Nickel and Dimed: Why Higher Taxes Might Make Tennessee Freer


While waiting to pass a car emissions test the other day, I began to question the wisdom of not having a state income tax. As a child of libertarians, I have always equated low taxes with a certain kind of economic freedom. Low taxes mean more money in your pocket to follow Ivy League dreams, invest in new technology or spend on liquor and Vegas showgirls. It’s your paycheck, you earned it, and you should be able to spend it as you see fit. When I moved to the Volunteer State, I bragged to my smug Yankee liberal friends that I was going to a place where economic freedom was so sacrosanct, they had full on tax revolts. Then I got here. You can’t drive too fast in Tennessee because revenue-starved towns and counties have turned their police departments into ticket-writing cash machines. A former colleague of mine at the Scene was pulled over four times in less than one year(!) for speeding between East Nashville and our office in the Gulch. And then there is the DUI situation. And the fishy yellow lights downtown. More than a few Metro cops have told me that top brass is constantly agitating for more traffic stops because that generates revenue. Which brings me back to the emissions test. Most of the cars in line with me that day last week were built in the last 10 years—and many in the last five—meaning that they run pretty clean from an emissions standpoint. My own car is extremely efficient, high-mileage and low emissions. Why then, do I have to sit in that line every 12 months? Because the state and city need money to operate and they’re not getting it from my paycheck. As a result, I have to spend an afternoon waiting in that emissions line and then driving to the DMV, where I’ll have to cough up more than $70, the most I’ve had to pay to re-register my car in any of five states I’ve lived in. Of course I could register online, but that would cost an extra $5.99. How does running around all day in service of state requirements equal liberty? Perhaps the time and money we spend on things like emissions tests, speeding tickets and DUI litigation is less than what we would spend on a state income tax. I doubt it. But after years of living like this, I find all of the nickel and dime-ing tiresome and intrusive. Every time I tap my breaks at one of the three speed traps between my home and office, or cut a check for a petty fee to feed this beast of a state government—or Metro for that matter—I feel more antagonized and less free.

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