Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen sure has his panties in a wad.
Or at least that was a political friend's highly accurate – albeit inelegantly and highly colloquial – assessment.
The governor appeared to be fuming because the Memphis City Council had acted within its legal rights to control its own budgets and priorities. In fact, we have vague memories of the governor's irritation about Washington telling the State of Tennessee what it had to do. As a result, he should have tempered his rant about City Council doing what legislative bodies do – controlling the budget and setting the tax rate.
Giving Council The Business
As a highly successful businessman, Governor Bredesen was famous for his thorough, methodical analysis of an opportunity and a problem and for clear-eyed decision-making in the end. In fact, he brought the same skill set to the governor's office, where his staff knows to present most issues as a business proposition in anticipation of the governor putting together his own term sheet before making a decision.
When it came to this Memphis issue, however, the governor seems to clearly have abandoned the qualities that have made him so successful. This time he seemed to reach conclusions without any deep knowledge of the issues, and in oversimplifying the question, he not only engaged in highly unusual behavior, but he managed to politicize these issues even more at a time when they are in need of statesmanship.
It's more than passing strange that at a time when he's lecturing City Council about its obligations to education, he's allowing himself the option of doing the same thing with state budgets. He has equally tough decisions about budgets, and as we recall, one involved cutting the funding for higher education at the precise time that a strong university presence is a major determinant in whether cities and states prosper. There are numerous other services whose state budgets are being pared back, but apparently, that is allowed at the state level; however, when Memphis City Council exercises the same prerogative, they've overstepped their bounds.
We hope that in the next few days, Governor Bredesen will take some time to gather the facts and ask the kinds of laser-like questions for which he is known. For example, it might be a good time for him to ask his own Department of Education why it has shown so much preferential treatment to Nashville's schools woes while essentially giving lip service to ours. Several years ago, when Memphis City Schools was on the same high priority list that Nashville school district is on today, DOE did precious little to transform Memphis City Schools with some much-needed leadership, direct help and resources. As we've pointed out previously, that's sure not the case when it comes to the center of the universe in Middle Tennessee.
While he's at it, we hope the governor will also research why Memphis is the only major city in Tennessee that is expected to fund schools. Nashville doesn't do it. Knoxville doesn't do it. Chattanooga doesn't do it. Even Jackson doesn't do it.
Yes, we know that all of those cities have consolidated their districts, and perhaps, that's where the governor's influence would be put to better use.
Board Rooms, Not Courtrooms
Perhaps, he could even be an intermediary who could convene all parties at a conference room table to negotiate an agreement to eliminate city funding over time.
Chattanooga is a good model for us. Several years ago, city government there decided to get out of the school funding business. Over several years, they stepped down their funding until it was totally eliminated, and as the final exclamation point on the process, the city school district was eliminated. As required by state law, the county government there – Hamilton County – absorbed the former city district into the existing county district, effectively eliminating onerous double taxation of Chattanooga taxpayers.
Perhaps Governor Bredesen could tell us why we aren't entitled to a similar equity in our local tax burden. While he's at it, he needs to keep uppermost in his mind the fatal flaw in the state's tax structure – the more you make, the less you pay in taxes as a percentage of income. The family earning $25,000 pays 7.0 percent, but the family earning $50,000 doesn't pay more. It pays less – 6.2 percent. A family earning $75,000 pays 6.3 percent, one-third less than the national average; and the $100,000 income family pays 5.9 percent and the family earning $150,000 pays 5.6 percent.
If Governor Bredesen wants to have the credibility that he needs to get Memphis City Council to listen to him, we're sure they'd like to know what he is doing to make the tax burden in Tennessee fairer, because no city in the state is punished more for this flawed tax system than our own.
Dollars And Sense
All that said, here's the real question we'd like the governor to answer.
The State of Tennessee's own data show that between 2003 and 2007, the number of students in Memphis City Schools dropped by 11 percent. Wouldn't he then expect for the budget of Memphis City Schools to have also reduced in this period of time? And, governor, if the student population has dropped 11 percent, why shouldn't the Memphis City Council feel that it could cut $70 million in funding, the equivalent of 7 percent cut in Memphis City Schools' budget.
A down and dirty calculation – and assuming the state's own numbers are right - indicates that this reduction should have reduced Memphis City Schools' costs by $84 million. In other words, even with the Memphis City Council's cut, the district still nets $14 million. But that's not all, in roughly the same period of time, despite the plummeting number of students, the budget for Memphis City Schools increased $146 million.
In other words – and again, if the state's own data are right – while the number of students went down 11 percent, the Memphis City Schools budget went up 19 percent. Maybe the governor can fine tune these numbers, but it certainly makes it worth his time to gather the facts before he condemns Memphis City Council for an act of courage – if not desperation – to do something to equalize the tax burden between Memphians and non-Memphians.
The Water Is Wide
On this one, our normally inscrutable governor waded into the water without checking its depth.
There are many cross currents in this issue, and if he is not prepared to be a vehicle to develop a plan to end the double taxation of Memphis taxpayers for public education and to address the disincentive that they pay to live inside the city limits of Tennessee's largest city, he has in fact abdicated the high ground in this discussion and forfeited a productive role in resolving this to the public good.
And that's the worst kind of Capitol punishment.