In address, Haslam challenges Tennessee to 'be the best'

Associated Press • Jan 30, 2018 at 8:50 AM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam used his eighth and final annual address Monday to tout the state's achievements and challenge Tennessee to "be the best" in the nation in jobs, education and government efficiency.

In his 34-minute State of the State speech, the term-limited Republican noted the state has achieved the lowest recorded unemployment in its history, experienced gains in K-12 and higher education and cut more than $500 million in taxes.

"When I began as your governor, I challenged us to be better," Haslam said. "Tonight I'm challenging us to take the next step. While we have accomplished so much, our work is not done. We must not let up. We must not slow down."

Haslam said Tennessee is on pace to be two years ahead of schedule in meeting its goal of 55 percent of residents with higher education degrees or certificates by 2025.

The Drive to 55 program, one of Haslam's signature initiatives, includes free state community college and technical school tuition for new high school graduates and adults without a college degree or certificate through programs nicknamed Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect.

On Monday, Haslam also announced the new Complete to Compete initiative, which aims to offer resources to ensure those students start strong, stay on track and graduate.

"The research is clear: taking the credits needed to graduate on time results in better academic performance, higher retention rates, and the increased likelihood of completion," Haslam said.

He touted his $30 million plan to combat opioid abuse, TN Together, noting that Tennessee writes 7.6 million prescriptions a year and there are only 6.6 million residents. The plan addresses prevention, treatment and law enforcement, including 10 new opioid-focused agents at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Democratic lawmakers have said that's not even a drop in the bucket of the $37.5 billion state budget. They noted that the proposal only uses $14.5 million in state money, with the rest from federal and other funds. The Democrats said $250 million should be set aside to address the problem.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, said the governor spent too much time taking a victory lap, and too little time talking about the challenges facing the state.

"I think there's a real recognition across the state that that we have to be real about addressing this problem," said Yarbro, Senate Democratic Caucus chairman. "Just doing something that checks the boxes isn't good enough."

Haslam went on to note that $500 million will have gone toward increasing teacher pay in his tenure, including the $55.1 million he proposed for raises in the next budget. He also said the state has started holding students to a higher standard.

"We are no longer lowering our hoops to five feet and telling everyone our kids can dunk," Haslam said.

Haslam said he has delved into legislation on another topic with agreement across party lines, juvenile justice reform. The state should "focus the most significant state intervention on the most serious offenses," he added.

Haslam also added some personal touch to his last annual speech as governor. He will leave office in January 2019 due to term limits, and drew plenty of applause from the Republican-led General Assembly.

Early on in his speech, he pointed out his wife, Crissy, calling her "the girl from Memphis that I first met 42 years ago and still have a crush on today."

Haslam, a Republican billionaire businessman who has remained popular while taking some stances viewed as more moderate, said Tennessee can show how to solve problems in a time of frustration over political gridlock in the country.

"Let's decide now that Tennessee will lead," Haslam said to wrap up the speech.

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