State Finances in Dire Straits?

Bredesen resents Haslam's descriptions that we're 'running off a cliff'

Officeholders do not appreciate being trashed by successors.

During the gubernatorial primary, former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe did not appreciate being blamed for Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam’s property tax increase or references to his having to clean up a financial mess when he took office. A former Haslam finance director took to the op-ed page of the News Sentinel to thoroughly trash the financial situation Haslam inherited from his predecessor.

Gov. Phil Bredesen had a rather snippy exchange with some reporters recently that could be taken as a shot across Haslam’s bow, though he might have just been cranky that day. Haslam’s campaign theme during the primary was that as a business executive and a mayor he is better equipped to deal with the financial calamity facing the state.

Bredesen took exception to the idea that the state’s finances are “running off a cliff.” He pointed out that federal funds that enabled the state to balance its budget this year were spent on one-time expenses, not built into the on-going costs of state government. In other words, the suggestion that the state starts out a billion and a half in the hole next year is just not true. He argues that he is a much better financial steward than he is being painted.

Bredesen has not been a vigorous participant in Democratic Party building during his two terms as governor. He is likely more popular among Republicans than big-city Democrats.

The Democrats lost control of both houses of the General Assembly during his tenure. They lost the House in 2008 when Bredesen advised Barack Obama not to waste his time coming to Tennessee to campaign. (Though given Obama’s numbers in Tennessee, Bredesen was right and his coming here might have made it worse.)

Will Bredesen change his ways and play a prominent role in the current race to choose his successor?

Bredesen is already featured in television commercials—for both candidates.

Haslam lists Bredesen in a roll call of outstanding Tennessee political leaders that lead to his being next in line—a list that includes former Gov. Ned McWherter. This jarring juxtaposition is effective on one level, however. Mike McWherter’s campaign rationale thus far has been being the son of Ned and having been endorsed by Bredesen. The Haslam ad fuzzes up the issue.

Should Haslam continue to hammer the idea that the state, under Bredesen’s leadership, is in dire financial straits, it might prompt Bredesen to get a little more involved in picking his successor.

It is likely the shortfall next year will be around $200 million, manageable in a $28 billion state budget. And tax revenues, for the last month reported, were up. This is not to say next year’s budget won’t be tight or it won’t be a challenge to solve. But Bredesen’s point is that he has not run the state into a financial ditch, and he is tired of hearing that he has.

Will we see a Ned McWherter/Phil Bredesen tour on Mike McWherter’s behalf? Will it make a difference? Bredesen has never been known for having a “coattail” effect. While he got a lot of Republican votes in his last election (against an anemic cannon-fodder opponent), he didn’t seem to make a difference in other races. If he had not endorsed Mike McWherter it would have been significant. But given that he has, will it matter?

There was a time when any Democrat running statewide began with a 40 percent base of support. But a recent Republican poll has support for President Obama in Tennessee at 29 percent.

Ned McWherter and Bredesen shore up Mike McWherter’s right-of-center campaign. He can even run to the right of Haslam on some issues. But where does that leave him with the Democratic Party base? What incentive do urban Obama Democrats have to get out the vote for Mike McWherter? Many are just as likely to vote for Haslam. Or stay home.

There is no sign at this point that Mike McWherter is going to make up a double-digit deficit, no matter how many endorsements he picks up. Even with Bredesen’s help.

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