Phil Bredesen, the state’s 48th governor, leaves office Saturday with the inauguration of Republican Bill Haslam as his successor. In an interview, Bredesen looked back at his accomplishments and his one big regret: his failure to save TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program.
As his proudest achievements during eight years as governor, Bredesen cited his management of state finances in hard economic times as well as reforming education, preserving some of the state’s scenic beauty and bringing solar energy jobs to Tennessee.
Under Bredesen, the state has raised academic standards in public schools, expanded pre-kindergarten, tied teacher tenure to student test scores and changed the higher education funding formula to reward colleges with better graduation rates.
On the alternative energy front, the governor recruited two major solar power industry plants, creating what he called “a critical mass” that could lead to more green-collar jobs in the future. In land conservation under Bredesen, the state bought and preserved 350,000 acres largely on the Cumberland Plateau.
“I think that if the people of Tennessee have higher expectations of what they expect from state government, higher expectations of what we can achieve, more of a sense of possibility, I would consider it to have been successful. Time will tell on that,” Bredesen said.
Bredesen said his biggest disappointment was TennCare. He campaigned for governor on the promise to fix Tennessee’s expanded version of Medicaid, whose costs were spiraling out of control. At an impasse with advocacy groups over his proposed reforms, he dismantled the program during his first term, ending health insurance coverage for 170,000 people. He called saving TennCare his “huge unfulfilled hope.”
As for his future, Bredesen, who is 67, offered few clues. He said he has no plans to run for public office again, but he won’t retire.
“I feel I’ve got one more good career in me,” he said.
Here are more excerpts from the interview:
CP: Could you name some important things still to be done for the state?
Phil Bredesen: I think it’s really important for the state to continue building on what I hope are some foundations in the area of education. What needs to be done is a 20-year process, not a one-administration or a four-year process or one special meeting of the General Assembly or something like that. I think that is vital to the state’s future. If we’re going to compete economically and as a place to live a generation from now, we’re going to have to start getting kids who are getting better prepared for the jobs of the future. We’re off to a good start on that. I’m sure like anything we got some things right and some things not right. The next governor and the one after that and the one after that are going to have to keep pushing and modifying. But I think if we really focus on this and keep education on the front end of what governors and legislatures are thinking about, I think we’ve got a chance right now to just really transform it and stop being 40-something in any way in education and really get up there in the top ranks in the states.
What do you wish you could have done that you didn’t?
I’ve always had a list of things that I’d love to see done. I want to see the pre-K program expanded to cover every child. We got a lot of it done but we’re not completely done on that yet. … At the same time that we’re going to have to push down a little bit on the funding for higher education as every state is doing, helping kids to attend institutions of higher education who need the financial help is vitally important. And that could take the form of free community college. It could take the form of loan and scholarship programs for kids. … There were some things that I wanted to do that are physical in nature. I wanted a new state park in Middle Tennessee. I think the whole area along the Natchez Trace there is such beautiful country and would be a real opportunity for that. … I had really wanted at one point to do something significant with a new state museum and that never came together during the time we had some money, and then we didn’t have any money, and it became something to be left for the future.
Why did you never even talk about tax reform like all your predecessors in modern history?
Obviously, I came into office in a somewhat special circumstance in that the state had just been paralyzed for a year and a half over the subject of income taxes. Like everyone else, I just thought that was off the table. I really think that our future if we can get the things done that we need, and I believe we have so far, that our future as a relatively low-cost, low-tax state for people to live and for businesses to locate is a good position, and I don’t think moving halfway toward Massachusetts is a particularly effective strategy. There are states that have built good economies and good places to live at different levels than that. Massachusetts is a fine place to live. It’s got much higher taxes and much higher levels of services. Tennessee is a great place to live. It’s at a different point there.
Making UT-Knoxville a top 25 public research institute, is that possible without large infusion of new money?
I think it’s possible to do a lot of it, OK? And there will have to be new money, but leveraging research money is the way to do a lot of that. … Anything always takes a little walking around money, but I think it’s a lot easier to do than simply saying, oh well, we need to appropriate another $100 million to the University of Tennessee or something like that. And frankly I think it’s good for the university to have to go out and earn the research money. That keeps them focused on what the customers want out here who are buying the research.
What are your top achievements?
I really believe in this idea of stewardship. The first thing you do as governor is steer the ship for eight years. You don’t know exactly where the storms are coming from. A lot of them were financial in my particular case. We had some significant financial issues in my first year, and we got through them smoothly. Obviously, TennCare was a huge threat and just a total mess for two years, but we got through that. … The last couple of years have obviously been tough. But we’ve guided through it. Like anybody, there are a few things you’d like to do with your time as governor which are beyond steering the ship but positioning it for the future. … [Education reform, land conservation and economic development] well, those are the things that are signature pieces that I tried to put a little bit of personal equity into and make happen.
My biggest disappointment in terms of accomplishing anything is that, when I came in, obviously TennCare was a significant issue in the campaign because it had already started crashing. I really wanted to take that and sort of turn it into a broader health care system. … I sort of saw it as a vehicle and an opportunity to do a Tennessee commonsense version of a Massachusetts plan or something like that. It wasn’t going to happen. … My biggest mistake was thinking that with kindness and sweet reason I could work with the advocacy groups and we’d all work out a program together. I
was just naïve. They just weren’t going to do that. … In the end, I wasted a year and a lot of the public’s money, and we ended up making some worse choices in terms of taking people off the rolls and cutting benefits more than I originally wanted to and so on. That is a huge unfulfilled hope that I have had about the office.
You seem to blame TennCare’s failure on others. What’s your own biggest mistake?
The early stages of TennCare, I would say I misjudged all that stuff. I’m just saying the choices I made early on about the approach to take and who to trust and who not to trust and all that, they were mistakes, and they were my mistakes, OK? I’m not trying to push that off on anything else. … You all have your take on what you think were the mistakes of the administration. I don’t think it’s fair to ask me to sort of lay them all out for you. There’s obviously been ups and downs, but a lot of that stuff is in the normal course of business.
What’s next for you?
I plan to wait until January to see what the world looks like and decide what to do. I’m not going to retire. I’m not going to be a dilettante. I’ve already turned down umpteen board offers. I’m going to find something constructive to do. I feel I’ve got one more good career in me. We’ll see where that is.