Buying Time 

Back in January, when state senator Jim Kyle addressed the Memphis Rotary Club on the financial outlook of the state of Tennessee, the Senate Democratic leader minced no words. Things looked beyond dismal. To meet its budget requirements for the coming fiscal year, the state had needed revenue growth of $913.5 million during the preceding fiscal year. What it got was $86.5 million worth of growth, and that, Kyle said bluntly, meant that, entering the 2009 budget process, the state's projected deficit was almost $1 billion.

What that further meant, the legislator told his rapt and stunned audience of influential Memphians, was that a budget already pared to the bone might require further surgery — perhaps as much as 10 percent across the board on top of almost that much already taken — into the very marrow of expected government services. Given a prognosis of that sort, which extended into the foreseeable future, it was something of a wonder that Kyle, as he acknowledged after the meeting, was considering a run for governor in 2010.

A month or so later, the man currently serving as captain of the state's destinies, Governor Phil Bredesen, delivered a state-of-the-state address that, in essence, was a holding action. It was hard to talk turkey about state government's plans and prospects when, as of yet, there was no federal stimulus money on the plate. (With a Tennessee sales tax already at a virtual 10 percent, with an income tax off the table, and with no other remedy at hand, the state itself was out of both answers and money.)

All this while, however, a newly sworn-in President Obama and a reconfigured Congress were confronting the nation's own ever-mounting fiscal crisis by upping the ante on the stimulus, so that Tennessee's share would eventually grow from what Kyle had estimated as a possible $1 billion spread over two years to a sum which, as Bredesen was able to announce in a second budget address Monday night, was five times that great.

As the governor emphasized in his remarks, that $5 billion serendipity is, in essence, one-time money, and it will not preclude the necessity for the state to put its own financial house in order. But while cautious, Bredesen did not stint on expressing gratitude for the good news — that, for example, "this budget fully funds the BEP [Basic Education Program], our employee pension plan, our health insurance programs, and the economic development projects we have under way." Institutions of higher education, as he noted, would receive enough of a cash infusion that "they not only won't have to make cuts, but cuts they have already taken here in Tennessee have been restored." Some $524 million would be "paid directly to local school districts primarily based on their proportions of low income and special education students."

As a direct result of the stimulus package, said Bredesen, "we will not need massive layoffs or furloughs immediately and will have more time to plan our reductions and let natural attrition work for us."

As the governor said early in his address, "This so-called stimulus package is not a silver bullet — what it does is buy us time." And time, as someone once said, is of the essence.

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