click to enlarge
We now yield the floor to reader Michael Lottman, who believes Tennessee's problems are not a matter of economic scarcity, but of leaders who cave at the first sign of trouble:
I was dismayed to read in The Tennessean (April 11, 2009) that the budget for the family support program of the Division of Mental Retardation Services may be cut from $7 million a year to $200,000, i.e., next to nothing, by the middle of 2010. Family support is probably the most effective as well as cost-effective program operated by DMRS, as it provides targeted assistance so that people's families can keep them at home rather than see them placed in state or private institutions or in expensive community residences.
But we are told that the state must plan for a drastic reduction since it will no longer be able to pay for this program once the federal stimulus funds are exhausted. In fact, the state can continue to pay for many of the services that Governor Bredesen, DMRS Deputy Commissioner Norris and others have been placing in this doomsday category. Even if the stimulus runs out and is not renewed, there are hundreds of millions of dollars in the state rainy day fund, TennCare reserves, and possibly other caches that I believe have barely been touched. We have the means to support vital state assistance programs for many years; what may be lacking is the will to do so.
Beyond the existence of untapped reserves, the federal stimulus gives the state a welcome breathing space in which, rather than reflexively cutting programs and staff, it can re-order its priorities and find ways to continue the services that its citizens cannot and should not do without. Probably the economic picture will have improved significantly by 2010, but whether it does or not, the state cannot escape its obligation to meet the critical needs of its citizens.
Tennessee is a bountiful and prosperous state, but for the most part it has failed to deploy its resources in an equitable and effective manner for the benefit of the citizenry as a whole. While the legislature busies itself with abortion and gun permits, leaving the serious business of running the state to the deeper thinkers in the executive branch, the governor and his lieutenants seem to have made only a token effort to adjust to new realities and to re-balance the relationship between needs that have to be met and resources that have to be secured...
The elephant in the room in any such discussion is the obvious solution of a minimal state income tax, but even in the absence of a single political figure with the courage to broach this concept, there are loopholes to be closed and means to be explored that might assure a more stable flow of revenue in good times as well as bad.
To my recollection, it was the resistance to these lesser measures -- i.e., to anything that would cost an interest group any money -- that brought the income tax to the fore during the previous administration, only to be defeated in a hail of threats and rock-throwing by some of the people who would have been helped the most. (By the way, there already is an individual income tax in Tennessee, which costs a well-paid but now retired person like me about $3,000 a year and which could be extended at a lower rate to a wider class of payers without causing unbearable pain.)
The same issues are presented by the ongoing student protests at Middle Tennessee and other universities, where our young people see their educations being disrupted and their futures--along with the state's--being dimmed if not destroyed by the same "there's nothing we can do" mentality.
What is happening at MTSU is especially unfortunate since the school has seemed headed until recently to the top ranks of U.S. public universities. So President McPhee invites the students to a discussion of severe program reductions, some $19 million worth, that have already been decided upon, and then he seems offended when they do not accept the familiar but lame explanation that when the stimulus is gone the state will be out of money. (See also the proposed dissolution of the state ethics commission for want of $338,000, reminding us that fiscal emergencies, real or imagined, have always been a good way to avoid bothersome obligations.)
Better that President McPhee should have stood up for his students, his university, and his state and committed himself to finding a way to maintain MTSU's steady march to greatness. Unfortunately, besides being up against the same governmental tendency to embrace problems instead of finding solutions, he must also contend with the general contempt for higher education, whereby the study of philosophy or environmental planning is considered sissy stuff that interferes with more important things, like football.
But if President McPhee's students have the courage to stand up for the value of culture and learning, then so should he--and so should we all. Otherwise, if like Governor Bredesen and his subordinates we simply do nothing and wait for the axe to fall, then we are telling our future leaders, our unemployed
parents struggling to meet the needs of their handicapped children, and countless others who depend on us that we're sorry, but they're just out of luck.