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VOL. 126 | NO. 24 | Friday, February 4, 2011

Tenn. Agency Head Likens Budget Cuts to Amputation

ERIK SCHELZIG | Associated Press

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NASHVILLE – Commissioner Doug Varney of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health on Wednesday likened pending budget cuts to amputating fingers.

Varney in a budget hearing before Republican Gov. Bill Haslam laid out $15 million in potential spending cuts at the state's public mental health and alcohol and drug abuse authority, including $11 million for programs paid for in the current year with state savings and federal stimulus money.

"This is no way to run a train," Varney said. "We can't just keep cutting little pieces of the finger off. Pretty soon the hands won't work.

"I think we may have to decide we have to cut a finger off here or there," he said. "At least the hands will still work."

The potential cuts facing the department would include community health programs, alcohol and drug treatment and peer support centers. Varney acknowledged to reporters after the hearing that he may have used a "crude" analogy.

"But I think it does graphically illustrate the pain that's associated, because these are real people, these are real lives and these are tough, difficult decisions," Varney said.

Haslam told reporters that he agreed with Varney's point.

"Eventually if you keep cutting off enough of your fingers, you won't have any fingers that work," he said. "Or maybe you say we totally redesign how we're doing things."

The governor said similar budget problems face most state departments because the federal stimulus money won't be available next year and the state can't keep paying for programs out of its cash reserves. Haslam said the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities is another stark example.

"The pressures are incredible. We have $56 million in nonrecurring items that aren't funded going forward in this budget," he said. "Those are real needs, children with autism and people who have been in the system for a long time with intellectual disabilities."

Haslam said he hasn't yet made up his mind about how to cope with some of the more difficult budget cuts.

"The hard truth that we're dealing with is something has to give," he said.

Earlier in the day, Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons said finding $4 million in savings in his department could lead to more than two dozen job cuts each at the Tennessee Highway Patrol and among driver's license workers across the state.

Gibbons acknowledged the cuts would probably mean "significant reduction" in coverage by troopers and an increased wait time at driver's license centers.

"Obviously it would stretch us if we had to make that cut," Gibbons said.

Gibbons said Tennessee has a shortage of at least 300 troopers compared to surrounding Southeastern states. Haslam said nothing can be done now about the disparity because of budget constraints, but he asked to see data on the issue.

The average wait time at most driver's license centers is currently about 45 minutes, which Gibbons called "unacceptable." To remedy the program, the department is reallocating workers to centers where they're needed most and encouraging motorists to use online services.

Associated Press writer Lucas L. Johnson II contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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