Haslam confronts state budget needing cuts so deep that key services are likely doomed

Sunday, February 6, 2011 at 10:05pm
Jude Ferrara/SouthComm 

Bill Haslam ran for governor last year as a penny-pinching pragmatist, promising a rigorous top-to-bottom review of state government. About each service rendered, he said he would ask, “Should state government do this?” 

In his first few weeks in office, the new governor is finding there’s often no point to that question. For a vast array of programs affecting virtually the state’s entire population, the money is running out. 

For the past two years, nearly $2 billion in federal economic stimulus money has propped up the state’s recession-battered budget. Now that money is disappearing, and with it go services in every department of state government. 

The federal government is derided universally for wasteful spending. But even the flintiest budget hawks always have conceded Tennessee’s state government is lean. The state constitution requires a balanced budget. New taxes are off the table, and there are no easy cuts for Haslam to make. 

“Ouch,” the governor cried at one point during last week’s public hearings on the state budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. He had just learned that he would lose three-quarters of the state’s money for tourism advertising — the engine that drives a $13 billion industry. Across state government, the hit list is long. 

The state would stop trying to prevent diabetes, ending a $7 million-a-year program that helps people lead healthier lifestyles, Health Commissioner Susan Cooper told Haslam. That’s just as the program was making headway against the disease. Tennessee, which once had the nation’s worst rate of diabetes, has climbed ahead of eight other states, Cooper said. 

The health department also would end a breast and cervical cancer screening program for 14,000 uninsured and underinsured women, as well as the state’s HIV testing initiative and a program that helps hemophiliacs. 

Social workers would stop making home visits to troubled families and stop teaching “healthy start” classes for children and their parents. Both of those programs are aimed at reducing child abuse and neglect, Cooper said. 

All the commissioners brought their own lists of vanishing programs. Community treatment centers for the mentally ill and alcohol- and drug-addicted would lose funding. The Department of Children’s Services would lose 162 jobs. Six state park swimming pools would close. So would two state golf courses. A prison sex offender treatment program would end, along with convict “community service” work crews. Inspectors who ensure the state’s groundwater is safe would lose their jobs. 

If cuts in mental health services go through as scheduled, “We’re off the cliff, sir. We’ve got major problems,” said Mental Health Commissioner Doug Varney, who also likened it to an amputation. “With this safety net, we can’t just keep cutting little pieces of the fingers off,” Varney told the governor. “Pretty soon the hands won’t work. I think we may have to decide to cut a finger off here or there, and that’s what we do. At least the hands will still work.” 

Even the usually untouchable Education Department isn’t exempt. Its cuts list includes school nurses, teacher pay for after-school tutoring, grants to pay for school security officers, and funding for public TV stations across the state. 

“These are all certainly needed programs,” acting Education Commissioner Patrick Smith said.

Although he obviously knew the broad outlines of the state’s budget troubles, Haslam seemed taken aback by some of the specifics. At one point, he interrupted the hearings to ask how so many obviously important programs wound up on the chopping block.

All were targeted in advance under the last budget and given funding for only one more year. Lawmakers could change their minds and choose new programs to eliminate, but as all state officials realize, it’s unlikely that any of the alternatives would meet with less anguish. Haslam is scheduled to make his budget recommendation by March 1. 

“There’s not a magic drawer with money in it that we can pull out and fund all these programs, as worthy as we think they are,” Haslam told reporters. “So I can say with 100 percent certainty that we’re not going to get all those things funded that were funded with one-time money.”

Tennessee’s economy is slowly rebounding, and the state government’s revenue flow has ticked up in recent months after two years of the worst tax collections on record. The state has collected $100 million more than expected the first half of this budget year. Still, Haslam must add $70 million to public school spending merely to keep up with inflation, and costs also are rising in TennCare, the Medicaid health insurance program for low-income Tennesseans. 

TennCare, which serves one-fifth of the state’s population, already is planning to impose new limits on inpatient hospital services and doctor visits and to eliminate coverage for physical therapy, among other reductions in benefits. 

During their public hearing, higher education officials pleaded with Haslam for cash for building upkeep and other capital projects. University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro said Estabrook Hall, the Knoxville campus’s century-old engineering building, is “falling down around our ears,” and that’s causing students to leave Tennessee to go to college.

DiPietro said regular funding for capital projects “would be a transformational change for Tennessee in higher education.”

Haslam gave little encouragement: “We hope to have some capital program for them. To say how much that would be or to think it’s going to be a huge amount is probably overly optimistic.” 

More than one commissioner noted that state spending is contracting at precisely the wrong time. 

Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau said state park visitors spend $725 million annually and generate 12,000 jobs. Tourism Commissioner Susan Whitaker said her industry brings in $1 billion in sales taxes each year. With the economy in such a fragile state, they asked Haslam whether it’s a good idea to close park attractions and cut tourism advertising.

The governor greets his predicament with an air of resignation. It’s a sharp contrast with the soaring rhetoric of his inaugural address. In that speech only three weeks ago, he envisioned a Tennessee with a vibrant economy, top-tier schools and healthy lifestyles, and he challenged the state “to aspire to be more.” Now he’s asking the public to understand his hands are tied. 

“There is over a billion dollars of cuts that have been made,” he told reporters last week. “We’re trying to see, are there any of those that we can figure out a way to pay for next year and to continue paying for? But it is important for everyone to understand, those cuts have been made theoretically. There will be some of those that we will try to bring back. We won’t be able to bring back many of them.”  

18 Comments on this post:

By: Loner on 2/7/11 at 5:59

Question: Will this new pragmatic Governor finally do away with what appeared to be one of Gov. Bredesen's favorite programs - the Governor's Marijuana Eradication Program?

Some 20 states have medical marijuana (Cannabis) statutes on their books and many states have de-criminalized mere possession of small amounts of Cannabis. The Volunteer State, however, is still acting like it is in the Dark Ages.

Phil Bredesen was a hot-headed, anti-marijuana crusader; let us hope that cooler heads will now prevail. Marijuana smokers are harmless minnows in a sea of nasty barracuda; it seems that the police, the courts, the lawyers and the penal system must have bigger fish to fry.

By: Antisocialite on 2/7/11 at 7:34

I agree with everything you just said Loner, and I fully believe that marijuana prohibition needs to end, but it's effect on our state budget is minimal.


According to the City Paper's story, the budget is almost totally covered by federal funding from the DEA, only regular salaries and vehicle use are covered by the state.

By: gdiafante on 2/7/11 at 8:50

I don't think marijuana is a priority right now, Loner.

By: Loner on 2/7/11 at 9:11

Please enlighten us, GD.

By: pswindle on 2/7/11 at 9:24

I am getting just what I expected out of this governor. A private oil man taking care of his own businesses. People across this great state wiill start being layed off, and now I wonder how the people of TN will like this big talker that said nothing during the campaign.

By: AmyLiorate on 2/7/11 at 9:40

I dunno Loner, every photo I see of Haslam it looks like he's no more than an hour off the bong.

By: Jagman on 2/7/11 at 9:44

Services for the lazy need to be cut. The welfare rolls in some areas exceed 50%. Some of these people have never worked in their life. They enjoy the benefits of our system. If they do work they are paid "under the table' so they can keep the welfare benefits. Pre-K is just a babysitting service and adds nothing over the long or short run. Schools are books and teachers; not just bricks and mortar. An official in Franklin County stated, after the county built a "state of art" school, "the kids won't get a better education but they will feel better about it." There has been so much waste over the years. It has to stop.

By: trtay2004 on 2/7/11 at 10:52

The governor said 'Ouch'. If we tax the oil companies I bet we can get enough money out of the governor's pockets to pay for all these government programs. Why would he want to cut the tourism budget that brings in so much revenue for the state. WTH?

By: Antisocialite on 2/7/11 at 11:15

Jagman said:
Services for the lazy need to be cut. The welfare rolls in some areas exceed 50%. Some of these people have never worked in their life. They enjoy the benefits of our system.

This is an article about the Tennessee state budget Jagman. In case you didn't know 'welfare,' which I will broadly define as the Department of Human Services (they administer food stamps, child support, community services, and family assistance), is currently funded using about 85-90% federal funds. So please tell me once again how this is supposed to help with our state budget?

You can argue all you want about how fair or unfair it is that lower income people have this safety net, or whether or not it is abused, but when you are commenting on an article that is talking about the state budget you might want to do a bit more research on whether or not your 'solution' actually does anything to remedy the situation.

By: LizzyD on 2/7/11 at 11:25

And end-of-life counseling is "death panels"? EGAD!

In this list I see more death-by-torture sentences than I care to think about.

God forbid we should tax people who can actually afford it. On second thought, I don't think that God really DID forbid that.

I hate this type of dishonesty. Better to just go around and gather up all the old and infirm; all the abused people, young and old; all the mentally disturbed folks; and all those depressed, laid-off people who are lazy and indolent, too, into the town square and shoot them. (Oh, and all those who the WalmartShoppers determine to be "suspicious," along with.) It would be more humane.

For those who "disagree," I say pooh on you! Most of our "too rich to fail" are actually narcissistic sociopaths, true savants in confidence artistry, and should be ensconced in institutions to remove them from the harm they do to society, just as we try to capture and "put away" the less-talented con artists who sell fictional roofs to old people. Those who are not, will be pleased to help their nation through bad times and back to being a place that is good to live in, because your Fellow Americans" actually CARE.

And I don't CARE if "most of the money" for arresting, prosecuting people who "smoke a joint" or grow a few plants is "federal money." That money is OUR money, too. It does, indeed, make a prison-operating contractor rich, though, doesn't it? They PAY judges to send people to prison. And we wonder why Americans imprison more of our own than any other country? It has become an "industry," that's why! And now, detention and torture are working their way into that same category. How many "jobs" is Bradley Manning providing right now?

Have We the People not caught on YET? The Egyptians have.

By: gdiafante on 2/7/11 at 11:28

Loner, read the article.

By: stlgtr55@yahoo.com on 2/7/11 at 11:41

To quote the late, great Joseph Sobran, "Anything called a program is unconstitutional."

By: PromosFriend on 2/7/11 at 1:18

Rather than fume and shout about how Haslam is an oil man, or why marijuana should or should not be legal, why not concentrate on the problem at hand and make useful suggestions. A small improvement might be to sell the state's golf courses if they are losing money for the state. If they can't be sold then put them into maintenance mode until the budget moves into the black. "Antisocialite" has a point about which funds are which (state or federal), but it could be that the 10-15% (his/her figure) that does comes from the state could be trimmed or eliminated? Are there any studies that show whether state health education programs are cost effective? If yes, then keep them, or if no, then axe them. Eliminating programs or services without an objective cost-benefit analysis is short sighted and could easily cost more in the long run. And, my pet peeve, didn't anybody in state government see and understand that the so-called stimulus money was a dead-end street?

By: Antisocialite on 2/7/11 at 2:37

"Antisocialite" has a point about which funds are which (state or federal), but it could be that the 10-15% (his/her figure) that does comes from the state could be trimmed or eliminated?

PromosFriend, my main goal was to shut down any and all specious arguments about 'welfare' and it's effect on our state budget. I'll admit that it may be possible to make small cuts in the state's share of 'welfare' programs, but as someone who has worked in state government (granted, it was not in this particular area), I will tell you that many programs offering federal funds also require matching funds from the state. So it is very possible that the state funding in these areas are non-negotiable.

Oh and just in case anyone would like to check my numbers (Page B-198 (432 of 674) is the Human Services breakdown):


By: Loner on 2/7/11 at 3:25

Read THIS, Gdiafante.....you are starting to become boringly annoying.

By: girliegirl on 2/8/11 at 8:26

Look, I get it. I'm paying for my little kids to go to private school because Public Education sucks. All programs that gov't sticks its nose into seem to suck. LOL Let private institutions step in, pick up the pace, get a tax break and DO IT THEMSELVES. Actually, it's freaking brilliant~ :)

By: pswindle on 2/8/11 at 1:24

In four years, we have the chance of bringing TN back to being a great state. If Haslam doesn't completely destroy us in the four years that he has in office. We may have to bring back the former Governor.

By: gdiafante on 2/8/11 at 2:58

Loner, I'll explain it to you since you can't seem to do it for yourself. The article is speaking of cutting key services. I don't believe marijuana falls into this category. Thanks.

Now go enjoy a fat one.