No Down Time 

Bredesen has to think about reelection even in his critical first weeks

Bredesen has to think about reelection even in his critical first weeks

Nobody likes a whiner. Whether the problems are of his own making or not, a newly elected chief executive should resist the temptation to devote the first six months of his tenure to convincing people that his predecessor is to blame for everything. It’s not that the predecessor is never to blame. (Remember the empty cupboard Richard Fulton left Bill Boner when he became Nashville mayor?) It’s just that people don’t want to hear it.

So far as governor, Phil Bredesen has mostly resisted that temptation with regard to the state budget. Facing a shortfall for the current fiscal year and a gap of over $500 million between projections of revenues and expenses for next year, Bredesen is doing his best to get everything quickly under control without asking for more revenue. As a newcomer, he has some slack to make sharp cuts and fudge on what he caused people to think he said during the campaign, but if he seems uncertain about where he’s headed, he can run through that slack very quickly.

This is especially true for Phil Bredesen. When he was running last fall, he declared that he could manage the state out of its budgetary woes and pointed to his reputation as a businessman to back up the claim. His Republican opponent, Van Hilleary, said much the same thing, although no one gave him such a hard time about the claim because no one who knew him well thought he was smart enough to know better. It’s a different matter for Bredesen, who must reassure everyone about his ability to manage the state right from the start.

Last year’s major tax increase, which bumped the sales tax up by a penny on the dollar, has three major implications for Bredesen as he manages the state’s finances.

First, the additional revenue flow—however disappointing it may have become—means that it’s not as bad as it might have been. If the previous governor and General Assembly left him with some holes to fill, they made a major start at trying to fill them. Considering who he’ll have to work with over the next few years, he would do well to refrain from ruminating about who dug them in the first place.

Second, there’ll be no appetite for raising more revenue. Even if it wouldn’t kill his own credibility, asking would certainly kill his relationship with the General Assembly. In any case, the partisan balance in both houses is only slightly Democratic, and the long-term trends seem to favor the Republicans—which would be accelerated by a further tax battle.

Third, Bredesen is likely to benefit from a post-recession boing factor. When the economy recovers, there’s usually a period of high revenue growth that exceeds that of “normal” times. It will not occur in time for Bredesen’s first budget and perhaps not for the second, but the second half of his term is likely to be a flush time.

Taken together, these factors have some implications for the next four years. Bredesen is likely to expend the good will of his honeymoon months making painful choices and offending many constituencies. On the other hand, if he can get the budget balanced and lawmakers out of town by June 1, he’ll have the opportunity to recover politically with his reputation for nonpolitical competence intact.

But this year’s budget is merely a prelude for Bredesen’s administration. While a good performance is necessary to keep him politically viable, it’s not sufficient to make him a good governor. Moreover, there’s another factor to keep in mind. Unlike the three previous governors, there’s a reasonable chance that he’ll face a serious, well-funded opponent in a reelection campaign—even if he performs well. Whereas the recent history of Tennessee politics has been that incumbents don’t get much of a challenge unless they misbehave spectacularly, the growing institutional strength of the Republican Party is such that someone may feel emboldened to take him on. Hilleary has already said he may run. A challenge by someone from the party’s moderate wing could be even more fearsome, as it might bite into some of Bredesen’s financial base.

What that means is that Bredesen has to have a broader strategy for the next four years. Governors aren’t remembered for the things that they didn’t spend money on. He has promised to improve schools and income growth, and he must have a plan for moving ahead in those areas. To that end, there’ll need to be a secret budget plan—one that looks out four years or more with notions about restoring the most painful cuts, addressing troublesome issues like TennCare eligibility and teacher pay uniformity, and finding room for Bredesen’s special signature initiatives. Finding some room to trim back the sales tax rate during the boing years wouldn’t hurt either.

Referring to the secret budget plan, of course, is another way of saying that he must have a reelection strategy. If he can avoid a replay of the fiscal acrimony that marked the previous term, that might be sufficient for getting an easy reelection. But he would probably like to find an opportunity to begin launching his own initiatives.

The trajectory for that is probably with his third budget. That in itself would mark a bold departure. After all, the three previous governors who coasted to reelection have one thing in common. They didn’t make any bold suggestions until their fifth budget.

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