NASHVILLE - As he prepares to leave office, Gov. Phil Bredesen says he successfully steered the state through crises such as TennCare while pushing long-term changes in areas like education that he believes broaden Tennesseans' expectations of what is possible.
"I think in education, people's minds are clearly in a different place today," the Democrat said in an interview last week with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "And just in terms of a government operated smoothly and reasonably in a bipartisan method, I think we've accomplished that."
Bredesen, 67, ticks off the accomplishments of eight years in office:
• Education reform from prekindergarten through college graduation, including new teacher accountability;
• A focus on jobs - his administration claims 197,000 jobs created and $35 billion invested or announced;
• Reworking TennCare, the state's version of Medicaid, to control costs.
But Bredesen said the 2005 reform, which threw 170,000 adults out of the program, is one of his biggest regrets.
"I consider it my largest mistake from my time as governor," said Bredesen, a Harvard graduate who made millions by founding a managed-care company.
He still blames advocates for the poor for refusing to deal with him on reducing benefits for a program he feared would absorb all future tax growth.
In the end, he said, "I had to take a much blunter ax to the thing because it was literally bankrupting us."
Gov. Bredesen worked with state lawmakers in a variety of areas:
• TennCare: To control costs, battled advocates for the poor to cut some 170,000 adults from the rolls, saving hundreds of millions of dollars. Health and social service spending dropped from 47 cents per state tax dollar in fiscal 2004 to 27 cents today.
• Prekindergarten: Expanded a series of pilot projects to a statewide program serving some 18,000 4-year-olds.
• BEP 2.0: Revamped the state's Basic Education Program funding formula to make it fairer to urban areas including Hamilton County.
• School curriculum: Made high school curriculum better reflect demands of colleges and employers.
• Teacher accountability: Called special session where lawmakers enacted changes allowing student test scores to be part of teacher tenure and pay decisions.
• Promoting college graduation: Changed the higher-education funding formula to emphasize graduation rates and elevate the role of two-year community colleges.
• Job recruitment: Changed laws to offer more tax credits and job training. The administration estimates $34 billion in investments made or announced, an estimated 197,000 jobs created and some 50 corporate relocations.
• Land preservation: An estimated 350,000 acres preserved through purchases of land or easements aimed at preventing mining.
Attorney Gordon Bonnyman, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, said Bredesen spurned efforts to trim benefits instead of cutting enrollees.
"He treated the TennCare issues as if I and a few other advocates were willfully trying to damage his administration," Bonnyman said.
Tony Garr, who was head of the Tennessee Health Care Campaign in 2005, said Bredesen chose the most "draconian" option to rein in TennCare.
People died as a result, Garr said.
"We talked to people who lost family members during these cuts even though they [Bredesen administration] continued to deny it."
"One of our better governors"
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga political science professor Bob Swansbrough called Bredesen "one of our better governors," not least because of TennCare.
"I think he won a lot of applause from both Democrats and Republicans for bringing that under control again," Swansbrough said.
Former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, said Bredesen was an "excellent" governor.
"When he would tell you something, that's the way it went. He knew how to work with both Democrats and Republicans," Naifeh said.
Some Republicans don't think Bredesen, a fiscal conservative and social moderate, did too badly either.
New House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said Bredesen helped Hamilton County when he reconfigured funding for the state's Basic Education Program, "which was to our advantage and will be for years to come."
He credited Bredesen's administration for efforts that helped persuade Volkswagen to build a $1 billion auto assembly plant in Chattanooga and bring a $1.45 billion German polysilicon plant to Bradley County. The Wacker Chemical plant will produce a key component of solar panels.
"The state went above and beyond and, I think, corrected an age-old impression in Southeast Tennessee that we'd been a stepchild over the years," McCormick said.
Bredesen said he tried to push clusters of development in fields such as the auto industry and green energy that would benefit the state in the future.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said he and Bredesen "got along great."
"There were times that we disagreed. When we did, I think we disagreed agreeably," he said.
Some point out Bredesen's eight years haven't been entirely free of scandal. Top leaders at the Safety Department were forced to resign over improper promotions during his first term.
State and federal law enforcement officials now are looking at whether Bredesen's former revenue commissioner, Reagan Farr, appropriately handled tax settlements.
And questions have been raised about a solar energy company started by Bredesen's economic and community development commissioner, Matt Kisber, and Farr. Bredesen is a major investor in the firm.
Pushing education change
Bredesen said he thinks his major achievements "have been primarily in the area of conservation - the big one would be education - and then also in just trying to reposition and re-energize the economic aspects of what we were doing."
Early this year he called a special legislative session to pass reforms that led to Tennessee getting the first award, $500 million, in the federal Race to the Top competition.
"I think we were not preparing our children properly for the kind of world they were going to face, and we were lying to them about it," Bredesen said.
Jerry Winters with the Tennessee Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said Bredesen "has raised the bar for the state of Tennessee."
In a speech last week, Bredesen said he would consider his tenure successful "if the people of Tennessee have higher expectations ... of what we can achieve in the state."
"And you know, time will tell on that," he said.