The Tennessee Senate took the first step Monday to amend the state constitution to ban the income tax, beginning a two-year political process to place the volatile issue on the ballot for voters to decide.
The Senate vote was 25-7, and there were only a few minutes of debate. If the House also passes the resolution this year, and the next General Assembly approves it by a two-thirds majority, the referendum would go before voters in 2014.
"If you want less of something, tax it. If you want more of something, don't tax it," said the resolution's sponsor, Rep. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown. "We all want more income in Tennessee, so let's make sure that we never tax it."
Arguably, the state constitution already bans the income tax. The state Supreme Court has ruled that way three times, but opinions from the state attorney general have raised questions about those decisions.
In 2002, the legislature refused to passed a state income tax advocated by Republican Gov. Don Sundquist. The proposal drew rowdy protests, and Sundquist was vilified by his own party. If the income tax had become law then, everyone expected its constitutionality to be tested in court.
Kelsey wants to end any uncertainty by amending the constitution. His resolution allows the existing state tax on interest income from stocks and bonds, but he said he'd like to ban that later as well.
"Opposition to an income tax is very strong right now," Kelsey said, "so now is the time to clarify this issue once and for all and to put it before voters so they can speak."
Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, joined six other Democrats in voting against the resolution. He's a longtime foe of the income tax, but he said he opposes Kelsey's resolution because it would put future lawmakers in a box.
"It's a wretched system of taxation in my opinion," Henry told the Senate. "I intend to continue voting against it. But Mr. Speaker, I'm not going to be here forever. I can't read the tea leaves to know what's going to happen 20 or 30 or 40 years from now. I don't know what kind of box we're going to be. ... I don't believe this takes the long view with respect to the necessities that come up after we are gone. I don't believe I can look far enough into the future to say the day may never come when this unpleasant necessity may be foisted off upon us."