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Gov. Phil Bredesen warned today he's against big honking tuition increases for college students, which some University of Tennessee trustees
are talking about imposing. It was the closest thing to news from the governor's media briefing
on how the state will spend its share of the federal stimulus money--$4.5 billion over the next two years.
Bredesen announced he's named assistant state comptroller Charles Harrison to track and monitor the federal money as it flows through state government. He also said he's completed his state budget proposal and plans to present it to the legislature on either March 23 or March 30.
And he reiterated how happy it makes him that he's no longer in the same company with Republican governors like Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal in rejecting the part of the stimulus cash that goes to expand jobless benefits.
Bredesen originally worried the state might have to raise business taxes a little bit to pay for the expanded benefits once the federal money disappears in a couple of years. He caught a lot of criticism in the national media for this position. But he announced Friday that we can accept all our share of the money, after all. He changed his mind after learning that basically the state's jobless benefits are so miserly that it'll take us maybe nine years to spend all the money, which is $140 million, and by then no one will remember what happened. Here's what he said on this topic:
"We've been able to determine that we can comfortably pay for that with that money for at least six years given the current unemployment rate. So given the fact that I certainly hope that comes down, that number is probably seven or eight or nine years comfortably paid for. It may be a small issue seven or eight or nine years down the line but it kind of disappears in the rounding at that point."
Excerpts from the Q&A:
: How quickly will money start flowing to the agencies, and can you give us a sense of when you'll be ready with your own state budget?
: In terms of the state budget itself, and that's where a hunk of this money appears, it is basically put to bed to get printed and we're going to make a decision later this week as to whether I make a budget presentation on the 23rd of the 30th of this month. We have not discussed this yet with the legislature. ... The funds that are flowing through the state ... they'll all be a part of that budget. That really comes into effect on July 1st of this year. ... With regard to the other projects, there's as many answers to that question as there are projects. We're moving forward on the TDOT projects. ... Some of the energy money may take a little longer to put the structures in place. We're going to move quickly on this. When I was in Washington ... they really were giving us kind of conflicting requirements. It was one, we want all this money out the door yesterday and two, we're going to watch you like hawks to make sure it's all spent exactly precisely. That's a tough set of things to try to keep your arms around, but we're going to do it in a way that tries to move it out quickly but does it in a way that there's no embarrassment either to the administration or certainly to us.
: What can you tell Tennesseans about how this money will impact our state in a positive way?
: When you spend that kind of money, I mean I clearly think it's going to create jobs in the state. I clearly think it's going to preserve jobs in the state. In state government, it's going to preserve a substantial number of jobs that we'd have to lose otherwise. So what it really is styled to do, which is to put some money into the economy in the short term to keep people working, to keep people from being laid off, to make fuller use of the economic potential that we have, I think it's accomplishing that, and it's a lot of money. It's $4.5 billion. I mean, that's a huge amount of money. In state government, only TennCare and maybe K-12 education would be larger. It's a big dollop of money. In indirect ways, every Tennessean is going to feel the results of this. In the narrow issue of state government, it gives us 2 ½ years rather than 90 days to deal with what's happening with the economy, and as such, we'll be able to do it much more intelligently and much more painlessly.
: Could you address higher education? We still have trustees talking about the need for double-digit tuition increases.
: The short-term effect on higher education will be very strong. You will not have to see immediately these major cuts to higher education. Having said that, when you make reasonable predictions about where the economy is going to be going in the future, over the next two or three years, we are going to have to make substantial cuts in all of our departments, including higher education. ... What this does is to buy us some time to do it intelligently. ... I think what you're going to see is that higher education will have the luxury of a great deal more time and the luxury of seeing as the economy continues to develop exactly what's going to happen and make better plans for the future. It certainly has taken away the need for strong, Draconian actions in higher education.
: Does that include double-digit tuition increases?
: I have no idea what they have in mind, but I'd be very unhappy if with all this stuff happening somebody put double-digit tuition increases in place. Higher education has definitely dodged a bullet over the short term on this one.