AP Interview: Tenn. gov rejects prisoner release

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen has rejected a proposal for the state to save money through the early release of thousands of prison inmates.

The Democratic governor said in an interview with The Associated Press this week that the proposals to release up to 3,000 inmates convicted of nonviolent felonies would not have a lasting impact because the vacated spaces would be filled by inmates held in county jails.

“We are paying for prisoners in local jails (and) if we created space, we would move some of those up,” Bredesen said. “And the history has been, when there’s open slots in local jails, local judges tend to fill them up with more prisoners.”

As Bredesen sees it, the only way for permanent savings would be to shut an entire prison, which he is unwilling to do.

Bredesen’s immediate focus has been on next week’s special session on education, but he said he hopes to put the final touches on his spending proposal by the time that session starts on Tuesday.

The governor said the proposal he’s scheduled to present to lawmakers on Feb. 1 — the last one he will prepare because he’s term limited and can’t seek re-election — will come close to matching recurring expenses with recurring revenues as federal stimulus money is largely phased out.

The current year’s budget includes a 10 percent reduction in the state budget, though many of those cuts were obscured by the infusion of $2.2 billion in stimulus money. The State Funding Board has projected the state’s revenues will expand by between 1.8 percent and 2.3 percent in the upcoming budget year, though that modest growth won’t be enough to make up for the loss of the stimulus.

Bredesen had asked state agencies for proposals for trimming between 6 percent and 9 percent from their spending plans for the upcoming year. But he said in the interview that not all agencies will be asked to make equal cuts.

“They’re not all even, they’re staggered,” he said. “We’re past the point where you can just do that accross-the-board in any sense.”

Bredesen in 2008 used a voluntary retirement buyout to eliminate about 1,500 jobs. Democratic lawmakers used savings to delay about 700 more layoffs until the end of the current budget year on June 30.

His next budget proposal will include fewer layoffs of state employees than originally anticipated, but Bredesen declined to specify how many of the state’s 48,000 full-time workers still face losing their jobs.

“I’m trying really hard to figure out how to avoid putting people on the streets when it’s so hard to find another job,” he said.

Bredesen said he expects the biggest pressures from lawmakers to come over spending the state’s cash reserves.

“The good news is the reserves are high,” he said. “And the bad news is the reserves are high, and they’re kind of an attractive target for people.”

“I know there’s people from both parties who would just sort of rather grab the reserves and run, and avoid doing some of the difficult things that are in this budget,” he said.

In previous years, the governor has fought effort to tap those reserves to stave off deeper budget cuts. But Bredesen said he feels he has less of a claim on the reserves because he’ll leave office with the end of his second term in about a year.

“Next year is not my budget, it will be theirs,” he said. “So I’ll give some deference to them in a way I wouldn’t have last year.”

Bredesen said he’s not overly concerned about predictions that more of the state’s lottery proceeds will be eaten by scholarships issued to a growing student population. Healthy reserves should stave off any need to change the lottery scholarship program, he said.

“That’s not one that should give me, or any future governor, any great heartache,” Bredesen said.