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Bredesen stands firm on 'Stick to the Basics' budget

Hank Hayes • Feb 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen isn’t apologetic about higher education officials’ dissatisfaction concerning the lack of new money for their initiatives in his proposed $27.8 billion budget.

“I’ve heard a little bit of that grumbling ... and frankly I think they need to grow up a little bit,” Bredesen, a Democrat, said in a meeting with members of the Times-News Editorial Board.

In rolling out the “Stick to the Basics” budget plan to lawmakers, Bredesen’s administration pointed out that for the second consecutive year, nearly $14 billion would fund pre-K-12 education and higher education.

Bredesen insisted higher education has experienced a good ride while he’s been in office.

“There is more than a billion dollars in capital projects going on higher ed campuses,” he said. “In this year’s budget, it’s got $50 million to $60 million new dollars for higher ed. It’s got salary money in there. ... If everybody else in the state can say ‘Let’s buckle down and concentrate on the basics this year and let some of the fancy stuff go for another year,’ I don’t think it’s unfair to ask UT (University of Tennessee) or the Board of Regents to do the same thing.

“If they are thinking ‘Well let’s just keep business as usual and we’ll up the tuition a little extra to do it,’ I’ll yell about that a little bit. I think they should do some of the same trimming of the sails that everybody else has to do.”

Bredesen said his planned budget only focuses on things that absolutely need funding.

For instance, he has dropped last year’s idea to offer free community college tuition to high school students who make an average score of 19 on the ACT.

The Tennessee Senate Education Committee’s chair, GOP state Sen. Jamie Woodson of Knoxville, had “no taste” for the free tuition initiative, Bredesen noted.

“I’d like to revisit it again before I leave (office),” Bredesen said of the idea.

Instead, Bredesen is proposing using $27 million to establish an endowment to provide need-based financial aid to about 15,000 Tennesseans seeking a college education.

He is also pitching a plan to increase Tennessee Lottery scholarship retention by adjusting the required grade point average from 3.0 to 2.75.

“I do believe the core of the lottery (scholarships) ought to be the merit-based approach,” he said. “(But) with close to 80 percent of the kids losing their scholarships somewhere along the way, there’s something wrong with the equation in that. It’s not that 80 percent of the kids are incapable of doing the work or partying and drinking too much beer in college. ... Going to 2.75 will be a move toward aligning college performance with high school performance.”

Bredesen said “there’s a lot of things” he would change about the lottery scholarships but admitted the issue is mostly in the hands of lawmakers.

“(Enacting the lottery) passed in the same election that I was elected (in 2002), and the legislature feels like they own it in a way that is true of nothing else I could think of in state government, ...” Bredesen said. “Some of our sitting legislators want to move (GPA requirements) to 2.5 or 2.25 or something like that. ... Others don’t want to hear any compromise. ... It’s a difficult area. ... I’d like to start by keeping a few more kids with the scholarship. If your kid or my kid loses the scholarship, we just have to write a check for them. If a poor kid loses the scholarship, they probably don’t go to school following that.”

Bredesen’s budget message Monday was greeted warmly by Northeast Tennessee’s GOP lawmakers, despite the governor suggesting that this session of the legislature could turn partisan.

“I do think it has the potential for being a difficult year politically, ...” Bredesen said. “Anytime when you have a presidential year with an open seat, I think everyone probably wears their ‘D’ and ‘R’ badges a little more openly or prominently than you do in other times.

“Frankly, I went out of my way in this address to try to mute some of that and was successful in doing some of that. Virtually everything that I’ve gotten done has been done from the middle, bringing along some ‘R’s’ and some ‘D’s’ and probably losing some of each on the edges. That’s just the way I choose to try to conduct my job as governor.”

For more information about the governor’s proposed budget, go to www.tn.gov.

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