NASHVILLE — Gov. Phil Bredesen said Wednesday he will ask lawmakers to approve voluntary buyout packages for 2,011 workers, and he also plans to cut $86.5 million in new funding to continue reforms to the state’s Basic Education Program K-12 funding formula.
Also on the chopping block is $55 million for higher education, $25 million to expand pre-kindergarten programs and scaling back a planned TennCare expansion as the governor makes $468 million in cuts to bring his original 2008/2009 budget plan into balance.
“We need to be prepared for some lean times ahead,” Gov. Bredesen told reporters as he explained how plummeting tax revenues continue to affect his proposed $27.88 billion budget. “I hope that what we’re experiencing nationally here is a short-term thing ... (but) realistically, we’re probably not at the bottom of this yet.”
The governor said he would not use money from the state’s $750 million “rainy day” fund to offset cuts, but he did say he will use other reserves. Officials did not respond to a request for additional details.
The cuts outlined Wednesday come to about $304 million if raises for state workers and higher education employees are included. Officials previously announced there would be no raises.
Gov. Bredesen warned that although he hopes to accomplish employee reductions voluntarily, if necessary “there will be an involuntary RIF, reduction in force, to get to where we need to get to.”
He said he needs the 2,011 job reductions to save $64 million.
Zoyle Jones, president of the Tennessee State Employees Association, praised Gov. Bredesen for seeking to use buyouts and make the reductions on a voluntary basis.
“It is our hope that the General Assembly will adopt the governor’s proposal for a voluntary buyout and not terminate workers,” Mr. Jones said.
Gov. Bredesen plans to outline the full cuts in a Monday speech to lawmakers. The State Funding Board presented the governor last week with a range of reductions from $468 million to $585 million. He said he chose the lower number to spare more employees, but he would be watching revenues closely to see if declines continue.
The planned reductions in employment come to a little under 5 percent of the state’s work force. The state has about 47,000 employees.
Gov. Bredesen said he does not intend to make actual cuts in pre-kindergarten or K-12 programs. And while he is proposing to slash the $86.5 million he set aside for the “BEP 2.0” reforms, he emphasized the budget still will contain regular inflationary growth in the BEP formula, an amount estimated at $83.9 million.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, the Senate speaker, said “obviously it’s a tough time in state government, but at the same time I think we’re doing what we need to be doing and living within our budget like the people living within the real world are having to do.”
He expressed admiration for the governor for offering buyout incentives to state employees, the details of which have not been finalized.
Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, an Education Committee member, said of the cuts that “we’re making some tough choices that we’ve got to make. This is no time to raise taxes to pay for more programs, and I think they’re doing the right thing in cutting back as much as they can.”
He said eliminating the BEP 2.0 funding will be difficult for local school systems that were expecting the money.
But while Rep. McCormick was concerned about K-12, he said the effect on higher education “could be ugly. I hate to see that. I hope we wait until last to cut higher ed. It’s obvious we’re going to have tuition going up in a down economy, and that just makes it tougher on the kids and the kids’ parents.”
House Education Committee Chairman Les Winningham, D-Huntsville, said he expects higher education officials to continue to honor a previous commitment to keep tuition hikes under double digits.
“If all of state government is being cut, or being threatened to be cut to make budget, it impacts all of us,” he said.
“To increase tuition to a level to make that up, you know, they’ve just got to set targets and levy the tax (tuition hikes) on them, so to speak,” Chairman Winningham said. “I think the prevailing attitude will be that we got to keep the tuition low. Otherwise, cutting them has no impact on higher ed, but it does everywhere else.”
Gov. Bredesen drew distinctions between the current need to cut versus the major shortfall he encountered in 2003 when he first took office.
“The scary thing was we didn’t have any reserves,” he said. “It wasn’t the budget shortfall. You can always deal with that. It was a matter of not being sure you can close the books of the state” for the current fiscal year.
The budget cuts already are having an impact on administration and other bills calling for new spending.
On Tuesday, the administration abandoned efforts to pass a massive water resource planning bill. The bill would have required local utility districts to submit plans to the state on future growth as well as drought. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said administration officials told him “they don’t even have the money if somebody submits a plan to do it, to review it.”
Gov. Bredesen also is withdrawing a bill that would let law enforcement revoke a suspected DUI offender’s driver’s license before a court hearing. The bill would add 75 new state positions.
In a letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, a bill sponsor, the governor said it “is not possible to add dozens of new positions to administer this measure at the same time we are planning work-force reductions across government.”
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...