AP Interview: Bredesen aimed for smooth sailing
Posted: Monday, January 3, 2011 8:57 pm
By ERIK SCHELZIG
NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen reaches for one of his treasured nautical metaphors when explaining his philosophy for running the state over the last eight years.
“It’s like becoming captain of a ship,” the term-limited Democrat told The Associated Press in a recent exit interview. “Your first responsibility is to run the ship.”
Bredesen said that instead of plowing ahead with an ambitious set of initiatives and policies when he came into office in 2003, his agenda was “first of all: Let’s sail the ship, let’s keep it upright and move it forward.”
Bredesen took over for Republican Gov. Don Sundquist, who spent much of his second term trying unsuccessfully to pass a state income tax to help bridge a widening budget gap due to exploding TennCare costs and other spending overruns. The emotional legislative battle over the income tax sparked protests — including a brick thrown through the window of the governor’s office at the Capitol.
“I came in at time when people were honking their horns, and the fiscal state was a mess — and it’s not anymore,” Bredesen said. “I think people are going to expect future administrations to not run the ship on the rocks fiscally.”
Sundquist’s former Finance Commissioner Warren Neel has taken issue with some of Bredesen’s characterization of the situation he faced when he took office. Neel pointed to a nearly $1 billion increase in state revenues generated by a sales tax hike that was passed the summer before Bredesen took office.
“He wound up with a budget and a flow of income that far exceeded what was originally anticipated a year before,” Neel said. “So he had a very good budget when he took over.”
Neel acknowledged that unchecked TennCare costs were making it difficult to close the budget gap, but said those challenges weren’t unique to the Bredesen administration.
“I think he’s done a good job considering the circumstances he inherited,” Neel said. “And given the circumstances that Sundquist inherited from (former governor) Ned McWherter, he did a good job. This was a tough situation.”
But unlike Sundquist, Bredesen found a way to stem the costs at TennCare by cutting 170,000 adults from the expanded Medicaid program and reducing benefits to thousands more.
Bredesen, who previously served as Nashville mayor, said in the interview that his refusal to consider himself a career politician enabled him to make decisions others might not have even considered.
“I came into it with a certain distance from the job in that if I ceased to become mayor or ceased to become governor, the world was not going to come to an end,” he said. “It would not be a fundamental blow to my self image.”
Conventional wisdom had it that the painful cuts to TennCare would severely hamper his chances at re-election the following year, but Bredesen said his approach was: “If the chips fall and I’m not re-elected, I’d be unhappy for a month. But I’d be happy to be doing something else.”
Instead, he was re-elected in a landslide in 2006, carrying all of the state’s 95 counties. Clamping down on TennCare costs — they had been projected to eat up 40 percent of the Tennessee budget by 2007 — played a major role in getting the state spending under control.
But Bredesen acknowledged that the number of people cut from the program will be remembered more than the consequences of letting the program continue to grow at an unchecked pace.
“Look, it’s simply a fact of life that in anything — whether in government or business or anything else — you get no credit for what you avoided,” he said.
Bredesen leaves office Jan. 15, when Republican Gov.-elect Bill Haslam takes office.
Published in The Messenger 1.3.11