published Friday, March 27th, 2009

Tennessee: Bredesen, Republicans feud over bridge bonds

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Phil Bredesen meets with Times Free Press editorial board

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    Staff Photo by Patrick Smith
    Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks during a Times Free Press editorial board meeting on Thursday. Gov. Bredesen addressed several economic and budget issues, as well as other topics.

Gov. Phil Bredesen on Thursday defended plans to use bonds to fund $350 million in bridge projects even as Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey dropped a political bomb on the idea, complaining it breaks longstanding precedent.

“They don’t like the idea,” Gov. Bredesen acknowledged of Republican opposition. “I understand that. They may like the idea better when they actually focus on the fact there’s lots of bridges in their districts.”

The governor’s comments came during an interview with Times Free Press editors and reporters during a visit to Chattanooga.

Lt. Gov. Ramsey, R-Blountville, the Senate speaker whose fellow Republicans hold a 19-14 majority in the chamber, told reporters in Nashville that “if there’s any place that I disagree with (the governor), it is in the bonding.”

“For years we’ve been a pay-as-you-go state in Tennessee when it comes to roads and bridges,” the Nashville Scene quoted Lt. Gov. Ramsey saying. “This breaks precedent.”

Gov. Bredesen, a Democrat, wants to issue general obligation bonds to fund repair of about 200 structurally deficient state and local system bridges. He said Tennessee is in “such a good position” for using bonds because of the state’s low bonded indebtedness.

“We are 50th among the 50 states in the use of bonds on a per capita basis,” he said.

While Lt. Gov. Ramsey agreed the bridges need repair or replacement, he noted federal stimulus funds intended to help Tennesseans and state government deal with a recession already are providing $572 million to state transportation.

Gov. Bredesen could face other problems besides the bonds with his $29.34 billion budget proposal for 2009-10.

Plans to use $14 million in general fund revenues to replace existing lottery dollars for prekindergarten programs also faces questions from Republicans.

“I’m not sure I can be as supportive of pre-k dollars coming out of the general fund when we have needs in other areas,” said Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, a Senate Finance Committee member.

Gov. Bredesen said “it’s always struck me as odd that Republicans balk at this pre-k thing because there are no stronger supporters out there than the many members of the business community who are all Republicans. George Bush was a strong supporter.”

Sen. Watson said he also has questions about Gov. Bredesen’s proposed $139 million hike in taxes paid by HMOs. It is not expected to hurt HMOs involved in TennCare, but Cigna Healthcare, which maintains a major presence in Chattanooga, has said it could lead to higher charges to customers.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bredesen indicated he intends to dodge as many bullets and not get involved in the various handgun-permit bills expanding permit holders ability to bring their firearms into state parks, restaurants selling alcohol and other venues.

His commissioner of environment and conservation, Jim Fyke, is adamantly opposed to allowing the guns in state parks. Gov. Bredesen said he leaves his “commissioners free to express their opinions.”

“I’ll deal with them if they get to me,” he said of the gun bills. “In the meantime ... I need to get this stuff done. I probably need the help and support of some people who are for and against guns in state parts to get it done. My job is not to open five fronts in a war that I think I’ll be successful if I’m in one.”

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about Andy Sher...

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, ...

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