“The bottom line is I’m not proposing any cut in any pre-K through 12 education funding during this process. ... What we are doing is slowing our growth down. ... I wish we could invest more new money in education this year, but I hope people will understand the circumstances,” Bredesen, a Democrat, said in a conference call with reporters.
Bredesen said his plan is to put about $70 million — not $87 million as originally proposed — into the budget to continue fully funding the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP) that fuels local school systems.
“What we’re not able to do this year is to put as much additional money in the new BEP — the BEP 2.0 — to begin to grow it out to the edges of what we eventually would like to do,” he explained. “I don’t know how to do that in this kind of environment. ... We are putting in all the normal annual inflationary growth for both K through 12 and pre-K, but we’re not expanding beyond that.”
Last year, the Bredesen administration and lawmakers revamped the BEP and pumped $295 million in new spending into the program.
That was before a national economic downturn causing “bleak revenue reports” expected to stretch into 2009, Bredesen said.
“I’ve known for two or three months now probably that we were going to need to make some reductions to the budget, but in the last four to six weeks everything has become clear that the revenues of the state have taken a serious hit primarily from the national economy,” he said. “The state budget office said April was the worst month we’ve experienced in the time they’ve been keeping those records, which is almost 50 years.”
The $468 million cut Bredesen will propose to a joint session of lawmakers is at the bottom of the $468 million to $585 million revenue downturn range set by the state’s Funding Board last week as economists revised their predictions on what Tennessee can expect for the 2008-2009 fiscal year, beginning in July.
Bredesen has announced state government personnel will need to be trimmed by 5 percent, or 2,011 jobs, to make up for $64 million of the planned cuts. The state is expected to present a plan to buy out workers with the most longevity.
Bredesen said he has also placed his $25 million plan to add new pre-k classrooms on the chopping block, and noted he will propose higher education trim its operating request by $55 million.
But education, Bredesen insisted, will continue to be his highest priority.
“One of my legacies, I hope, is both investment and support of in a host of ways education. ... I certainly think that is secure,” he said. “One of my other legacies is to be that we run Tennessee better than they run things up in Washington. When you’ve got tough times, we don’t just put our head in the sand, we react to them and deal with things.”
The Tennessee Republican Party (TRP), however, said the state’s budget situation is “no ball” for state employees considering that the Bredesen administration continues to spend millions of dollars on an underground entertainment and conference facility at the governor’s mansion.
“This governor refused to stop the ballroom project months ago, as he was urged to do, even though the economy and revenue were already slowing...” TRP Communications Director Bill Hobbs said in an e-mailed release. “Stopping the ballroom wouldn’t have saved all of those jobs, but it is symbolic of this Democrat administration’s elitist tone that it insisted on going ahead with the ballroom project.”
When he first submitted his $27.8 billion spending plan to lawmakers last January, Bredesen likened himself and lawmakers to the crew of a ship that is expected to sail “the good ship Tennessee through whatever waters it encounters.”
Bredesen indicated he’ll be straightforward with the cuts he’ll ask for on Monday.
“(I’m going to say) ‘I’m not going to leave you out swinging in the wind to try to figure out how to solve it,’” he said of the budget situation. “I’m taking a solution and putting it on the table. ... We have a circumstance that is beyond our control. ... We are reacting to that in what I think is a sound, conservative way that doesn’t just hope for the best ... but plans for the different contingencies we might have.”