The governor presented a balanced budget for 2010 -- one that included a possible bonus for teachers and other state employees. Only problem is chances are good that covering those promises will mean using a portion of the state’s Rainy Day funds. Two of Blount lawmakers gave the governor good marks for crafting a balanced budget, but held some skepticism on the choice to dip into the Rainy Day funds.
State Sen. Doug Overbey and State Rep. Bob Ramsey shared their thoughts on Gov. Phil Bredesens’ address to state lawmakers in the General Assembly on Monday night. His State of the State followed a two-week special session on education.
“I think first of all you’ve got to give him credit for crafting a balanced budget in the difficult economic times,” said Overbey. “Some of the positive notes were that he has fully-funded the state’s Basic Education Program for K-12. I also give him credit for not counting on any federal funds that have not yet been appropriated, although there is talk on the federal level about another stimulus program.”
Overbey said the legislature will take a closer look if the governor does propose using some of the Rainy Day fund. “I think we’ll take a look at that and make sure we’re not digging a hole for later. I think it is important we keep trying our best to match recurring expenses with recurring sources of revenue,” he said.
The state senator said the governor has proposed an increase in the fees for drivers’ licenses. The move would make drivers’ licenses good for eight years instead of four and funds from the fees would benefit communications for the Highway Patrol and improve service where drivers’ licenses are issued. “We need to make sure it does not adversely impact our citizens,” Overbey said.
Ramsey said he appreciated the governor showing great character by being supportive of our armed forces and for thanking the teachers’ association for their cooperation on coming to an agreement on Race to the Top federal funding.
“Of course, the budget projections are rather bleak, and the budget he presented went anywhere from 1 to about 5 to 6 percent in cuts for most of the programs,” said Ramsey. “There was only a 1 percent cut in the prison program because you can’t close prisons and let people out.”
The state representative said other departments could face higher cuts. “There was a cut of 9 percent to some providers in TennCare, which is going to impact hospitals and providers,” Ramsey said. “However, he did keep intact the safety net fund, which is somewhere around $12 million, so he kept in several programs -- including the consolidated health programs for school systems.”
The state representative said one of the areas that will be discussed is the governor’s proposal for a bonus for all state employees, including teachers. “Teachers have not had a raise since 2007, so the governor wants to adopt somewhere around a $170 million bonus program for state employees,” Ramsey said. “There was some interest in that from the House and Senate, but overall, it was reasonably a conservative budget with a focus on the four year programs he outlined last year.”
The state representative said there are the possibilities of extensions of some stimulus funding that might soften cuts and revenue shortfalls. “But overall the prospect is that we will have somewhere between a $160 to $200 million shortfall in revenues versus expenses,” he said. “Last year we had a $1.2 billion shortfall.”
The governor has proposed not filling 360 vacant positions and laying off an additional 1,060 state employees.
Ramsey said it appears the governor’s focus in his State of the State speech has turned to stewardship. “He wants to leave the budget and the economic status and welfare of the state pretty much the way he found it (when he took office), and he’s doing that by having a balanced budget,” the lawmaker said.
The state lawmaker said the governor estimated that between the state’s Rainy Day reserves and $300 million in the TennCare reserve, the state has about $900 million in the bank. “As the governor said, it is certainly raining,” said Ramsey. “Depending on what we approve as far as expenditures, he has indicated there might be a need to use some of those Rainy Day funds,” Ramsey said.