Photo courtesy of TN.gov
Story by Michael Aldrich / Contributing Writer
Gov. Bill Haslam delivered his final State of the State address on Monday night, touting his administration’s record on job creation, education, the proposal of state funding to address the opioid crisis and lobbying to raise teachers’ salaries for a third straight year.
The Republican governor addressed a joint session of the legislature in Nashville to kick off his final year in office before a new governor is chosen this November in Tennessee’s general election. He also released his $37.5 billion proposed budget that would include an extra $212 million for K-12 education, $100 million for higher education initiatives and $128 million for job growth investments.
Reflecting on the past seven years, the governor said his administration helped create nearly 400,000 private-sector jobs and shepherded education reforms that have contributed to the nation’s largest academic gains and a record-high graduation rate for high schoolers.
“This evening, I am proposing a bold new challenge,” Haslam said in Monday’s address. “I want Tennessee to lead the nation in jobs, education and government efficiency. I don’t just want us to compete. I want us to be the best.”
Haslam noted many other accomplishments achieved during his tenure as governor. These accomplishments included a job growth rate greater than 17 percent, more than $500 million in tax cuts for Tennesseans, a cut in year-to-year spending by more than a half billion dollars and tripling the state’s Rainy Day Fund, a tool used by most U.S. states to help diminish the fiscal stress caused by economic downturns that reduce state government revenue.
For higher education, Haslam highlighted the Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect programs that began under his administration. These programs provide all Tennesseans access to community college, tuition-free. He also announced the Complete to Compete Initiative, which restructures the financial aid requirements for Tennessee Promise and HOPE scholarships. It requires community colleges to implement a structured and ready-made schedule for all incoming full-time students based on their academic program.
“It is time for us to not just focus on access but success in college,” Haslam said. “While more students are entering Tennessee postsecondary schools, only one out of every four community college students completes college in six years, and roughly half complete at our four-year institutions during that same time frame.”
Despite Tennessee’s accomplishments in education, critics say there are still significant issues that need to be addressed, such as the flawed TN Ready test system. Though the proposed $37.5 billion budget will increase funds to education, that increase will mainly come from cuts made to the Department of Children Services and the Department of Workforce Labor and Development.
Although the proposed boost in salaries was welcome news for Tennessee teachers, it’s possible not all of the money allocated will reach the educator’s paychecks. This is due to local districts having the discretion on how to spend state funding if they already meet the requirement of paying their teachers the state’s average weighted salary of $45,038.
Haslam also announced the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018. The bill focuses on reforming the justice system to strengthen families and promote public safety based on recommendations from a task force, which will be headed by House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris.
“We can do better,” Haslam said. “We can be smarter. And tonight I am asking the General Assembly to adopt responsible reforms that will focus the most significant state intervention on the most serious offenses. We know that too many kids get lost in the juvenile justice system.”
Possibly the most passionate part of Haslam’s speech came with the governor addressing the ongoing opioid crisis. He acknowledged the new TN Together plan, which will ask lawmakers for $14 million to fund prevention and recovery programs for opioid addicts. Haslam is also requesting additional money to fund programs that would distribute prescription drugs to treat opioid dependency. The plan would also create a pilot program for county jails that would provide assistance to addicts who end up there. However, the 2018 budget only funds 10 new Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agents to help deal with the crisis. TBI Director Mark Gwyn previously said he would need at least 25 new hires to effectively fight the opioid epidemic.
Haslam concluded his speech by imploring all Tennesseans to help finish “what we began.”
“Let’s use this time, while we have the privilege of answering the call to lead, to be that force for good for the state of Tennessee,” Haslam said.
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