TN agencies worry as 'fiscal cliff' looms

1:58 PM, Dec 22, 2012   |    comments
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By: Paul C. Barton and Brian Wilson

Members of Congress will be home for Christmas - despite the nation's teetering on the "fiscal cliff."

That's frustrating for leaders of Middle Tennessee agencies that stand to lose thousands from their budgets beginning Jan. 1 if lawmakers can't reach a budget agreement. And when tax increases automatically kick in as a result of the Congressional impasse, Americans are likely to give less in donations.

If lawmakers do not act by the end of the year, funding for Title I, Head Start and special education programs may dry up, said Kenya Bradshaw, executive director of education advocacy group Stand for Children Tennessee.

"We believe our legislative bodies should move forward, because our children are going to be most affected here," she said.

Ellen Lehman, president of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, said the uncertainty of any resolution from Congress is disconcerting for both her organization and the non-profits it helps fund. The foundation receives donations and then distributes them to other organizations in need.

"The challenge is that so many of our neighbors are unemployed," she said. "So many are hungry or caught in the throes of recession. Any reason to quell people's enthusiasm for giving is significant for the people of Middle Tennessee."

After after the Thursday collapse of House Speaker John Boehner's plan for resolving the "fiscal cliff," two Middle Tennessee members of Congress said they would have voted against it if it had come to a vote.

Republican Reps. Scott DesJarlais of Jasper, and Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood, said Friday they remain steadfastly opposed to raising taxes and would have opposed Boehner's "Plan B," which called for raising tax rates only on those making at least $1 million, if it had reached the House.

Middle Tennessee's lone Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville, said he would have joined their no votes, calling Plan B a "fig leaf for the Republican Party." Cooper, a conservative on fiscal issues, said President Barack Obama and Speaker Boehner appeared "very close" on a more substantive deal and should have continued negotiations.

Boehner pulled his tax plan from consideration Thursday night after realizing it did not have sufficient support to pass.

It would have prevented some of the income tax increases that will occur automatically on Jan. 1 if Congress and President Barack Obama fail to agree on an alternative plan for addressing the nation's fiscal imbalances.

"Unfortunately, this legislation did not contain anywhere near the sufficient level of spending cuts the overwhelming majority of my Fourth District constituents demand," said DesJarlais, a tea party Republican. "The only way to end our yearly trillion dollar deficits is to institute serious fiscal reforms and prioritize our spending."

Blackburn said that view was reinforced by a recent town hall meeting by telephone with her constituents in which "86 percent said it was a spending problem, not a revenue problem."

"Raising tax rates are out of the question for me," she said. "Tax reform is what I want to see."

Closing loopholes would be one way of raising additional revenues through tax reform, Blackburn said.

Later, in a television appearance on Fox Business, Blackburn indicated she would oppose a tax rate increase even if it were limited to billionaires. Instead, she repeated, "it is time to clean up the tax code."

Brentwood, the area Blackburn represents, has more income tax filers with adjusted gross incomes over $200,000 than any in Tennessee, according to Internal Revenue Service ZIP code data.

Blackburn also blamed inaction on the nation's fiscal problems on Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, saying he has refused to allow the Senate to consider various budget bills the House has passed the previous three years that make significant spending reductions and reform entitlements.

She said it was time for Reid "to man up and do his job."

Another topic on Capitol Hill Friday was the political damage to Boehner and whether he could face a serious challenge for the speaker's position when the 113th Congress convenes in January.

"While I may not always agree with Speaker Boehner, I believe he does his best to represent the wishes of the entire Republican Conference. I will continue to support him," DesJarlais said.

Blackburn, in her appearance on Fox Business, said, "Speaker Boehner now is stronger than he has ever been."

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