Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen gave his seventh "State of the State" address Monday night, but this address was unlike any of the previous.
Typically, when a governor fulfills his constitutional obligation to speak to the Tennessee General Assembly, he also lays out budget recommendations for the next year. This time, Bredesen gave only an address as state government officials wait to see how much money will come from the federal economic stimulus package.
"We consulted with the leadership in the General Assembly and agreed that it made no sense to submit an extremely painful budget which we knew would have to be substantially changed," Bredesen said. "Accordingly, we plan to wait until the federal government acts, and then fashion a budget that incorporates the effects of that stimulus package."
As for when a budget will be presented, Bredesen said, "If the federal action is completed as we expect by the end of February, we will submit the Tennessee budget about three to four weeks later."
Bredesen made no mention in his address about the national speculation that he might become Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama. He did, however, address health care as a priority.
"When people lose their jobs, they often lose their health insurance as well," Bredesen noted. "We know that additional people will qualify for TennCare, and we are planning for that in the budget. We have opened CoverTN up to those who have lost their jobs, and trust that this will help some as well."
In what could be considered a nod to Washington and his mindset on the HHS speculation, Bredesen then added, "These avenues of help are well-meaning but still patchwork, and this recession has truly underlined for me something that I've believed for a long time: That we need a national solution for health insurance. Our health care system has become antiquated and unfair, and I deeply hope that a new President and a new Congress can fashion the solution that Tennessee and America deserve."
In a lighter moment before his address began, Bredesen was greeted on the floor of the House Chamber by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who handed him a small gift. The "gift" was a bottle cap with a fortune written on the inside that read, "An important position shall soon be yours." Should Bredesen get the HHS job, Ramsey would become governor.
Another curious aspect of Bredesen's address was a challenge he made to the legislature on energy matters.
"I ask each of you," he stated, "the General Assembly, the private sector, our university system, and Oak Ridge to work with me in the months ahead to invent a way to become a national leader in basic solar research – to invent a solar institute. If we can, it will pay huge dividends to our state and our citizens for decades to come."
"Solar power today is a tiny part of the power equation," Bredesen added. "It remains far too expensive, and it's ripe for breakthroughs, there's a lot of basic science to be done. We have the pieces-the building blocks- here in Tennessee to be major players in this area. Thanks to you in this room, we are already a national leader in cellulosic ethanol – which is a form of solar power. We have major industrial companies in our state with expertise and capital; Sharp in Memphis and here in Middle Tennessee, the multi-billion dollar new investments of Hemlock, which is the world's largest supplier of polycrystalline silicon – the basic raw material for solar cells."
Whether there will be any money in this budget year to move the polycrystalline ball forward, or whether legislators will follow the governors lead on the matter remains to be seen.
State Sen. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) called the solar institute a timely initiative.
"This is something that is being strongly pushed for by the new administration in Washington and it would be good for us to be on the forefront of that effort," McNally said.
Democrats in the legislature seemed pleased with the governor's message. Democratic House Leader Gary Odom called it a "good and accurate message for the people of Tennessee and the legislature." Senate Democratic Minority Leader Jim Kyle said, "Given the fact that we cannot do a budget until we know about what is coming from Washington, he reminded us what we are doing well."
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said that he felt that the speech was "appropriately short" but wished that Bredesen had focused some of address on public safety and crime.