Watching the Metro Council's public hearing debate over the Mayor's proposed budget last night (on the second of three readings) was not different for me than any of the previous years' debates. Most of the advocates for Karl Dean's budget were Metro employees and outside agencies that would benefit from the proposal. That is typical and not at all inappropriate. The main difference for me was that for once the Mayor, who no longer is subject to Metro elections, is finally proposing a tax increase to fund services and payroll rather than pitching his usual slew of budget cuts. That energized a large group of public opponents, mostly conservatives encouraged by Republicans, who seemed to at least match the proponents in numbers.
I am not opposed to Mayor's property tax proposal, but for reasons too numerous to list here, I'm not a zealous advocate either. While more sympathetic with those who say we need more revenues to address our budget challenges, I also believe that the Mayor has not done much over most of his tenure to stop the free fall Metro services while committing to historically large capital projects and helping to sell off public education. So, I am both for raising taxes and sympathetic with the populist backlash that keeps reeling at the Mayor's Office.
Therefore, you may be able to guess where my impression of last night's meeting ended up. If not, I'll clarify. While I disagreed with most of their misplaced shots at government and their ridiculous calls for selling off and privatizing more government entities, I thought the opponents of the Mayor's budget were strongest where they articulated populist options to Dean's plan. One I heard several times was that council should formulate amendments to the budget that would only hike pay for police officers and teachers; a corollary to this was the argument that amendments should allow raises in pay of those workers at the bottom end of the Metro payroll, but not of the ones at the top of the Courthouse pyramid.
Conservatives rarely seem afraid to appeal to populism. That does not mean they get it right when they claim it. Liberals by and large seem uncomfortable with mass appeals. The vacuum they leave when they balk at populist appeals from the bottom is inevitably filled by opportunistic and angry conservatives. If the council progressives could ever stoop to take up the populist banner and make working class people their primary focus, they would divide and conquer. They would blunt conservative criticism of what appear to be elite commitments to public art and libraries. These don't have to be snobbish and condescending priorities. Liberals in the New Deal age were able to pull populism together with intellectual and artistic pursuits. It was never an either/or. Liberals in this age invite an either/or by shying away from populism and kowtowing to the wealthy and well-placed.
Former CM Erik Cole tried to brand his pro-Dean group, "Moving Nashville Forward" as a grassroots effort, but to me it came across as astroturf. Mr. Cole just happened to be the last one to speak in favor of the tax plan at last night's public hearing. As a CM Mr. Cole once argued that council decisions should not be subject to popular will. So, the fact that he has been blasting out emails encouraging people to wear t-shirts and pack the public gallery in the effort to lobby council to support Mayor Karl Dean looks cynical to me. Given his past ambivalence, I might call it a case of "populism envy" if not one of cynicism. In those blasts he also wrongly pointed out that Dean opponents did not offer any options (in fact, I just cited some of the more populist options that were expressed during the public hearing).
Council progressives can get all the support the want for funding the arts and the libraries if they would first be advocates for the working class and others pushed to the margins by Nashville's ruling class. Very few look comfortable doing that. The Mayor's plan is going to pass, but it is up to the council to include amendments that make a tax hike more progressive in the populist sense of "progressive" in order to bridge the gap between liberals and common people.