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Phil Bredesen looks back in the twilight of his governorship

The Vision Thing

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Phil Bredesen has given his holiday media interviews and luncheon speeches for the last time as governor, hoping for one more rousing round of positive publicity to further his legacy as a pragmatic, can-do leader.

Thanks to a special legislative session a year ago in the 11th hour of his administration, he is able to tout his innovations in education as his No. 1 achievement.

And for once, it's more than the politician's usual ego-stroke. Granted, it never would have happened without $500 million in bait set by President Obama in his Race to the Top competition. Still, Bredesen's reforms are potentially game-changing.

Despite opposition from teachers' unions, he overhauled the state's teacher evaluation and tenure system, linking it to student test data. In addition, he shook up the state's moribund higher-education system by tying each college's success at graduating students to its taxpayer funding — the lower the graduation rate, the less state money coming the school's way.

"I'm real proud of the stuff we've done in education," says the governor, who leaves office in January. "If we're going to compete economically and as a place to live a generation from now, we're going to have to start getting kids who are getting better prepared for the jobs of the future.

"We're off to a start on that. If we really focus on this and keep education on the front end of what governors and legislatures are thinking about, I think we've got a chance right now to just really transform it and stop being 40-something in any way in education and really get up there in the top ranks in the states."

What else makes Bredesen's legacy list? He cites his success in promoting solar energy and green jobs and his record as a conservationist. He preserved 500 square miles of scenic beauty. "That's a lot of land," he says.

Asked the obligatory question — what was your biggest mistake as governor? —Bredesen demurs. "I don't know," he says. "You all have your take on what you think were the mistakes of the administration. I don't think it's fair to ask me to sort of lay them all out for you."

But he acknowledges his "biggest disappointment" was failing to save TennCare — the state's version of Medicaid. After a couple of years of struggling to hold down costs when he first took office, Bredesen gutted the program, tossing 170,000 people off the health insurance rolls.

That failure, however, he blames largely on an intransigent federal bureaucracy, which refused to approve his reform proposals, and on advocates for the program's beneficiaries, whom he paints as hardheaded.

"My biggest mistake was thinking that with kindness and sweet reason, I could work with the advocacy groups and we'd all work out a program together," Bredesen says. "I was just naive. They just weren't going to do that. ... That is a huge unfulfilled hope that I have had about the office."

There's one more big thing Bredesen will be remembered for — something he doesn't mention. Unlike all his predecessors in modern history — dating back at least to Ray Blanton — Bredesen didn't try to reform the state's antiquated, loophole-riddled tax system.

Maybe that was because he never had to raise taxes in a major way. Bredesen was incredibly lucky — he took office on the heels of a $1 billion sales-tax increase. Then, when the economy went south in his last two years, he was rescued by federal stimulus cash.

It's a good thing, too. The politics of this state had been poisoned against tax reform by the attempts of Bredesen's immediate predecessor, Don Sundquist, to enact an income tax.

But not only did Bredesen never try to change any minds on this topic, he helped create and perpetuate the myth that the state has somehow managed to come untethered from economic reality. He insists state government might never need to raise taxes again and somehow still could avoid descending into Third World status.

In our interview, he expressed admiration for "the discipline of living within your means" and took a Darwinian view of budgeting and governing.

"Forcing you to confront some of these issues of what things are worth doing, what things are not worth doing, is an important thing to do," Bredesen says. "It's kind of, you know, the extra cold winter is what kills off the weak animals. ... I believe in low taxes. I think it's a good positioning for the state. I really believe we're going to be able to do what we need to do in the years ahead" without raising taxes.

Unfortunately for Bill Haslam, he will be the governor when Bredesen's theorem is put to the test.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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