Haslam promises ‘restraint’ if elected Tennessee governor
Posted: Monday, May 10, 2010 8:01 pm
KNOXVILLE (AP) — Republican Bill Haslam, who has been pilloried by his rivals in the Tennessee gubernatorial race for raising property taxes in his first year as Knoxville mayor, stresses a “culture of restraint” in the city that he would translate to the governor’s office.
Haslam has made his performance at the helm of the state’s third largest city a major element of his campaign platform. He recently presented his latest spending plan that includes no new taxes and refrains from tapping the city’s $52 million in cash reserves.
“The hardest thing in the world to do in government is to have money and not spend it,” Haslam said in an interview after his budget presentation. “Now that times are getting tougher people see the benefit of having that fund balance.”
Yet Haslam’s Republican opponents, state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga, argue Haslam’s 35-cent property tax hike in 2004 — the equivalent of a $5 hike per month for the average homeowner — serves as a better indicator about how he would govern the state.
“Conservatives don’t raise taxes before cutting spending,” Wamp said at gubernatorial forum in Murfreesboro last month.
State Sen. Tim Burchett, who attended the Haslam budget presentation and is the GOP nominee for Knox County mayor, said Haslam’s budget proposal shows his customary “businesslike approach,” and that he could have chosen to be much more politically opportunistic.
“He could have slashed and burned the departments — that might have been more politically advantageous for the long haul,” he said.
Burchett, who has not endorsed a gubernatorial candidate, said he doesn’t expect the property tax hike to affect Haslam’s campaign.
“It wasn’t controversial,” Burchett said. “I doubt that will equate to anything.”
Vice Mayor Bill Becker, a Democrat, said there was debate about the exact amount of the property tax hike, but that it was largely undisputed the increase was necessary as the city faced a $10 million budget shortfall.
Becker blames Haslam’s predecessor Victor Ashe for leaving the city’s budget in tatters.
“Victor had been in office for 16 years, and he worked really hard for 15, and then thought ’I’m putting my feet up and having some fun,”’ Becker said. “It was a horrible situation, and I think everybody agreed there was going to be a tax increase.”
Ashe in an interview vehemently rejected Becker’s assessment.
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” said Ashe, who later went on to serve as U.S. ambassador to Poland. “I worked hard as mayor every day for 16 years.”
As he was preparing to leave office, Ashe warned that “the next mayor will face a whopping tax increase,” but he had also built reserves from almost nothing to $18 million, and cut the city’s debt has been reduced by $30 million.
Haslam declined to weigh in on the budget situation he inherited that included spiking health care costs, the withdrawal of shared revenue that was used to balance the state budget and debt obligations for a new convention center.
“That’s part of being a mayor — it’s not a 100 yard dash, it’s a relay,” Haslam said. “You’re going to take some projects that were started, and I’m going to hand my successor some projects that we started that they will live with.”
Ashe in turn declined to evaluate Haslam’s performance as mayor. “I’m not going to get into commenting on the mayor’s record, because that gets me into the middle of the governor’s race,” he said. “And I don’t want to be there.”
Haslam said his experience dialing back the city’s budget by nearly 10 percent over the last two years will be useful as the state struggles to make ends meet.
“We’ve all helped to create a culture that respects a government that is small, efficient and effective,” Haslam said. “We’ve all helped to create a culture of restraint.”
Haslam has ruled out an increase in the sales tax or a state income tax.
“The reality is we all know state government is going to have to be smaller, there is no other choice,” Haslam said. “Whoever the next governor is, is going to have design a much smaller state government.”
Published in The Messenger 5.10.10