POLITICS: Bredesen's Example

The governor's open budget hearings let us in on the secret.


Ever since Woodrow Wilson at the conclusion of World War I proposed the principle of “open covenants, openly arrived at” as a standard for international relationships, the concept has been little more than fodder for ridicule. Indeed, the very phrase has come to symbolize that president’s supposed fatal naiveté. Wilson’s Fourteen Points notwithstanding, the nations of the earth have gone on drawing up treaties and doing their business in secret ever since , saying one thing in public and doing something else in private, no matter the catastrophic results. Even less so has the idea of candid and public handling of domestic affairs taken hold among Wilson’s countrymen. Anybody with any experience in local, state, or federal governments knows that the real deals get cut behind closed doors and that what goes on in public debate is generally so much legislative window dressing.

But Phil Bredesen, the former Nashville mayor about to begin his second year at the helm of Tennessee state government, seems determined to change all that, acting to fulfill both the spirit and the letter of Wilson’s dictum.

Last year the newly elected governor entered office to find that the state was a hundred million dollars in the hole, even after the enactment of an unprecedentedly large sales tax increase the year before. Instead of gnashing his teeth or wringing his hands, Bredesen analyzed the situation and determined to do that which no prior Democratic governor (or Republican governor, either) had done -- slash state spending across the board. Except in the area of public education or where judicial mandates prevented it, the governor insisted that each department slash its budget by 9 percent. Remarkably, even the Tennessee Department of Transportation, whose roadbuilding apparatus had always enjoyed sacred-cow status, came under the ax.

How was Bredesen able to enforce his will? First of all, he had the support of his fellow Democrats in the legislature, who in the preceding years had rallied only unevenly to support Republican Governor Don Sundquist’s abortive tax-reform efforts. And it didn’t hurt that Bredesen’s actions were in conformity with the traditional “cut-spending” rhetoric of the General Assembly’s Republicans.

But the key to Bredesen’s success in budget-cutting -- and that which guaranteed that the scalpel was wielded judiciously -- was his insistence on carrying on his budget negotiations, line by line, department by department, program by program, in public. No private pork-barreling, no back-room back-scratching. It was unprecedented. Open covenants, openly arrived at, indeed: Wilson would have been proud.

This week and next the governor is holding similar public hearings with officials of state departments to iron out the details of the budget he will present to the General Assembly with the New Year. (Citizens interested in checking them out via streaming video on the Internet can do so by going on line at www.legislature.state.tn.us , then clicking, consecutively, on “House” and on “Governors Budget Hearings.”)

All this is taking place while Congress is rushing to conclude some year-end business in Washington -- including preparation of an energy policy and provision of prescription-drug coverage for seniors -- by the same old closed-door methods. All indications are that the wheelers and dealers are getting their piece of the Thanksgiving mealbefore the rest of it is even set on the table.

It is too much to expect that what is now going on in Tennessee will become a model for national lawmaking, but it’s worth recommending all the same. And it seems to have paid off politically. So far the best the governor’s political opponents can do is grouse about extravagant salaries for state lottery officials. That may or may not pay off by 2006, but Bredesen’s decision to play his cards face up has him ahead in the game so far.

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