RIP Howard Baker, the kind of politician we need more of today

June 30, 2014


While I was on vacation in Knoxville last week, riding bicycles with a group of friends, I heard the news that former Sen. Howard Henry Baker Jr., 88, had died at his East Tennessee home. He was one of the classiest politicians I ever got to know as a journalist.

I interviewed Baker many times as a reporter for The Associated Press and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during the years I lived in Tennessee, 1980-1988.

Baker also was the subject of one of my favorite portraits, shown above. I had gone to the Knoxville Zoo to write a short AP story about Baker donating a baby elephant. After the press conference, I stayed until after the other reporters had left. Baker’s hobby was photography, and it didn’t take him long to retrieve his Leica M from an aide and start taking pictures of his symbolic gift.

Baker was a Republican, through and through. He became his party’s leader in the Senate and President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. Both of his wives had Republican pedigrees. Joy Dirksen was the daughter of the late Illinois senator Everett Dirksen. Three years after she died of cancer in 1993, he married Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, daughter of Alf Landon, a former Kansas governor who was the GOP presidential nominee in 1936.

But Baker was nothing like the hyper-partisan Republicans in Congress now, who would try to stop the sun from rising if they thought it would cast President Barack Obama in a favorable light. In fact, Baker’s rise to fame and respect began during the Watergate hearings when he famously framed the central question: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” The answers to that question would drive Republican Richard Nixon from office.

As a reporter, I always found Baker to be honest, straightforward, friendly and more interested in what was good for the country than just what was good for his party. We could use more like him in Washington today.

Farmer’s tax plan changes: sales tax up, not down

January 10, 2011

When researching my column today, I missed an important change in the state tax reform proposal that  Rep. Bill Farmer, a Lexington Republican, has made for each of the past several years.

Previously, Farmer said that by eliminating the state’s personal and corporate income taxes and extending the sales tax to most services, enough revenue could be generated to lower Kentucky’s 6 percent sales tax rate, perhaps to 5 percent or 5.5 percent.

Rep. Bill Farmer

But the version of the bill Farmer filed for this legislative session calls instead for raising the sales tax rate to 7 percent. Why the change?

“The economists missed badly last year” when estimating the tax revenues that would be produced by the changes he was proposing, Farmer said. How badly? About $1 billion.

Farmer said he still isn’t sure the changes would require an increase in the overall sales tax rate at a time when lawmakers would be taxing more services and removing exemptions in order to eliminate income taxes, but he is trying to be conservative. “It’s easier to start a little high and go low than to start low and have to raise it at some point,” he said.

Not that it is likely to matter. Farmer said he has little hope that any meaningful tax reform will happen this year — his plan or anyone else’s. And he is skeptical that Kentucky politicians will ever be willing to eliminate income taxes.

As I wrote in my column today, many business leaders and politicians like Tennessee’s tax system because they say that taxing consumption rather than income is more attractive to businesses and high-income workers.

But the tradeoff for Tennessee has been some of the nation’s highest sales taxes. That leaves poor and middle-class people paying a bigger share of their income in taxes than higher-income folks. The last commission Tennessee lawmakers appointed in 2002 to study that state’s tax system proposed fixing that problem by — you guessed it — creating a state income tax.

Tennessee tax system is hardly a perfect model

January 10, 2011

When discussing state tax reform, Kentucky executives and politicians often cite Tennessee as a model. But many people south of the state line would beg to differ.

What some tax reform advocates like about Tennessee is that it has no state income tax, which gives it a competitive advantage in attracting businesses and high-income workers. But Tennessee makes up for it with sky-high sales taxes.

While Kentuckians pay a 6 percent sales tax on most goods — and nothing on food — Tennesseans pay an average 9.35 percent in state and local sales tax on non-food items, the nation’s highest rate. Food is taxed at an average of 7.9 percent, the nation’s third-highest rate.

Taxing consumption more than income to spur economic growth makes sense philosophically. But things get complicated in the real world.

Tennessee’s tax system puts a greater share of the overall burden on poor and middle-class residents. High sales taxes also hurt small businesses and retailers, because Tennesseans often cross state lines or buy online.

Both Tennessee and Kentucky suffer from chronic budget shortfalls. They also spend less on health and social services than most other states do, which could help explain why both are in the bottom tier of state rankings of income, educational attainment and health.

The Tennessee General Assembly was concerned enough about the situation in 2002 to appoint the Tax Structure Study Commission. After two years of study, it recommended changing Tennessee’s tax system to be more like, well, Kentucky’s.

The commission recommended creating an income tax that would make it possible to lower Tennessee’s total sales tax rate to 6 percent, with food taxes falling to 4 percent. The income tax would have four tiers ranging from 3.5 percent to 6 percent, and families would not hit the top bracket until they made $100,000. (Kentucky’s income tax structure, a relic from the 1950s, tops out at 6 percent for people making more than $8,000 a year, which is virtually everyone.)

Like various tax reform plans in Kentucky, the Tennessee commission’s recommendations and similar proposals since then have gone nowhere politically. But they are worth keeping in mind, especially since Kentucky Senate President David Williams, who is running for governor against incumbent Steve Beshear, has Tennessee-style tax reform on his agenda.

Two state representatives — Democrat Jim Wayne of Louisville and Republican Bill Farmer of Lexington — have long proposed competing visions for Kentucky tax reform.

Wayne would recalibrate income tax brackets to reflect modern incomes. He also would tax some services used mostly by wealthy people. Farmer would eliminate most sales tax exemptions — except for food — and add taxes on most services.

He thinks that would generate enough revenue to lower the sales tax rate below 6 percent and eliminate the income tax. While in previous years Farmer estimated that could generate enough revenue to eliminate income taxes and lower the sales tax rate below 6 percent, the version of the bill he filed for this legislative session calls for raising the sales tax rate to 7 percent. (See followup blog post.)

The solution probably lies with some combination of those proposals, especially the ideas about taxing services, eliminating many exemptions and updating income tax brackets.

What Kentucky needs is an equitable, “business friendly” tax structure that promotes economic growth without shifting too much of the tax burden to poor and middle-income people; and one that provides enough tax revenue to meet Kentucky’s needs, even as the economy evolves. The devil, of course, is in the details.

As lawmakers consider tax reform, here are a few other things to think about:

■ Economists say Kentucky, compared to other states, under-taxes real estate. Low property taxes are a legacy of political pressure from property owners and 1979 legislation that capped annual property tax increases at 4 percent, despite the fact that property values have often risen much more than that.

■ Kentucky’s coal severance tax, which has been 4.5 percent for more than 30 years, is the lowest among major coal states. The tax is 5 percent in West Virginia and 7 percent in Wyoming. In addition, the citizens group Kentuckians For The Commonwealth estimates that Kentucky taxpayers provide more than $97 million in annual subsidies to the politically powerful coal industry.

■ Lawmakers have in recent years raised cigarette taxes from ridiculously low levels. But Kentucky’s 60-cent per pack tax is still less than half the national average of $1.45.

■ Kentucky’s tax code is riddled with exemptions, few of which have been analyzed to see if they provide any overall economic benefit to the state. A comprehensive analysis is long overdue.

Finding great small-town stories for 35 years

November 3, 2010

ELIZABETHTOWN — When people think of great photojournalism and compelling stories, they often think of big news, distant lands and exotic cultures.

But over the years that I have been volunteering as a writing and story coach at the Mountain Workshops, I have come to realize that some of the most compelling stories and photographs can be found right under a journalist’s nose.

The Mountain Workshops is an annual documentary photojournalism project run by Western Kentucky University. Each fall, participants spend a week documenting everyday life in a small town in Kentucky or Tennessee.

The workshop began when I was a WKU student. A few of my photographer friends and two of their professors went to the mountains to document the last one-room schoolhouses in Kentucky.

In the 35 years since then, the Mountain Workshops has grown into a major, nationally known training program in still and multimedia photo journalism and picture editing.

This year’s workshops came to Elizabethtown in late October. There were 70 “students” who had paid to brush up on their storytelling skills using photographs, video, words and audio. Some were students at WKU and other universities; others were working professionals at newspapers ranging in size from small weeklies to USA Today.

Their coaches and the support staff were an all- volunteer corps of photojournalists, writers and editors from across the country. This year’s faculty included Jahi Chikwendiu, a Lexington native who has photographed extensively in Africa and the Middle East for The Washington Post; Karen Kasmauski, who has photographed more than 25 stories for National Geographic magazine; and Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalists Rick Loomis of the Los Angeles Times and Mark Osler of the now- defunct Rocky Mountain News.

This was my 12th workshop during the past 18 years, and others have been coming even longer. Some regulars, including Loomis and me, are WKU grads. But others had no connection to Kentucky before they started coming to the workshop and fell in love with the experience. They include Mick Cochran, director of photography at USA Today, who teaches picture editing; and fellow writing coach Lynne Warren, a former National Geographic writer and editor.

Now that many of Kentucky’s small towns have been covered, the workshops have started going to larger towns. Besides, 150 people need a lot of motel rooms — not that anyone spends much time in them. With so much to do in a week, everyone works from early in the morning until early the next morning.

Three days before the workshops began, a volunteer technical crew turned a vacant industrial building into a state-of-the-art news-gathering and education center with dozens of borrowed computers and miles of Ethernet cable.

The workshop starts at noon Tuesday, when participants literally draw a story assignment out of a hat. The assignments are little more than leads, though, and participants spend the next four days getting to know their assigned subjects — figuring out what their stories are and how to tell them in pictures, words and sometimes audio and video.

By Saturday night, this around-the-clock learning experience has produced a Web site, about 70 picture and video stories, a framed gallery show and a book that will be published in a few months

The professional journeys that students make between the first and fifth days is amazing. And the faculty and staff always seem to learn as much as the students. The collective effort is a remarkable snapshot of a town.

I always come home from the workshops exhausted — and exhilarated. It is my annual reminder of the power of storytelling. And as digital technology advances, creative people find new and powerful ways to use it to tell stories.

“The Mountain Workshops reaffirms my belief in the value of age-old and priceless community journalism,” said Gordon “Mac” McKerral, a fellow writing coach and past national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

“It’s not so much about the people the Mountain Workshop stories focus on — the barbers, the single father, the mother of an autistic child or the book mobile driver — but about how those people collectively tell a story about the world we live in,” McKerral said. “An inherently good world filled with people who do special things while not believing they are special at all.”

To see photo stories and videos from this and past Mountain Workshops, click here.