You get the feeling the fun part is over for the General Assembly.
After making what is considered dramatic heavy-lifting, revamping both K-12 and higher education in a high-speed special session, lawmakers now face the budget challenges of the regular session.
It won’t be pretty.
In the special session, lawmakers did some hard work and made big changes without having to spend much money. There’s a sense of accomplishment that comes from that, something you can brag about to the people back home without hitting the state too hard in the wallet. But while changing the rules and restructuring education didn’t carry an ugly pricetag, managing the state budget affords no such luxury.
Month after month, financial figures show negative revenue growth for the state. The tax collections for December, which show the retail activity in November, were $54.2 million below what was budgeted, making it 19 consecutive months of negative sales tax growth.
If there is any consolation for the state, it’s that states across the country are facing the same problem, and projections are that states are going to continue to struggle.
Yet there is some feeling that Tennessee has handled the crisis about as well as could be expected. No major tax increases have been imposed, but the degree of pain in budget cuts depends on who’s affected by those cuts.
“When you compare Tennessee to other states, there’s really no comparison,” Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, said. “We are really head and shoulders above most other states in terms of how we’ve managed through these economic times. I think this year will be no exception. There will be some difficult decisions that will have to be made, but I think we’ll get there.”
Finney, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, used the familiar analogy of comparing the process to working out a family budget.
“You ask any Tennessee family, especially in this economy, what that process is like and they will say it has been painful in many respects. The state budget is no exception,” Finney said. “Were going to have to make difficult choices, but we’ve made difficult choices over the last two years.”
Sen. Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, speaker pro tempore, is braced for some hard work.
“It is a very challenging position we’re in. But it’s what every one of the 132 of us as legislators signed on for,” Woodson said. “We’re going to roll up our sleeves and have to make some tough decisions. It will be very challenging, but that’s what is expected of us, and it’s what should be expected of us.”
Woodson said she hesitates to speculate openly about specific budget cuts, deferring to Gov. Phil Bredesen to lay out his proposal. But she said she anticipates there will be cuts “that will not be enjoyed by anyone.”
Bredesen is expected to present his budget plan Feb. 1.