Gov. Phil Bredesen says he may turn down millions of dollars in federal stimulus money rather than expand unemployment benefits in ways that many other states did long ago. That would put our Democratic governor in the good company of Republicans like Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, Mississippi's Haley Barbour and Alaska's Sarah Palin in refusing this money.
They say it comes with too many strings attached, requiring states to expand coverage to more low-wage and part-time workers who have lost their jobs. And that means it amounts to an unfunded mandate, the bugaboo of governors everywhere. Once the stimulus money disappears in a couple of years, states might have to raise business taxes a bit (oh nooooo!) to help laid-off workers feed their families.
In Washington at the National Governors Association meeting over the weekend, Democratic governors criticized Republicans who are turning down money, calling them "fringe" politicians eager to score political points. We're guessing Bredesen stared at his shoes as they railed. Though it's hard to believe he was attempting to score political points, it's not hard to buy that he doesn't give a rat's ass about the unemployed.
OK, maybe that's a little harsh. Let's just say he's struggling to connect with his feelings.
Nationally, only about 37 percent of the unemployed collect benefits, according to the National Employment Law Project, which supports the stimulus program. It estimates that if states agree to the expansions, another 500,000 workers nationwide would be eligible.
Tennessee already has one of the most miserly programs in the country, providing a maximum of $275 a week.
Still, the unemployment trust fund, which is going broke, is pumping out 120,000 checks a week, three times more than last year.
If Bredesen doesn't turn it down, Tennessee would receive $141 million to expand the program. The governor told reporters he might reject the money, calling creating new benefits "too much of a lift for the legislature."
That threw a monkey wrench in the Democrats' PR strategy to ridicule Republicans as heartless nutjobs. So Bredesen began popping up on cable TV attempting to explain. In a Fox News interview, he said the expansion of benefits would be "a good thing," but "there's a cost for states down the road," and Tennessee employers could end up paying more two years from now.
"Ninety-eight percent of the [stimulus package] is absolutely great and maybe even 100 percent," Bredesen said. "We're trying to figure that out."
Right-wing Republican Rep. Brian Kelsey rubbed it in by filing a resolution urging the governor to reject the money. "I am glad the governor is coming around to our position now," he said. "Tennesseans will benefit from this fiscal responsibility."
Odom's House of Pain
House Democratic leader Gary Odom, who would normally break an arm to jump in front of a camera, failed to show for his party caucus' weekly news conference. He had an appointment that he just had to keep, according to his aide, Skip Cauthorn. More likely, he was afraid he would say something stupid when reporters asked about his latest travails.
The day before, caucus chair Mike Turner and Rep. John Litz met with reporters without Odom's knowledge to contradict Odom's recent comments to the Memphis Flyer.
Odom claimed in the interview that he orchestrated the ascension of Kent Williams to the speaker's office. Former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh was clueless, he added, and he also blamed Naifeh for Democratic defeats going all the way back to Al Gore's loss of Tennessee in the 2000 presidential race. In the Turner/Litz version of the truth, Naifeh was the kingmaker.
House Democrats were outraged by what Odom said and started whispering of a possible coup d'état against their leader. "Who's next?" asked one lawmaker. "What happens if I cross Gary next? Will it be my turn in the barrel next?"
Added Rep. Charles Curtiss: "It bothers me. Anytime we're publicly attacking one another, we're scattering instead of gathering. If we have issues with one another, we need to keep it out of the press if we can."
Was there a danger of Odom losing his leadership position? "There could be a move to unseat him if this continues," Curtiss said.
In his only public comments on the controversy, Odom told The Tennessean that, after yapping about it virtually nonstop for nearly two months, he's suddenly decided that debating how Williams became speaker is "a pointless discussion."
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