Perhaps some of you will be attending the Tennessee Alliance for Progress's Town Hall Meeting on Ethics tonight at St. Ann's Episcopal in East Nashville. I will not be able to because of my long-standing commitment to my neighbors to serve on the Salemtown Citizen Advisory Committee, which meets tonight at the very same time.
That does not mean that I won't be interested in hearing some impressions about it or at least seeing somebody blog about it. But I am particularly interested that Ben Cunningham of Tennessee Tax Revolt is slated to serve on the panel of speakers. I am so interested that I e-mailed TAP and asked them why Mr. Cunningham was put on the panel when he seems to me to be more of a leader of the anti-tax lobby than an ethics wonk. I also asked why Barry Schmittou, who figured so prominently in getting the question of ethics raised in the legislature was not on the panel.
I got a reply back from the TAP Coordinator, Nell Levin, saying that Mr. Cunningham, though primarily known for "his opposition to tax reform," has also been "involved in ethics reform." She also added that TAP wanted to have a balanced panel, since it sees ethics reform as nonpartisan. With regard to Schmittou, she wrote that he was invited to attend and to address the panel during Q&A.
These are all ostensibly valid reasons. But hold on a minute. Progressives need to take a step back and think very critically about the linkage between ethics reform and Tennessee Tax Revolt that Mr. Cunningham's participation engenders. I know that Mr. Cunningham has taken a personal interest in ethics reform enough to do his own research and make specific proposals via TTR's website. And I respect anyone with renaissance interests and the energy to pursue them.
However, we must not forget the functional service that marrying an unqualified taxation opposition to ethics reform activism provides for Mr. Cunningham's lobby group: it keeps public attention on TTR before, during, and after tax debates; it might even keep the resource pipeline from sympathetic donors and volunteers flowing after tax tempers stop unfraying. Ethics is a perennial hot-button issue; public attention to TTR arises during debates on tax referendums or legislation. Hence, linking ethics and taxaphobia reminds the public of TTR's presence. Otherwise, there is no necessary connection between TTR and ethics reform. Linking the two is a bold strategic move to drive TTR's momentum.
The machinations of Metro Council already show us that ethics is both significant enough to consider and trivial enough to render moot the recommendations of independent, nonpartisan ethicists. To a certain extent, ethics at every level of government seems to be a partisan football that becomes the possession of whoever catches it next. So, TAP is sort of caught flat-footed themselves; their interest in having a representative panel leads to inviting a TTR spokesperson, which reinforces the unfortunate link between anti-revenuism and ethics reform. Upon Googling, I found that several mainstream media sources have christened TTR as the source for conservative activism on ethics, which evinces TTR's effectiveness and flexibility. Mr. Cunningham was astute enough to come down with possession of the football during the legislative tip drills of the past season. So, he's the one on the TAP panel now. Progressives and other tax reformers should not delude themselves into thinking otherwise.
A typo appeared in a Tennessean article on Ben Cunningham last spring. That typo came across more as a fortuitous Freudian slip to me: "Dressed in jeans, tennis shoes, a shirt and jacket during the interview, Cunning volunteers for Tennessee Tax Revolt several hours a day." Cunning, indeed. Let's just hope that folks who listen to TTR on ethics are as cunning.