The Cassandra Effect

Why isn’t anyone listening to John Willingham?



This month's election is the last stand for the quintessential Republican political maverick.

No, not the one running for president, but the one running for Memphis City Council — John Willingham — who makes John McCain look like a rubber stamp.

Willingham won election in 2002 to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in an upset victory built on his East Memphis district's opposition to FedExForum. In his four years on the legislative body, his doggedness in pursuing answers to impertinent questions regularly found him shoved to the margins by political insiders who gave him lip service while quietly burying his issues.

Among those issues was his one-man campaign for comprehensive tax reform. Because it violated local Republican orthodoxy and because Democrats were nervous about its political ramifications, it increasingly became a quixotic campaign waged from the shadows.

Willingham left the board of com-missioners in 2006 to campaign for Memphis mayor with the stated intention of getting more attention for his tax plan. It received scant media coverage, however, and what little it got evaporated along with his prospects for victory as he campaigned for Shelby County mayor, a second time for Memphis mayor, and now for City Council.

Over the years, Willingham has been called a loose cannon who sees conspiracies and intrigues on all sides, and not even his experience as a former official in the administration of President Richard Nixon and his more than a dozen patents have been enough to get an endorsement from the Republican Party.

Perhaps the Republican he most resembles is Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, whose late-night calls to the media about Water-gate and the Nixon Administration's "dirty tricks" were considered incoherent alcohol-fueled ramblings until she was proven right by history.

In his first campaign for Memphis mayor, Willingham said that city government's finances were perilous and that the FedExForum mantra, "on time, on budget," was more marketing than reality. Later, he was proven right on both when city government implemented emergency financial management procedures and state auditors determined that $20 million in state transportation funds were improperly spent at the arena. Meanwhile, several of his favorite themes surfaced in discussions of the Memphis Charter Commission.

As for his so-called Shelby County Tax Fairness Program, it calls for a 10-year "privilege payroll tax" on everyone working in Shelby County, but in truth, its ultimate targets are the roughly 85,000 people who drive in from outside Shelby County to work here every day.

The plan, vetted by county finance officials and University of Memphis economists, would end the county's wheel tax, reduce the county property tax by $1.04, eliminate the local option sales tax (reducing the county rate from 9.25 percent to 7 percent), and pay off Shelby County's $2 billion debt. According to a matrix comparing the existing property tax to the payroll tax, all Shelby County taxpayers would, in the end, pay less. There's little disagreement that the Shelby County tax structure is broken. State government's leading think tank — Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations — issued a report called, "Who Pays More?" and the answer was no surprise to local taxpayers: Memphians' taxes are the highest and the most unfair.

The report said: "The highest effective property tax is found in Shelby County, reflecting the impact of an extremely high property tax rate in Memphis. Memphis has the highest combined county and city nominal tax rate in the state. . . . Total local taxes are regressive, since each of the three taxes (property tax, sales tax, and wheel tax) is separately regressive. Regressivity refers to lower income persons paying a higher percent of their income for taxes than do higher income persons." The tale of the tape tells it all: The cum-ulative city-county property tax rate in Memphis is $7.47 per $100 of assessment; in Knoxville, it's $5.50; in Chattanooga, it's $5.356; and in Nashville/Davidson County, it's only $4.69.

That in a nutshell is the challenge facing Memphis. Its high cumulative tax rate drives the middle class out of the city, leaving the regressive tax burden to fall even more heavily on lower income Memphians, and in time, forcing the rate even higher.

For 15 years, there have been frequent attempts to put Band-Aids on our current tax system, but there's been little appetite — because of the perceived political risk — for the determined, bipartisan effort that's needed to develop a comprehensive plan that answers one central question: How can Memphis correct the structural tax problem that is a drag on the local economy and places an unfair burden on most local taxpayers?

So far, the Willingham plan has been the only attempt to answer it in the past 10 years. 

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