Bredesen's budget cuts questioned by fellow Democrats - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Bredesen's budget cuts questioned by fellow Democrats

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen's budget cut proposal is drawing pointed questions from lawmakers in his own party.

Administration officials were asked to give more details about buyout packages for state employees and to explain an array of other cuts totaling $468 million in a joint meeting of the House and Senate finance committees on Tuesday.

State Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz said officials are still working out who'd be eligible for the buyout packages, and could not provide specifics of individual offers. The state projects it could save $64 million a year by trimming the state payroll by 2,000 workers.

House Majority Leader Gary Odom, D-Nashville, said the state should better account for the more than 3,000 state government positions that have been vacant for at least nine months. Currently the state appropriates the money for those jobs, but it returns to the general fund if it isn't used for salaries.

"Seems to me that if we've been functioning without (these) vacant positions our budget should reflect the exact number of employee positions we have," Odom said.

Goetz responded that while the state knows that it has annual turnover of about 11 percent of its work force, it's impossible to know where those vacancies will occur.

Rep. Nathan Vaughn, a Kingsport Democrat, said he's concerned about state employees facing buyouts, higher health care costs and having to provide the same services with less staff and without a 2 percent pay raise that would be canceled under the new budget plan.

"Do we realistically expect to have the morale in this state government in order to get that mission accomplished under those stets of priorities?" Vaughn said.

Vaughn suggested that lawmakers could approve a temporary budget while administration officials work out the buyout specifics and then return in a special session to vote on the final version.

But Democratic House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh says he hopes members will be able to get comfortable enough with the proposal to adjourn for the year within the next several days. House Finance Chairman Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said that lawmakers shouldn't need every detail about the buyouts since they are voluntary.

Goetz warned lawmakers examining the budget plan against trying to use one-time reserves to pay for year-over-year expenses. Two national bond rating agencies this week downgraded neighboring Kentucky's outlook to negative for taking such budget steps, he said.

Some lawmakers and advocates are calling on the administration to draw down the nearly $750 million accumulated in the state's "rainy day" reserve fund to help avoid some of the more difficult cuts.

But the governor is resisting that step for fear the reserves could be quickly depleted before the end of the economic downturn is in sight.

Odom also took issue with Bredesen's claim in a Monday speech to lawmakers that the budget would be balanced without new taxes.

The administration is seeking passage of a bill to close what officials call a tax loophole for family-owned commercial properties that could net the state $15 million a year. But Odom argued that the bill hadn't been presented in time for lawmakers to carefully analyze which business would be affected.

"To be confronted with this in the last days of the General Assembly and to put members into this position is contrary to the notion that we heard last night that this budget includes no new tax increases," he said.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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