NASHVILLE — Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s proposed voluntary buyout for 2,011 state employees had House members of the governor’s own party divided Thursday with some voicing concern about being pushed to act with many of the details still unknown.
“I hope it works, I really do,” Rep. Mike Turner, D-Nashville, told House Democratic Caucus members Thursday. “But I’m not comfortable walking out of here not knowing how it’s going to work.”
With the state facing revenue shortfalls, Gov. Bredesen said the program is necessary to help cut $468 million from his proposed 2008-09 budget. Eliminating the 2,001 positions would generate about $64 million in recurring budget savings, officials have said.
But Gov. Bredesen has said if he does not get enough volunteers, mandatory layoffs will be required. That prompted Rep. Rob Briley, D-Nashville, to question if the plan is being done “really with a gun to your head,” a suggestion rejected both by a top Bredesen administration official and some senior House Democrats.
“The whole thing’s on a voluntary basis,” Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz said. “And the package (of incentives) we think is going to be rich enough to attract people into it. And we can do it that way. But to the extent that it’s not successful we’re talking about an involuntary reduction ... but we’re going to do everything we can not to have that happen.”
Leaders of the Democratic-controlled House and GOP-led Senate had hoped to finish lawmakers’ annual session today. But adjournment was delayed until at least Tuesday as jousting over the budget and employee reductions continued.
Mr. Goetz said he hopes “we can give them (lawmakers) details as soon as we can, but remember, we’ve been doing this for about two weeks. We’re trying to do this in a way that doesn’t create false expectations, that meets legal requirements.”
The Tennessee State Employees Association has mounted a full-fledged lobbying blitz to avoid cutting employees.
Rep. Turner, who backs their position, said he believes he has 53 House members — a majority of the 99-member chamber — willing to support his plan to use $100 million from the rainy day fund to avoid state employee layoffs.
“It doesn’t stop him (Bredesen) from doing his buyouts,” Rep. Turner said of his proposed amendment. “What it just says is that you set aside $100 million from the rainy day fund — it won’t take that much — for the employees who don’t take the buyout.”
Mr. Goetz said “those of us who were around in the previous (Sundquist) administration remember the fiscal insanity when you spent nonrecurring (one-time) dollars on recurring purposes.”
He said “the idea that you’re just going to spend nonrecurring funds and hope the economy somehow turns around is fiscally irresponsible.”
Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, a House Finance Committee member, said she is reluctant to use one-time rainy day funds for salaries. She warned that lawmakers in the late 1990s and early 2000s got into trouble using one-time money to balance recurring budget needs.
“I had understood he (Bredesen) was trying to protect the rainy day fund,” she said. “I have been prepared to stand with him on that because I was here when we spent it, when we created ‘funny money’ — we did everything — and we had to live with inappropriate management of the budget.”
But at the same time, Rep. Brown argued lawmakers need more facts about the governor’s proposed employee cuts.
Senate Republicans from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, on down appear comfortable with the Democratic governor’s plan.
“I think the governor has said he hopes he can get enough voluntary buyouts that there would not need to be a mandatory layoff requirement,” said Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson.
House and Senate are recessing and hope to finish their annual session next week
“To spend the rainy day fund on a recurring expense is a dangerous practice to get into,” Sen. Watson said. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it ... and history has taught us that is a bad practice.”
In one budget development, House and Senate leaders are raiding the state’s real estate transfer tax to snatch $12.2 million in recurring funds to bring the proposed fiscal year 2009 budget into balance. The money ordinarily goes to fund state and local park acquisitions.
A $15 million shortfall was created Wednesday when business interests and unhappy lawmakers killed a plan to end a tax break for commercial real estate holdings of family-owned, limited-liability companies.
Video: The governor speaks outAt a Times Free Press editorial board meeting on Tuesday, Gov. Phil Bredesen discussed proposed state budget cuts, problems with the sales-tax holiday and the prospects of a Volkswagen plant coming to Chattanooga.
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, ...