If it sounds like Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s plan to restructure Tennessee government would mean lopping off a lot of people from the state payroll, then you heard it right, he says.
“That’s exactly right,” Ramsey said of his plan that would involve merging departments. “When you see mergers going on in the private sector, you usually see people losing their jobs. It’s hard to get sympathy for state employees from people in the private sector when they’re getting laid off and state employees aren’t.”
Ramsey, R-Blountville, got a lot of people’s attention last week when his plan to drastically refashion state departments surfaced in a television ad for his gubernatorial campaign. He later said, for example, it would involve folding agencies like the Department of Revenue into the Department of Finance and Administration and the Department of Children’s Services into the Department of Human Services.
But while he offered those examples last week, it still left questions unanswered. It wasn’t clear what he meant when he said the state had 22 departments and government could be reduced by one-third. Combining departments theoretically could mean putting them together without reducing their workforce, and 22 is not a number easily divisible by “one-third.” He was asked if his goal was to reduce the number of departments or simply to reduce state government overall by a third.
“Both,” he said.
“I’ve been on the legislative side for 18 years and want to be able to take a bottom-up evaluation of state government, and that’s exactly what we’re going to need to do.
“We talk about having recurring and non-recurring money in state government. Really, everything should be non-recurring. You look at the next year and see if it’s actually needed. So we’re going to have departments combined. My goal, when I leave office after four years, after the first term at least, would be to have fewer state employees than when I went in. We need to be downsizing government.”
Ramsey is not the only Republican candidate in the governor’s race to talk about downsizing government. U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp has frequently pointed out that in 2000 there were 42,000 people working for the state and currently the number is 48,000. Wamp cites a need to “right-size” government. Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam has talked about redesigning government, although he has not characterized the process in such blunt terms as Ramsey. Mike McWherter, the last Democrat remaining in the race, has vowed a push for efficiency in government.
The line between Ramsey’s role as a lead negotiator in the budget process as speaker of the Senate and his role as a gubernatorial candidate has become blurred. After Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen proposed lifting the sales-tax cap on items over $3,200, Ramsey not only criticized the proposal as a legislator but began to use it in stump speeches. He targeted the tax proposal directly in a radio ad for his campaign, as though he were running against the Bredesen administration and not his opponents in the campaign.
Bredesen has wondered aloud why Ramsey hasn’t proposed such dramatic cuts in the current budget process. Bredesen had publicly requested that Ramsey be more of a legislator than a political candidate until the budget process is over. But Ramsey has been undeterred in using the issue in his campaign.
“My thinking is the governor proposed a tax increase, and I’m not in favor of it,” he said. “Maybe it is something I’m taking advantage of, because my philosophy is playing right into this.
“Here we are. If the governor had proposed about $85 million or more in cuts a week or so ago, I think we would have gone along with that and gone on home. I think he shocked us all by proposing $85 million in taxes at the worst possible time, and it is on small businesses.”
The sales-tax cap proposal has become a point of contention as to its major target. The administration has noted its application to luxury items like jewelry and furs and then business expenses. Ramsey has seized upon the business impact.
“It is directly aimed at the very people we hope will help us grow out of this economic cycle we’re in,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey said drastic action is the only option the state will have.
“I think Governor Bredesen would really agree with this. We’ve nipped around the edges about all we can do,” Ramsey said. “We’re trying to find $85 million to cover the tax increase he proposed, and it gets hard without totally restructuring and rethinking state government, and as the next governor that’s what I’ll do.”
Ramsey has repeatedly referred to the fact the state government will “fall off a cliff” in January 2011 when federal stimulus funds run out and that the next governor takes office in January 2011.
“The next governor needs to be ready to face that,” Ramsey said. “And I’m chomping at the bit to do that.”