Gov. Phil Bredesen said Friday the budget agreed to by the General Assembly this week was “99.99 percent what I want” and that he felt he would be leaving the next governor with a good budget circumstance compared to other states.
The House passed the $28 billion compromise budget 94-0 Friday after the Senate voted 30-3 late Thursday night. The agreement followed an admonishment on Wednesday by the governor to get beyond differences among lawmakers and finish the process.
“It’s not exactly what I wanted. There are some things I took out and some things in there I don’t think ought to be there,” Bredesen said. “But on the whole, this budget is 99.99 percent what I want. I certainly leave some discretion on their part to make little changes they need to get from here to there.”
As Bredesen spoke, he was unaware of exactly where the House was on the budget, saying he was assuming the best over the next 24 or 48 hours. But the House moved Friday afternoon, ending any suspense.
“On the whole they did a good job in the end,” Bredesen said of the negotiating process. “It took a little extra time this year to get to that point. I think we will have a good budget that will leave the new governor in a good, solid position.”
Bredesen was speaking to reporters after a speech to the Tennessee Bar Association at the Renaissance Hotel in Nashville, which followed a forum at the same convention among the current candidates for governor. The gubernatorial candidates have expressed serious warnings about the difficulty facing the state on budget issues. Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam has repeatedly said the job facing the next governor will be the most difficult ever. He warned of the looming budget pressures again Friday.
But Bredesen expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the process in a challenging year. He said the state is left with “good, strong reserves” of around $600 million, which he described as a “healthy number.”
When asked about his role at a Wednesday breakfast that nudged lawmakers to settle their disagreements, Bredesen said he made the point of how close the two sides were and emphasized what is happening elsewhere in the country.
“I did point out, look, if this were a state where you had a $5 billion shortfall, and if we were deciding on whether to increase the sales tax 2 percent or pass an income tax or something, of course it would be very contentious. We don’t. It’s down to arguing about a fish hatchery and minor elements like that. Let’s get over it. Let’s get on with passing the budget.”
The fish hatchery proposal, which would have cost $16 million, was going to be in the district of House Speaker Kent Williams and had been an obstacle to closing the deal. But in the end, the hatchery was pulled from the budget package.
There had been reports Bredesen was willing to go around the state using his bully pulpit about the process if lawmakers didn’t get down to an agreement.
“I did remind them I did have an airplane at my disposal,” Bredesen said.
But as satisfied as Bredesen might have felt, it was a contrast to the message only a short while before in a forum between the Republican gubernatorial candidates — Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga and Haslam. All three have spoken to the need to make drastic changes in state government, since no one is proposing tax increases.
Haslam opened with the same warning he has been giving about the state’s future budget picture.
“In difficulty, this budget won’t hold a candle to how difficult next year’s budget will be,” Haslam said. “This year’s budget includes about a billion dollars in non-recurring revenue in terms of federal stimulus plan money that won’t be available next time.
“We’re entering a very difficult time in Tennesse.”
Ramsey has vowed to reduce the number of departments in state government if elected. Wamp has consistently spoken of a need to “shrink the footprint” of state government, and both Wamp and Ramsey have said they will have to reduce the state payrolls. Democrat Mike McWherter, who has all but wrapped up his party’s nomination, was the lone candidate with the moderator in a discussion prior to the Republicans’ three-way forum. McWherter has emphasized the need to create jobs to jumpstart the economy.
Bredesen said revenues will come back slowly.
“We think it will be 2014 before we’re back to 2007 levels,” Bredesen said. “There’s a lot of unmet needs and it’s going to take some work to manage through these next few years.”
Bredesen was asked about Haslam’s observation.
“The next governor is going to have tough issues,” Bredesen said. “There is nothing I can do and set up now to prevent those kinds of things. The stimulus money for example runs out Jan. 1 of the January the next governor is sworn in.
“I hope I’ve left the next governor in as strong a position as possible, passing from one governor to the next. I would agree with him in the sense that I think the next few years are going to be tough years to manage the state of Tennesse.”
Haslam elaborated on his position after the forum.
“It’s an overwhelming reality facing the state,” Haslam said. “It’s such a temptation when you’re running to say we’ll do that, we’ll pay for things, but we don’t have the funds to do so many things. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Haslam said he thinks Tennesseans are not really prepared for how difficult it could be.
“I see it from both sides of the political aisle and across the spectrum of employment,” Haslam said. “People don’t really have a sense of what it’s going to look like when the state has a billion dollars less, because it’s going to impact us all across the state.”
Haslam told the forum audience that his wife Crissy says every time they leave a conversation about the state’s finances, she says he’d better be nice to her, and when he asks why she says, “Two years from now I’m going to be the only friend you have if you’re elected governor.”