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Tennessee's Democrat Governor Cuts the Budget
Has Hell Frozen Over Yet

March 1, 2003

In Peter Cozzens' great book, The Shipwreck of Their Hopes, The (Civil War)Battles for Chattanooga, he tells the story of a Confederate Col. Dowd, Twenty-fourth Mississippi during the Battle of Lookout Mountain. The Union army was making one of the finest military moves in American history by climbing the backside of Lookout Mountain while under close-in rifle, pistol, and artillery fire and then sweeping around the edges of the mountain dislodging the Confederates. Col. Dowd, whose regiment was being decimated by Union artillery and exhaustion, was told to "hold (his) post till hell freezes over". After an assault from superior numbers of the Union Twenty-ninth Pennsylvania, Dowd sent back word that he was forced to pull back, because "the ice was about five feet in (hell)".

For the first time in Tennessee since 1863, I see the ice in Lucifer's hometown beginning to build up.

When Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, took his oath of office as Tennessee's new governor in January, he was faced with a "budget crisis". Of course, most other governors are also. Also, like the other states, our "crisis" is because spending is escalating much faster than revenues. That is not surprising because Democrats control the state legislature. The "crisis" Bredesen faced in January is also despite the fact that the same legislature passed a record-breaking tax increase last summer to "solve" the "budget crisis". Of course, as expected, higher taxes did not solve anything.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the responses of governors facing "budget crises" are not following the expected pattern. Many GOP governors are raising taxes. Some Democrat governors are cutting taxes.

Bredesen is one of the Democrat governors doing the unexpected.

First, he is sticking to his campaign pledge of no new taxes.

Second, he started out by telling the state departments they have to find 7.5% to cut from this year's budget. He scheduled time to meet with each department head individually to find out from where the cuts are to be made.

Third, (and this is where I give him great praise) he held these individual meetings with TV cameras in the room; a la C-Span. Tennessee taxpayers could watch and listen to his no-nonsense approach to deciding where to make the cuts. He quickly cut off department heads that attempted to make their cuts dramatic and unpalatable. For instance, he told the Department of Safety to not arrive for it's meeting with plans to cut the number of state troopers. He told the Health Services Department that cutting mental health expenditures for mentally ill patients was unacceptable.

Fourth, recent audits of TennCare, a Hillary Clinton style Medicare unique to Tennessee, reveal even higher budget overruns than those built into the 7.5 % cuts, so Bredesen has told the departments to find another 1.5% to cut, for a total of 9%.

Later this month, Bredesen will pull together all his work and submit a '03-'04 budget to the legislature. The reactions from the Democrat leadership in the legislature to date have been understandably muted because until the budget is submitted they do not have anything specific about which to complain.

I wish Bredesen well. I hope he can stick to his position as the pressure increases from his party's leadership in the legislature. If he does, Phil Bredesen will become a significant player on the national political scene. And when that happens, Col. Dowd's dispatch from the base of Lookout Mountain in 1863 will once again be applicable in Tennessee.

NOTE: I will continue my how-to-reform education discussion, begun with the last edition's "Will raising teachers' pay improve teaching?" article, over the course of the next few months. In between those articles will be other articles on other topics like the above.


Sam T. Harper graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University.  Following a tour in the US Navy and a stint as Operations Manager at Roadway Express, he earned his MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He was a contributor to “In Search of Excellence,” the best selling business book of all time.  Sam was also Manager, Economic Planning & Analysis at Sohio Petroleum, Partner and Chief Financial Officer at investment-banking firm Bridgemere Capital, and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco Bay Area-based think tank and international publishing firm that specializes in self-governing and entrepreneurial public policy.  Sam was a chairman of the San Francisco Republican party and the GOP co-host of California Political Review on KALW-FM in San Francisco.  Sam is currently the co-owner of the Tennessee based Institute for Local Effectiveness Training, LLC – a management consulting, training, and coaching firm.