It is a logical segue of sorts that Governor Phil Bredesen should have become a Democratic Party heretic on an important component of President Obama's economic stimulus program at the very moment that the governor's own last chances for becoming secretary of health and
human services were going out the window.
It may, of course, be pure coincidence that President Obama announced the appointment as HHS secretary of Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius more or less simultaneously with the coming forward of Bredesen as someone who, at our press time, was still considering having his state opt out of accepting funds for extending unemployment benefits.
Should Bredesen follow through in declining to accept some $143 million in funding for that purpose, he would become the nation's only Democratic chief executive to do so. Governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, and Haley Barbour of Mississippi, all Republicans, have declined the money, on the ground that to accept it for the stipulated two-year period would obligate the accepting states to continue paying the add-on unemployment benefits from their own more limited treasuries thereafter.
It is a view that has been challenged not only by the administration but within Bredesen's own governmental jurisdiction. Hosting a collection of other local public officials last Friday, 9th District congressman Steve Cohen led them in deploring the Tennessee governor's public hesitancy.
Challenging Bredesen to "listen to his heart," Cohen said, "It'll tell him what's the right thing to do." The congressman said the money in question is destined for "the Purple Hearts of this recession," that the disbursement of the funds would be "temporary, targeted, and timely," and that "if Tennessee doesn't use the money, it'll be spent somewhere else."
In apparent response to the press conference, Bredesen issued a weekend statement: "I fully support the president's economic recovery package. It will provide much needed jobs for Tennesseans and will help build a sound foundation for our economic future. The unemployment provisions are very important, and we will be looking at how to best use those to meet our needs in Tennessee. Tennessee is very grateful to President Obama for his vision on this issue."
But as Bredesen spokesperson Lydia Lenker elaborated: "The Governor strongly supports the concept of getting more assistance into the hands of more unemployed workers in the tough economy. He's simply taking some time to look at the best way to do that without creating a situation where Tennessee's unemployment trust fund inadvertently runs into solvency issues three years down the road."
Appearing at last week's press conference along with Cohen were numerous other local public officials, among them state representative Jeanne Richardson, who addressed head-on Bredesen's concern that accepting the unemployment funds would impose unaffordable long-term obligations on Tennessee. "That's perverse logic, not to help people right now. You can't predict the future," she said.
We tend to agree with Richardson. We appreciate ex-businessman Bredesen's budgetary concerns, but they seem to us unnervingly close to arguments once advanced by President Herbert Hoover at the height of the Great Depression. Now is now, and it requires direct action.