Gov. Phil Bredesen kicked off budget hearings Monday for a state spending plan that the Democrat said he anticipates will be the toughest to assemble since he came into office in 2003.
"This is not a couple weeks I'm looking forward to," Bredesen said. "This next six months will be my most difficult time as governor."
While most agencies have been asked to present plans to cut 6 percent from their spending plans for the budget year that begins July 1, the Bredesen administration has asked for them to prepare an additional 3 percent cut in case economic conditions persist.
"That's on top of an average of 12 percent they reduced in the current year," said state Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz. "That's the kind of magnitude of things we're facing _ it's not simply trimming around the edges."
The Education Department was first to present its spending plan, though it's in the unusual position among state agencies in that leaders of both parties want to spare school funding from the deep cuts that will be necessary in other areas.
Bredesen said he wants to cover the projected $82 million in inflation and growth costs for K-12 education costs, but warned that cuts remain possible even there.
Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has said other areas where he'd like to avoid further cuts are in mental health and retardation services, where he said "we've cut about as much as we can cut."
"If there is a legitimate reason for government to exist it's to help those that can't help themselves," said Ramsey of Blountville.
Bredesen added that the Correction Department also can't be expected to produce the same cuts as other agencies.
"You're obviously not going to let prisoners out on the streets and close prisons to do it," he said.
But the governor stressed that the cuts are going to have to come from somewhere, especially since most federal stimulus money will run out during the upcoming budget year.
"I don't have anything off the table at this point, I'm really waiting to see what people come up with," he said.
When Bredesen came into office in 2003, he blamed a vast budget shortfall on money running after his Republican predecessor and the Democrat-controlled Legislature used one-time savings to pay for ongoing programs.
Those spending plans were passed amid emotional debate about whether to impose a state income tax, an effort that ultimately failed.
The governor and lawmakers appear to agree that current conditions are far more serious.
"Back in the income tax days of '01 and '02, people thought there was a contrived crisis," Ramsey said. "But everyone realizes this is the real deal here and we're going to have to make it work."