Friday, April 04, 2003

Mr. Phil Explains It All For You

A couple of weeks ago, Jackson Baker (my arch-nemesis and the blog's namesake) published an interview with new Governor Phil Bredesen. The following week, he published "Part Two", which might more properly be called an addendum.

The interview questions say a lot about Baker and how he's been affected by the Income Tax War and all its fallout, especially in the Democratic camp. Here's some of the questions, set alone:

Why was the need for budget cuts of the magnitude you've proposed not foreseen after last year's 1 percent sales-tax increase, the largest tax increase in Tennessee history?

Would an income tax have brought in more revenue than the sales tax did?

Last year you seconded Van Hilleary in promising to "repeal" an income tax if the legislature passed one. House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, who was just then trying to pass an income tax, was publicly displeased about that, as were other Democrats. Your take on that now?

Some observers consider you to be more like the traditional Republican than the usual Democrat. Your reaction?

During the 1994 campaign, when you lost to Sundquist, there were probably some unpleasant memories. Such as election night.

But there had to be high moments too, like your well-received speech to the Kiwanis Club here about "10 Things I Can Do for Memphis." One of them was bringing an NFL franchise to Memphis.

Do you consider the previous administration disingenuous about the shortfalls you discovered?

Pretty dire stuff, as you can see. So far as I know, this is the first and only real sit-down interview with the Governor, and Baker demonstrates a real lack of imagination.

The upside for us, though, is that being the first interview, Bredesen gives us a whole lot of new things.

For example, in talking about the Income Tax War itself, Bredesen has this to say:
The tax increase was an 11th-hour solution to a problem they thought was going to be solved by the income tax. Much of that increase went to fill a hole that was made by spending one-time funds in previous years. I don't think there was really thoughtful fiscal planning the last two or three years. It was: 'Once we get this Holy Grail of an income tax passed, we'll have plenty money and won't have to think of these things.'

I always thought, looking from the outside in at the income-tax debate, there were two things getting confused into one: One thing was, How much tax do you want to collect? And what is the level of services you want to have for the state of Tennessee? Do you want to be 45th or 25th or 15th on education funding? That's a longer-term issue having to do with how you want to position your state in the United States of America and so on.

Then there was the short-term issue of "We've had some really good years and the economy has gone south and we've got some pressure and how're we going to solve that problem?" And I think the income tax got used as a solution to problem number two. Because if you look at the numbers, Tennessee grew its budget substantially over the last couple of years. We created between two and three thousand new jobs in the middle of the huge budget crisis. The percentages by which our jobs grew in that period were among the highest in the country. What happened was that no one ever got focused on how you deal with these tough times because they were reaching for the Holy Grail up here.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall Bredesen being anywhere near this detailed and honest and open during the campaign. He didn't have the numbers or the inside view of the problems then, but neither did he articulate like this.

Bredesen also seems to understand the South pretty well, for a Yankee:
My assessment from the beginning was that if this election is about an income tax, I lose. And while I was not in favor of it, no Democrat is ever going to "out-seg" a conservative Republican on how much you can be against an income tax or any of those kinds of things. I would just say there was a campaign strategy: Don't let it be about the income tax. I ruffled some feathers and had some hurt feelings. But I also felt that when I got there by exercising some judgment I would get it back.
Yeah, he actually said "out-seg." Woo! It's pretty clear, too, that the people and media of Tennessee wouldn't let him execute his strategy.

On why he's a Democrat, he gives an answer that's passing strange:
I grew up in a single-parent family, living with my grandmother. My grandmother took in sewing for a living, and I think Democrats have always had a lot more concern about people who take in sewing for a living than Republicans have. And one of the things that I didn't like about my life before I got involved in politics was that I'd gotten into the business world and I'd made a bunch of money and I looked around. None of my friends took in sewing for a living. Or were bank tellers like my
mother was.
He chose to be one, from an apparently apolitical position!
I'm betting a lot on being able to fix TennCare. It would be the easiest thing in the world to flip that back to Medicaid, drop 400,000 people off the rolls, and go. To me, it's worth risking your governorship to try and keep 400,000 on the TennCare rolls. And, you know, I think the Democratic Party in general is a place I'm more comfortable in, with those kinds of concerns.
Now the first part of this paragraph kinda scare me. He's clearly pegging his reputation and legacy as Governor on being able to reform TennCare. I wish him luck, because I don't think he can do it. Too many forces are arrayed against him, between him and the pig trough of State and Federal money that too many attached to TennCare depend on. I still think handing back the TennCare waiver is the only way to go, but clearly Bredesen doesn't. Ah well....

Bredesen then goes on to politely but pointedly place a whole lot of blame on the previous Legislatures and especially former Governor Don Sundquist for the mess we find ourselves in now, and for the rancor of the past few years. I'm not going to quote that, or any more. Go to the links above and read the whole thing. It's all eye-opening.

The upshot of all this is a slight reappraisal of Governor Phil Bredesen on my part. He's clearly sincere about trying to remake out State's government, and forcing fiscal responsibility on the Legislature. He's not a dogmatic Democrat, with all the ideology that smothers their brains, but rather a person who had to choose a label. I'll buy that. He sees the mistakes that Sundquist made and seems determined not to repeat them, nor allow them to reappear.

I'm willing to cut him more slack than I have yet. If we cast this in terms of the Homeland Security Department's Threat Assessment Level chart, I'm officially moving us down from Yellow to Blue -- from Elevated risk to Guarded. It's still early days, and as the next post shows the forces of income taxation are still to make their countermoves. I want to see how Bredesen responds to, and surmounts, those challenges. Proof and pudding and all that.

OK, y'all can pick yourselves up off the floor now.

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