Tennessee Tax Revolt

Tennessee Tax Revolt, Inc.
Abbreviation TTR
Motto Here to keep you informed!
Formation 2001
Type Public Benefit Corporation
President Rick Durham
Founder and Spokesman Ben Cunningham
Website www.tntaxrevolt.com

Tennessee Tax Revolt, Inc. (TTR) is an American political advocacy group that is active in the state of Tennessee. Its primary purpose is to monitor and influence issues of taxation but it also expresses opinions on issues such as government transparency and net neutrality. In 2005 an Associated Press story referred to the organization as a "leading anti-tax group".[1][2]

The organization describes itself as a grassroots effort[3] and a non-partisan group and as a "support group for the tax groups around the state."[3][4][5][6][7] It was incorporated as a public benefit corporation of Tennessee on October 22, 2001.[8] Donation pages on its site note that donations to TTR are not tax-deductible.[9][10]

In nearly all appearances in the media and speaking engagements, TTR is represented by its spokesman Nashville real estate investor Ben Cunningham, who is also listed as a founder of the organization.[11] Cunningham was also the lead founder of the Nashville Tea Party in 2011 saying, "There are also some projects that just don’t naturally fit into the Tennessee Tax Revolt sphere that we’re going to be involved with."[12][13] Many letters to members of Congress and other national or international bodies are signed by the organization's president Rick Durham.


In his book Covenant of Liberty: The Ideological Origins of the Tea Party Movement conservative activist and author Michael Patrick Leahy describes an event that he calls the Tennessee Tax Revolt which he credits as the genesis of the organization of the same name. This was a three-year popular campaign to oppose the institution of a state income tax in Tennessee, a cause championed by Republican Governor Don Sundquist.[6][14][15][16][17]

Ben Cunningham and state radio personalities Phil Valentine, Steve Gill, Darrell Ankarlo, and Dave Ramsey, aided by Republican lawmakers such as Marsha Blackburn, spearheaded an effort that involved dissemination of information over the air waves, email lists, and a web site, emails and telephone calls to state legislators, postal mailing of tea bags to officials, street protests and driving past the State Capitol building whilst honking their automobile horns, and a tactic that a Los Angeles Times reporter referred to as "steering protesters to lawmakers' homes."[6][14][15][18] According to Mr. Cunningham, in addition to the honking of automobile horns among the activists at the State Capitol there was a competition to produce the loudest noise which was achieved in 2002 with a dismounted train whistle powered by a portable air compressor, requiring other protesters to cover their ears when it was sounded once or twice per day.[6][19]

Late in 2001 the Tennessee Tax Revolt organization was incorporated as a public benefit corporation and by the end of 2002 the campaign had been successful and the effort to enact an income tax had ceased.[14][15] The TTR web site hosts photographs from the 2001 and 2002 protests. In 2004 the group claimed that their email list was subscribed to by five thousand recipients.[17]


During the decade since its formation Tennessee state and local media outlets have frequently sought comment from TTR on taxation and budgetary issues. For example, in 2009 WTVF / NewsChannel 5 of Nashville interviewed Mr. Cunningham about an increase in the per diem reimbursement rates for the members of the state legislature.[20]

In his capacity as spokesman for Tennessee Tax Revolt Mr. Cunningham has been a speaker and presenter at Tea Party movement events and other fiscal conservative rallies around Tennessee and around the country.[6][21][22][23][24][25][26] TTR has also hosted its own events such as a 2010 celebration commemorating the anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, in cooperation with other Tennessee groups.[27]

State and local

TTR has engaged in a variety of efforts to educate and inform Tennessee citizens and lawmakers. Its web site hosts a page titled as the "Taxpayer Information Center" which contains an extensive directory of hyperlinks to online resources relating to Tennessee local and state government, Tennsessee politics, blogs, and other information sources, however as of 2012 many of the links are broken. In 2011 Mr. Cunningham was a guest speaker at a paid event held by several other state organizations and described as a conservative "grassroots legislative training" session.[28][29]

TTR has sponsored an ongoing effort to persuade state legislators, officials, and candidates to sign a "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" promising not to raise taxes.[1][30][31][32] The organization has also sponsored polls of Tennessee voters on various issues.[33]

Various candidates over the years have received support from TTR. A 2002 press release presented a long list of endorsements in state elections.[34] Edward Glenn Bryant, former U.S. Representative from Tennessee, was supported by TTR during his unsuccessful 2006 bid for a Tennessee U.S. Senate seat.[35]

In 2005 TTR gave a "Taxpayer Hero Award" to State Representative Donna Rowland[36] and anointed the City of Memphis the booby prize winner of the "Tennessee Tax Bowl" for having the highest combined county and municipal tax rate in the state.[37]

The Tennessee Alliance for Progress invited Mr. Cunningham as a panelist in a 2005 "Ethics Town Hall Meeting" concerning transparency and accessibility of state government.[38]

In 2006 TTR spearheaded a successful effort and petiton drive to amend the Nashville city charter requiring any increase in property taxes to be approved by voters.[39][40][41][42]

Since 2008 a project of TTR has been monitoring the budgeting process for a planned convention center to be constructed in Nashville.[40] In January 2010 the group issued a press release proposing to recall any city council member who supported issuance of bonds to finance the center.[39]

In 2009 TTR spoke at a Nashville Tea Party rally in opposition to the federal bank bailouts in response to the financial crisis and in opposition to the stimulus expenditures.[26]

TTR has spoken out over the property seizures and police raids of Gibson Guitar Corporation in Nashville over alleged violations of the Lacey Act governing the importation of wildlife and plants under conservation protection, specifically hardwoods used in the manufacture of that company's guitars.[43][44] Speaking at a 2011 rally in support of Gibson Ben Cunningham called the raids an "overreach by the federal government" and an "abuse of power and authority" and said, "No American business should fear the government at their door with guns drawn."[45][46]

In 2011 along with other state groups TTR asked state legislators to work to oppose federal health care reform measures.[47] In the same year Mr. Cunningham was a speaker at a "Doctors and Patients Town Hall" political event at Lipscomb University sponsored by Ralph Weber's company MediBid and the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and in an associated radio broadcast said that President Obama's reforms would "ruin our medical system" and result in a "decline into mediocrity and tyranny."[7][48]

In 2012 Mr. Cunningham spoke out in favor of transparency in governmental economic development negotiations with private companies saying that Governor Bill Haslam and the State Funding Board need to "stop holding these secret negotiations with large corporations over handing out these huge wads of money."[49][50]

A Tennessee 20th Senatorial District Republican candidate discussion forum in 2012 was moderated by Mr. Cunningham.[51][52][53]

2012 legislation put forward in Tennessee to phase out and then completely eliminate inheritance tax was applauded by TTR, with Spokesman Ben Cunningham saying "getting rid of this tax will increase employment more than any other: it's going to bring capital, it's going to bring jobs, it's going to make Tennessee a much more desirable destination for people that are moving their businesses away from high-tax states."[54] The bill passed the legislature and was signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam.[55][56]

While most frequently protesting increases in personal taxes, TTR has also opposed some tax breaks offered to large companies and special exceptions to sales taxes.[57][58]

National and international

Tennessee Tax Revolt frequently joins with other politically active organizations in petitioning legislators and governing bodies or voicing support for or opposition against various policies.

In concert with other groups TTR voiced opposition to the 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act, saying that it would "ruin good coverage for millions and cause disastrous erosion in Medicare’s already precarious long-term financial situation."[59] The Act, a Republican proposal, narrowly passed through Congress in the face of a Democratic Senate filibuster led by Senator Ted Kennedy and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.[60]

In 2005 TTR signed an open letter to Congress crafted by the National Taxpayers Union urging that the government-sponsored enterprise Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac be privatized to "avert another financial disaster" similar to the savings and loan crisis because they were "far too sophisticated political players to be held in check by regulatory reform".[61] These two public companies would later be involved in the subprime mortgage crisis that led up to the 2008 financial crisis although in 2011 the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission found that they "contributed to the crisis, but were not a primary cause."[62][63][64]

Another 2005 letter originating with the National Taxpayers Union that was signed by TTR advocated for further deregulation of cable television and equivalent video services to promote competition in the industry, stating that cable television was the only telecommunications service that had seen prices increase instead of decrease during the previous decade.[65]

In concert with more than one hundred NGOs around the globe TTR signed a 2006 letter in opposition to governmental authoritarianism and human rights abuses in the Russian Federation which declared "steadfast support for the individual rights of the people of Russia to associate without harassment by the authorities, and to exercise the rights of freedom of expression to which all human beings are by nature entitled."[66][67]

In 2006 Senator James Inhofe claimed TTR's support for cessation of U.S. funding to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) under his proposal S. 4048, stating that the OECD too frequently recommends or encourages higher taxes and undermines U.S. sovereignty and are "Paris-based bureaucrats seeking to protect high-tax welfare states from the free market."[68]

When the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, a bipartisan bill introduced by Senators Tom Coburn, Tom Carper, John McCain, and then-Senator, later President, Barack Obama was stalled by "secret holds" from other Senators despite broad public support, TTR joined with other groups in urging Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist to bring the measure to a vote.[69] The bill was passed through the Senate and signed into law by President George W. Bush.[70]

In 2007 Rick Durham signed a letter for TTR along with other groups addressed to members of Congress that opposed any increase in capital gains taxes. The letter insisted that income from partnerships should be regarded as capital gains rather than wages and stated, "Capital income should be taxed at the lowest possible rate without respect to who the taxpayer is."[71]

Ben Cunningham signed a letter for TTR in 2007 to Senator Inhofe expressing support for his contention that Congressional authorizing committees are an essential component to achieving fiscal discipline over earmarks.[72]

TTR joined with other national and state organizations in 2007 to urge that Congress permanently extend the Internet Tax Freedom Act prohibiting many kinds of internet-related taxes which had been signed into law during the Clinton Administration and which was due to expire.[73] An amendment to the law extending it until 2014 was subsequently passed through Congress and signed by President George W. Bush.[74]

In 2008, TTR requested that Congress enforce greater transparency and accountability over the expenditures and management of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the Federal Reserve measures in response to the subprime mortgage crisis.[75]

TTR wrote to members of Congress objecting to several expenditures in the 2008 Farm Bill including a provision to provide funding for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a regulation on imported timber that was asserted to be an unnecessary measure that served to benefit domestic timber suppliers against foreign competition, funding of programs that were described as corporate welfare, and some expenditures involving international food aid.[76] Despite protest on the part of TTR and other groups those provisions were included in the final bill and became law.[77]

In 2008, Tennessee Tax Revolt joined the Center for Freedom and Prosperity and a number of other national and state U.S. organizations in a "Coalition for Tax Competition" and sent a letter to Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank, urging that the bank resist "being pressured into a campaign against low-tax policies" and "stand on the side of tax competition and fiscal sovereignty and not for bigger and more intrusive governments."[78] In 2009 the same coalition, again with TTR's endorsement, wrote to the White House in the U.S. opposing inception of a value added tax rumored to be under consideration as a policy objective, saying that "The United States should not repeat the mistakes of Europe."[79]

In 2010, TTR expressed opposition to U.S. regulation of telecommunications providers to require neutrality in the handling of traffic.[80][81]

TTR signed a 2010 letter to the White House and members of Congress opposing two bills introduced by Democratic Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania that would have modified the obligations of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. The letter said in part, "We, the undersigned organizations, on behalf of millions of American taxpayers strongly urge you to oppose legislation which provides the framework for a taxpayer funded bailout for failing pension plans."[82][83]

In 2011 after the Department of Defense had issued a "stop work" order on the project due to uncertainty of funding,[84] TTR signed a letter to Majority leader of the Senate Harry Reid and Speaker of the House John Boehner urging that they reject any further funding of the F136 Alternate Engine Program.[85] This was an alternative aircraft engine for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, the result of the Joint Strike Fighter program. The Pentagon and Air Force had repeatedly attempted to refuse funding of the program but were overruled by Congress. Subsequent to the letter to Senator Reid and Speaker Boehner, the DoD cancelled the program.[86] The engine's developers, General Electric and Rolls-Royce plc, continued with self-funded development of the engine for nearly six months before officially ending work.[87]

Organizations which TTR has participated in coalitions or campaigns with

The other organizations which TTR has formed relationships with can help to illustrate where it places itself in the political landscape. The following list represents some of the notable groups which have signed letters with TTR and coordinated other activities. Nearly all of these groups self-identify or are categorized by commentators as politically conservative.


In a January 2011 presentation to the Tea Party of Bradley County entitled "How to Fight Local Tax Hikes and Win" Ben Cunningham introduced his topic by pointing out the narrow margin by which a state income tax measure was defeated in the Tennessee legislature in the contention over that issue one decade previous. He emphasized that a Tennessee state income tax is a genuine possibility in the future. After asserting the importance under the framing of the Founding Fathers of the United States for citizens to hold the government accountable and oppose tyranny in pursuit of a fair, just, and moral society, he stated that "there are people in Washington, D.C. that believe you shouldn't be allowed to live your life in freedom." He then showed a photograph of a Cambodian girl who he said was executed by the Khmer Rouge, a man who he said was either executed in Stalinist Russia or worked to death in the Gulags during that period, and then a photo which he said depicted two Chinese Communist Party members who were executed during the Cultural Revolution. Elsewhere he has explained that these images are from a book entitled The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence by Susie Linfield.[6][7]

Mr. Cunningham continued, explaining that the key reason these and other tragedies occurred is that people did not fight back and did not take up the responsibility to preserve freedom. He stated that the basis of American exceptionalism on a functional level is that "we simply have a minority of people that demand to live in freedom" and included his Tea Party audience in that minority, which he numbered at approximately 15% of the population. In his view, this veneration of freedom is embodied by resistance to government intrusion into private life, which he illustrated with the examples of regulation of the insurance industry which constrains the consumer's options and selective government bailout of some businesses but not others. He said that this sort of governmental behavior inevitably leads to corruption.[6]

He finalized this articulation of the reasons to fight against tax hikes by gesturing to the third photograph and saying, "Thankfully we haven't had to result [sic] in violence and certainly no one is advocating that, but clearly many people have. And clearly many people had the opportunity to fight these forces of tyranny and they didn't do it. Ultimately, the burden is on our shoulders and we've got to accept that burden and we've got to take the time to get involved in government at every level - nationally, state, local." [6]

In a number of public appearances Mr. Cunningham has said that government budgets derive from and therefore should be based upon the family budget, which is the most important budget of all. Therefore, in his framing, to maintain the health of government budgets it is essential to ensure health of the individual taxpayers' family budgets.[6][45][88]


  • How to Fight Local Tax Hikes and Win: Tennessee Tax Revolt Tax Activist Toolkit
  • Making an Open Records Request for Government Records in Tennessee


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  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Ben Cunningham (2011-01-18). How to Fight Local Tax Hikes and Win. Bradley County, Tennessee: Tea Party of Bradley County. Retrieved 2012-06-03. I found some pictures the other day and I don't want to get too heavy and dramatic on you but these really impressed me. And they impressed me with how fragile freedom is and how extraordinary it is that we live in a relatively free country. There are people in Washington, D.C. that believe you shouldn't be allowed to live your life in freedom, that the promise of our founding, that the promise of the Founding Fathers, what makes the American Experiment so special, was that our Founding Fathers said, "The basis of a fair and just society is the individual, making decisions guided by his God-given conscience." The individual... and it is the role of government to protect that freedom. It is the role of government to protect yours [sic] and my freedom: to make decisions about our property and our family and our lives. That really is the Goal One of government. That's really the only legitimate purpose for government, is to preserve and protect our freedom to make decisions for ourselves. And our Founding Fathers basically said, "The foundation of a moral and just society is where you have individuals that are free to answer their conscience that is granted to them by God, that little touch of divinity that is in each one of us," and that is the foundation of a moral and just society. Not government. Not a ruling elite telling us how to live our lives. And when we do allow a ruling elite to lead our lives, we get tyranny. It always leads to tyranny. And freedom is such a fragile thing. Even now, in this current time, we have many murderous tyrants around the globe and we've had many murderous tyrants for the last, well, forever. (Further exposition paraphrased above, followed by -) Thankfully we haven't had to result [sic] in violence and certainly no one is advocating that, but clearly many people have. And clearly many people had the opportunity to fight these forces of tyranny and they didn't do it. Ultimately, the burden is on our shoulders and we've got to accept that burden and we've got to take the time to get involved in government at every level - nationally, state, local. 
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  88. ^ Ben Cunningham (2011-06-28). Cunningham on the family budget. Nashville, Tennessee: TNReport.com News Service. Retrieved 2012-06-04. When I'm talking to groups I always open with, "the most important budget of all is the family budget, the taxpayer's family budget." And all other government budgets must first come from that family budget and if that family budget is not healthy those other budgets will not be healthy. And every dime that goes to the government must first come out of someone's family budget. And that's why it is extraordinarily important to watch and hold government accountable for every dime they spend. 

External links

  • Official website
  • YouTube channel
  • How to Fight Local Tax Hikes and Win 2011 video of presentation to the Tea Party of Bradley County
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