking, former Congressman Harold Ford Jr. as well as ex-Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell.
Button said he doesn’t believe McMillan’s entrance into the gubernatorial field will prevent other high-profile Democrats from joining the race.
“They’re going to make decisions based on what they think they can do, what the issues are going to be, and where they’re headed in their political future,” Button said.
Critics, however, and campaign opponents of McMillan will likely try to tie the income tax to her, just as Democrats will likely try to associate a potential Sen. Bill Frist gubernatorial candidacy with the unpopular presidency of George W. Bush.
“I suspect that her opponents, probably both in the primary and in the general, will make her have to explain that frequently,” said Pat Nolan, a political analyst and senior vice president with the public relations firm of Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence.
After leaving the House in 2006, McMillan joined Bredesen’s administration as a senior advisor. In 2007, she left the administration to become executive director of Community and Business Relations for Austin Peay State University, a job she currently holds.
In announcing her gubernatorial candidacy, McMillan, 46, says she has the “experience, the perspective, and the desire to move Tennessee forward.”
“The people of Tennessee want good jobs, close to home. We want to send our kids to first-rate schools and we want to have safe neighborhoods,” McMillan said. “I think these expectations are reasonable.”
McMillan, an attorney, is married to Larry McMillan, a Chancery Court Judge for the 19th Judicial District. The couple has two teenage children.