Gov. Bill Haslam says Tennessee 'can believe in better'

Gov. Bill Haslam says Tennessee 'can believe in better'

January 31st, 2012 by Andy Sher in News

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly on Monday, Jan. 30, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his State of...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE -- While Tennessee is doing "great" in many respects, Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday in his annual State of the State address that the state needs to do even better when it comes to efficiency and serving citizens' needs.

"Is the current state of our state good enough?" Haslam, a Republican, asked state lawmakers. "I think we can believe in better. We can believe in better for how state government serves Tennesseans. We can believe in better when it comes to the education of our children."

And, Haslam added, "we can believe in better when we talk about a stronger, healthier economy for our state."

Accompanying the governor's address was the release of his proposed 2012-13 budget.

The $30.08 billion spending plan -- a 2.5 percent reduction over the current budget -- is his road map for how to proceed.

It provides new funding for economic development, schools, TennCare, construction projects, employee pay raises and targeting criminal gangs. It also moves to reduce the state's sales tax on food and raises the exemption on inheritance taxes.

But it also eliminates 1,166 positions across state government, including 617 that are filled. It calls for closing Taft Youth Center in Pikeville as well as the Lakeshore Mental Health Institute in Knoxville.

At the same time, it provides $3 million to plan a proposed $59.5 million life sciences laboratory facility at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Bradley County, meanwhile, is slated for a $23.2 million veterans community living center that local officials have sought for years.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said Haslam "articulated a vision tonight that I truly believe will make Tennessee more competitive and will better serve the needs of all citizens."

"Whether it is balancing the budget or reforming how government operates, I am ready to guide these reforms through the Legislature," McCormick said.

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said he agreed with Haslam's focus on access to public colleges and universities. He said he is looking "forward to finding common ground with the governor" there.

And, he said, the "goal of ensuring that Tennesseans have the jobs of the future is one we should all be working on together."

But he noted Haslam omitted mention of his previously announced plan "to throw out [lower] class sizes in K-12 education. That's certainly a concern."

During his speech, Haslam plugged his proposal to abolish most civil service protections for state employees. Hiring and firing provisions are too burdensome, he said, calling the system "broken."

"With limited state and federal dollars to work with, Tennesseans expect us to do more with less," the governor said. "To do that, we must be able to recruit, retain and reward the best and brightest employees so we can give the type of service our citizens deserve."

While applauding Haslam's proposed 2.5 percent pay increase for state workers, Tennessee State Employees Association Executive Director Robert O'Connell said the group hopes to change Haslam's mind on civil service.

"Maybe there won't have to be a big fight about this," he said. "[But] we don't like the door that gets open to political patronage and cronyism. We don't think that's what the governor's trying to do. But we do think that can be a result."

Tennessee Education Association chief lobbyist Jerry Winters said teachers continue to object to Haslam's previously announced plans to eliminate state-imposed average class size caps as well as state-mandated step increases in pay. Haslam also wants to free up local schools to offer merit pay.

The class-size plan would "generate thousands fewer teaching positions in this state," Winters said. "We just think it's totally inappropriate to use that method for merit pay for teachers."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfree or 615-255-0550.