Sometimes it takes a Democrat to do a Republican thing. Sometimes it takes a Republican to do a Democratic thing. Sometimes only a person coming in with a particular ideology can pull off something the other ideological side wants.
And so it is that Bredesen, a Democrat accused in the gubernatorial election of being a tax-and-spend liberal, is skating through the legislature with a proposed budget that reduces state government at levels never before seen. Bredesen’s proposed cuts total about twice as much as what Republican state Sen. Marsha Blackburn proposed in recent years. When Blackburn made her suggestions, she was discredited as a dunderhead. Nothing ever came of her proposal after Democrats beat it to death.
Fact is, Blackburn was a dunderhead. But the point is instructive: Bredesen, a Democrat, can accomplish what a Republican probably could not. Our governor’s budget proposes that mothers on welfare who pass the GED no longer receive a $100 cash bonus for doing so. Had a Republican suggested that, he would have been strung up by nightfall. When a Democrat suggests it, however, everyone punches the snooze button.
When Ned McWherter, one of the more business-oriented governors this century, told his commissioners of state government to “reorganize, restructure and reduce,” he set in motion a budget-cutting exercise that pretty well cut state government to the bone. Eight years later, however, the next governor, Don Sundquist, fell asleep at the wheel, government payroll climbed steeply and the budget mushroomed. It all came to a head last year, when the state passed a sales tax increase that was supposed to raise about $1 billion and stop all the bleeding. But it turns out $1 billion wasn’t enough. It looks as if we’re going to be in the hole by $350 million when this fiscal year ends in June. Next year’s shortfall will be even more colossal.
And that’s why Bredesen is making all the cuts. Politically, Bredesen appears impregnable. His budget presentation speech before the General Assembly this week was well received. How he’s pulling off this impossible mission is anybody’s guess, but allow us to present several possible reasons.
First, the legislature is simply exhausted. For the last three years, its members have sweated bullets trying to pass an income tax and generate the money to fund state government. Along the way, members have met with defeat, and bricks have been thrown through windows. As draconian as Bredesen’s budget is, it at least lets lawmakers take a breather. Voters appear to like it, and that’s all the legislature wants to know.
Secondly, Bredesen’s budget is pretty fair. The 9 percent cuts he’s made in most departments are well distributed across the board. Everyone can cry foul over their cuts, but the truth is that in most cases they’re no more or less than anyone else’s. The budget is, therefore, equitable.
Finally, Phil Bredesen is a smart man. State government probably does include a fair amount of waste. Shaving off one-tenth of its expenditures will probably reduce it to its core responsibilities, and Bredesen as a capitalist understands that pretty well.
People were always wondering how well Bredesen, who’s a very executive-minded person, would do in his dealings with the legislature. Some speculated he would fall apart as he was forced to deal with lesser mortals. As it turns out, this legislature seems to appreciate the leadership. For Bredesen, everything’s coming up roses.
We haven’t been sure whether to laugh or cry at The Tennessean in the last week. We’re referring to the newspaper’s four-part series, titled “Sacred Strands,” which is about women in India who cut off their hair and give it to Hindu temples. The hair is then sold to companies and made into wigs. Oh, there’s a local anglethe wigs are then sold in American stores, and some of those stores are here in Nashville.
The city’s morning paper rarely undertakes huge projects requiring large amounts of space. They don’t do a lot of “investigative reporting” or “enterprise reporting.” But they have now. They locked and loaded, they spent a lot of money on newsprint and color photography and promotions, and when they unleashed their mighty firepower, they took aim at women cutting off their hair in India. The hair then arrives at stores in Nashville.
Around town, the city’s chattering classes are doubled over. Comic relief is worth something, but there’s something quite sad about all this. Twenty years ago, the paper was driving down a different highway. At that time, it was mustering its armor to tackle a massive investigation into the failure of the Butcher banking empire. It was also about to launch an effort to secure greater funding in the state legislature for welfare mothers. These are only two projects that come to mind.
Where is The Tennessean now on the big issues of the day, both in this city and across the state? Is Indian hair something the newspaper considers important to the human condition? “Sacred Strands” would have been fine for National Geographic or the Smithsonian magazine. But such a story, published in The Tennessean, is really just another sign that something has gone terribly wrong down at 1100 Broadway. And the city is lesser for it.
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