Governor Bill Haslam presented a limited agenda Monday night, in an unusually reflective and retrospective State of the State speech.
In his final statewide address as governor, Haslam spent most of his time highlighting what he sees as his successes, including low unemployment and an improving education system. But as for new proposals — there weren’t very many.
Toward the end of his half-hour address, the governor listed off just four new initiatives. Two dealt with education, a favorite topic over his two terms. The other two stemmed from the state legislature.
“While we have accomplished so much, our work is not done,” he said. “We must not let up, we must not slow down.”
Haslam doesn’t leave office until next January, and he’s not ready to be seen as a lame duck. So not quitting was one of the themes.
But it was clear Haslam was speaking as much about what happens when a new governor takes office as he was on his final year. He spent much of the half-hour speech touting his record and making the argument that it was the result of his vision as a leader, not good luck or an improving national economy.
“Seven years ago we raised our expectations,” Haslam told the audience of several hundred lawmakers and outside visitors watching from the galleries in the House chamber. “We became the kind of leaders who didn’t just talk about cutting taxes and enhancing services. We actually did lower taxes while growing our economy and providing access to high-quality education.
“We cannot lose the momentum we have worked so hard to build.”
Haslam wants to use that momentum to put another $200 million into K-12 schools. The governor told lawmakers that his administration has already increased the schools budget by more than $1 billion, with about a third of that going into teacher salaries.
He also called for creating a mentoring program that will help students stay on track to graduate. Haslam says that research shows taking credits on time raises academic performance, retention rates and the likelihood that students will complete their coursework.
Haslam has set a goal of having 55 percent of Tennesseans hold a college degree or advanced training certificate by 2025. He’s used previous State of the State addresses to launch programs like Tennessee Promise, which pays community college tuition for most high school graduates in the state.
This year, the governor also put in a plug for his $30 million proposal to fight opioid abuse, by adding 10 more drug enforcement agents and increasing funding for treatment and prevention. And he proposed a measure called the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018, which would try to steer youths with low-grade offenses into alternatives to incarceration.
He says detentions that remove kids from their homes wind up causing more harm than good.
But both of those plans — curbing opioids and juvenile lock-ups — actually began in the state legislature, where task forces led by lawmakers studied the issues and brought their proposals to the governor.
Haslam might have been nodding to the reality that his time is nearly up. But it nonetheless prompted Democrats to criticize the governor’s speech as lacking substance.
“I think tonight was a little too much victory lap and too little focus on the challenges that are facing Tennessee,” said state Senator Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville.
It could be a sign that, although Haslam remains in the governor’s office, his ability to set the agenda may already be waning.
But it’s unlikely anyone else will be able to take up the legislative mantel this year. Prior to the speech, Democrats touted their own plan to combat opioid abuse: having the Tennessee Department of Health give up to $250 million in grants to programs that offer treatment or prevention.
They argue that sum is closer to the amount needed to put a dent in the state’s opioid epidemic. But the grants were primarily a bit of one-upmanship on the part of Democrats — an attempt to outdo Haslam’s opioid proposal by a factor of nearly ten.
Democrats say the money could come out of the state’s rainy-day fund, which now stands at about $800 million. But the likelihood of it passing is slim.
Tennessee Republicans say that reserve is needed to maintain the state’s credit rating, and the GOP controls three-quarters of the legislature.
Haslam would also prefer to focus spending on education and jobs. And even in his final year, his wishes are likely to be what carry the debate.