By James Dowd, CommercialAppeal.com
October 22, 2009

Painting a bleak portrait of Tennessee’s finances, state Sen. Mark Norris of Collierville on Wednesday warned small-business leaders that serious belt-tightening is on the horizon.

Addressing a standing-room-only gathering of the Memphis Area Action Council — the local arm of the National Federation of Independent Business — Norris offered a blunt assessment of what’s in store for Tennesseans.

“It’s no surprise to any of us that the state budget continues to suffer from the same downturns as the national budget and even if the recession had ended yesterday it would take us years to get back to where we were in 2007 or 2008,” Norris said. “Already a couple months into our new fiscal year, we’re down some $70 million in revenue. If that continues, I project $350 million in new cuts next year to address this freefall.

“It’s going to revolutionize the face of state government, which may not be an entirely bad thing.”

Because Tennessee’s legislature is required to pass a balanced budget, Norris said a number of programs face reductions and restrictions in the coming year.

“I’m concerned about negative growth and I believe a number of capital projects may have to be reconsidered,” said Norris, the Republican majority leader and member of the Senate Finance Committee.

The Haywood County industrial development megasite “is an interesting and important issue, but it won’t create any jobs this year and may not for several years,” he said. “If we can’t tote the note, how can we expect to move forward right now with that kind of project?”

Local business leader Jim Regensburger appreciated the lawmaker’s straight talk.

“It’s a scary time for a lot of small-business owners, but I think it’s important to hear what the situation is and what it’s going to take to fix it,” said Regensburger, of Mister Company. “It helps to know we have officials who are committed to getting us out of this situation.”

With a projected shortfall next year of up to $1 billion, Norris said that a program likely to face major cuts will be TennCare. And in 2011, the state’s education system probably will take a hit.

“It’s painful and awful to see, to give that kind of health care and then have to take it away,” Norris said. “But we’re going to have to make cuts to balance the budget.”

State NFIB director Jim Brown agreed.

“We’re in extraordinary times and it’s going to take a concerted effort by all our legislative leaders to steer us in the right direction,” he said. “Fortunately for Tennesseans, Sen. Norris and many others like him are working for our best interests.”

Despite the dismal outlook, Norris tempered his address with a dash of optimism for local small-business owners.

Tennessee is set to receive about $5 billion from the federal stimulus package. One program, which will offer incentives for weatherizing homes, will be funded at about $100 million, a substantial increase over the typical $5 million available annually.

“This could be a boon for some small-business owners involved in construction and weatherization fields, but you have to educate yourselves about these programs and know how the stimulus plan works,” Norris said.

The NFIB, which was founded as a nonprofit, nonpartisan agency in 1943, has offices in Washington and in every state capital. The organization counts more than 350,000 businesses as members, with 10,000 members in Tennessee and more than 1,000 in Shelby County.

For more information, go online to nfib.com.

— James Dowd: 529-2737

National Federation of Independent Business event

What: Memphis Area Action Council monthly luncheon meeting

Where: Regions Bank, 6200 Poplar

When: 11:30 a.m., Nov. 18

Cost: Free

Reservations: Call (615) 872-5331 or e-mail [email protected]

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