Is Tennessee’s problem state debt, or the wealthy governing the state?

March 16, 2021 Tennessean

On March 11, former Govs. Phil Bredesen and Bill Haslam, and Gov. Bill Lee spoke at the right-wing Millennial Debt Foundation about the national debt, we should ask why they are more focused on the deficit than addressing economic recovery or the needs of Tennesseans.

The collective wealth of America’s 651 billionaires jumped by more than $1.3 trillion to a total of $4 trillion at the end of December.

Meanwhile, that same month more than 185,000 Tennesseans were unemployed. In a time of vast income inequality and polarization, unmatched since the Great Depression, our leaders, past and present, must acknowledge the long-standing economic pain that far too many Tennesseans have suffered.

How did we get here?

For many years, public policymakers across the United States — Tennessee included — have used government funds to support the rich and powerful at the expense of everyday people.

For decades, corporations have enjoyed government subsidies, while politicians failed to use public investment to help middle and working class families. Ironically, many of those spending choices were made by the very governors now warning us about overspending.

From 2010-2012 alone, Tennessee spent $1.58 billion on 25 incentive programs targeting 143 companies. The state government gave large grants to profitable companies including Electrolux, Dow Corning, Kroger Foods, and Mitsubishi, among many others. And between 2009-2015, Tennessee also provided Volkswagen with $637 million to build, and then expand, a manufacturing plant.  These are only some of the most traceable state expenditures.

But our governors tell us they cannot afford to spend money on human needs that make the workplace and the home healthier and more secure because our state’s budgets can’t afford those expenses.

Similarly, these same governors — all of them millionaires or billionaires — oppose increasing the minimum wage, offering parental leave to all, and giving all Tennesseans access to medical care and housing.

Why are governors now concerned about federal spending?

But where were the governors’ worries when President Trump’s tax cuts added $2.3 trillion to the national debt?  Perhaps their concern diminished because that law cut $17.4 billion from the taxes of roughly 200,000 American millionaires.

This followed a Bush administration tax cut, which added trillions to the federal debt. The lion’s share of both of these cuts went to millionaires and billionaires who are now strangely concerned about spending when:

  • Tennesseans’ median household income is $56,000, almost $10,000 less than the national average;
  • 13% of the state has no access to broadband technology, a resource proven enormously important during the pandemic; and
  • more than 10% of adults in the state have not seen a doctor in the past year due to cost concerns.

Of course the money to address these issues exists. It exists in our state’s enormous rainy day fund that currently tops $1.15 billion. Despite statewide suffering, Gov. Lee continues to add to this fund.

The money Tennesseans need also exists in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) monies, currently running a surplus of $740 million.

Those in power have made choices not to use taxpayers’ money to prioritize Tennesseans who could use such a critical lifeline as they try to survive not only this crisis, but an accumulation of need.

If our budget is so tight, how do the wealthy and powerful still get their piece of the pie?  Perhaps the issue is not the debt, but policy decisions which help the powerful and wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.

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