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A Tale of Two Governments

A Tale of Two Governments

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These are austere times in local, state, and federal governments, and the capacity of any of these jurisdictions to expand services is limited at best and impossible at worst. The trick these days, in fact, is to avoid the kind of harsh budget cuts that debilitate those essential functions that the governed depend upon and that governments exist to provide.

Down the line, we fear the worst concerning the current national administration. What with Middle Eastern wars and projected journeys to Mars, the high likelihood is that at some none too distant point, President Bush -- if reelected to a second term -- will end up shedding crocodile tears and will tell us, Sorry, folks, the money's gone. We'll have to do away with, oh, Medicare here and Social Security there. But it just so happens I've got a privatization plan for those functions, anyhow. Bye, bye, New Deal. Bye, bye, Great Society. Nice knowing you.

There are those among us who believe that such an outcome would not be an unfortunate consequence but precisely what the administration's sequential tax giveaways to the wealthy are designed to produce. We're not conspiracy theorists, but we confess to a sense of alarm at hearing our Mars-minded president tell us that we are soon to make "choices" about what to cut. We doubt not what kinds of cuts the president will ask us to "choose."

That's the wrong way to go at a budget. Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen's version of a budget, unveiled in Nashville as Bush's plans were being announced in Washington, is more like it.

Just as he did last year, Bredesen is calling for -- not tax cuts but spending cuts, and, just like last year's, these are to be across the board, at 5 percent this time around. There are exceptions -- one of which is not the much pondered TennCare program. Though committed to health care for the state's citizens, Bredesen commissioned a careful study of the program, found that it could not be continued at the current levels, and did the sensible thing. He slated it for reduction also and promised to reconfigure it so as to make it more functional and less expensive.

And Bredesen not only isn't running a record deficit, he's managed to come up with a surplus of sorts. Like Bush, he makes improved education a goal, but unlike the president, whose No Child Left Behind initiative remains unfunded and thus a burden to state and local governments, Bredesen has directed his limited resources to the goal. Teacher pay will be raised, and funding has also been increased. The result will be that a state whose per capita expenditures have lagged relative to neighboring states will find itself ahead of the curve -- this in a time of acknowledged shortages!

Almost simultaneous with Bredesen's budget presentation was the announcement from state lottery director Rebecca Paul that proceeds from the lottery, also intended to benefit education, are up to expectations: $72 million during the first two weeks, just concluded.

When Paul presented these figures this week at the Memphis Rotary Club, she was asked how much the state will have pulled in by the end of the year? Wait and see, she said, in effect. It's too early to tell. But she allowed herself one clear projection: Enough money will be raised to fund scholarships for the number of Tennessee high school graduates who will be eligible and are expected to apply.

It's amazing what a little fair-minded foresight and careful planning can do. Take note, President Bush.

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