"Everybody's in the same boat. We're all in this together." That was Governor Phil Bredesen's message in a conference call to members of the Tennessee news media Monday, as the 2003 National Governors Convention was coming to an end in Washington.
The "everybody" was not just the governors of these united -- and financially distressed -- states but their denizens as well. After Bredesen and his gubernatorial peers had finished a round of talks with various ranking federal officials, including President Bush, the bottom line was this: "We got no encouragement on federal help to the states." One of the consequences, said Bredesen, was that Tennessee had the company of 42 other states in having to cut back on optional programs and various forms of optional eligibility under Medicaid -- or, in Bredesen's case, TennCare, under the terms of the federal waiver granted Tennessee. Bredesen is hoping to get that waiver revised so as to allow a variety of cutbacks. If the revision isn't permitted, it would lead to what Bredesen called "a disastrous situation."
Under its current obligations, TennCare faces a $500 million shortfall, and even the state's rainy-day fund, a last-ditch reserve, contains only about $178 million. Bredesen is actively considering cutbacks or shifts in other previously protected areas besides TennCare. One such is in the matter of state-shared funds. Asked if withholding significant amounts of these would not force local governments to seek property tax increases, Bredesen said, "I don't believe that's the case. There aren't very many places that could not find some way to save some of the money that's out there the way we have in state government." Bredesen reminded his listeners that, not too long ago, he too had been in charge of a local government (as mayor of Nashville for two terms in the 1990s) "and I know what it feels like on the receiving end."
Which is to say, the governor, who has asked state agencies to make 7.5 percent cuts across the board, was preparing local governments for the same tough medicine. He outlined the substantial cuts he'd already begun in areas like health and human services, higher education, and nutrition programs -- "I'm asking everyone to pitch in a little bit as opposed to making draconian cuts" -- and suggested that local governments could make proportionate reductions of their own.
Other subjects were discussed during Bredesen's businesslike chat with the media, but the bottom line of it all was obvious: Not only were most of the 50 states in the same leaky boat, but shortly so would most of the state's local governments. And, yes, that means Memphis and Shelby County.
"The mistakes we've made in the past came when we put on rose-colored glasses," Bredesen said. As Mayors Herenton and Wharton, as well as their legislative bodies, must have noticed, the governor wasn't passing out any on Monday.