Gov. Bill Haslam extended a hand to the state’s teachers and called for a new way of governing in his first State of the State address Monday night, the same day he presented a $30.2 billion budget proposal to the Tennessee Legislature.
“Our current financial constraints are not a temporary condition,” Haslam said. “I think that what we are seeing in government today really is the new normal. Every government, ours included, will be forced to transform how it sets priorities and makes choices.”
Haslam said Tennesseans have told legislators to roll up their sleeves, find consensus on spending, educate children, encourage teachers and stimulate job creation. And they want their elected leaders to “do it now,” said the governor.
Haslam is in the first few weeks of an administration where the greatest amount of attention has been on education. His first legislative package since taking office includes reform in the teacher tenure process — as well as an embrace of charter schools.
With regard to public school teaching specifically, the governor wants to extend the probationary period for teacher tenure from three years to five. As a backdrop to that initiative, the Legislature is engaged in debate over proposals to do away with teachers’ collective bargaining rights.
Haslam stood at the podium in the House chamber on Monday as a Republican governor with historic Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. “We will no longer have more of the same kind of government in good times and less of it in hard times,” said the former Knoxville mayor. “We really do have to transform our government.”
He did not dwell on jobs in his speech — one of the main issues on which he campaigned. Although Haslam did reiterate his intention to ask the question “Is it good for jobs?” whenever any new regulation on business is proposed.
The governor is also proposing a $7 million appropriation for the Northwest Tennessee Regional Port Authority in Lake County that would provide a port accessible to major markets. He noted the site may receive a $13 million federal grant.
“At a time that the citizens in Lake and other surrounding counties in upper West Tennessee are dealing with the closure of the Goodyear tire plant, I am pleased to embrace this project as a stimulus for new jobs and new business investment,” Haslam said.
Haslam also announced a “new era of partnership,” proposing a $10 million grant for the Memphis Research Consortium, seeking collaboration in research from the University of Memphis, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, St. Jude and other health care operations.
“The state’s great research institutions and universities such as Oak Ridge National Laboratories, Vanderbilt and our public universities should work together with the private sector to find ways to effectively translate the investments in ongoing research into businesses that create high-quality jobs,” he said.
But Haslam clearly had teachers on his mind. The treatment of teachers, particularly the threat to teachers’ union collective bargaining leverage, has been the source of some of the hottest rhetoric in the current legislative session. Haslam has tried to stay above the fray and has called on lawmakers to tone down some of the discussion.
“I want to be very clear. My goal is to treat teaching like the important and honorable profession that it is,” Haslam said. “My goal is to make Tennessee a place where great educators want to teach and feel rewarded and appreciated for their efforts.
“Because, at the end of the day, there is nothing that makes as much difference in a child’s academic progress as the teacher standing in front of the classroom.”
Democrats in the Legislature who spoke to TNReport following Haslam’s speech responded favorably to his remarks — some saying they’d like to see Republicans in the General Assembly act more like Haslam.
“I was really pleased to hear what he said about teachers,” said Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, the Senate Democratic leader. “I hope some of the legislators that have been bringing these bills attacking teachers heard the governor and will start focusing on education and quit focusing on labor relations.
“It does show that the good work we’ve done the last four years with the Bredesen administration has paid off because we have revenue to work with and we have our house in order. So I was pleased.”
Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, a vocal opponent of GOP-led education reform and an early skeptic of Gov. Haslam’s expressions of bipartisan goodwill, offered generally favorable reviews of the governor’s speech Monday night.
“I appreciate the governor being logical in his presentation and not on the extreme that some of the folks in his party have been,” Towns said. “He’s obviously a very logical, very sensible man. But what we’re getting from the (Republican) party sounds extreme.
“My concern is to protect public education. Overall it gave me an insight into what kind of governor he possibly will be. I wish he could take his party and transfuse how he thinks to the folks who are leading his party, because they are way off on the wrong track.”
Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, the Democratic Caucus chairman who elicited contempt from Republicans recently for publicly calling the GOP’s legislative agenda “terrorism against our teachers,” said he liked much of what he heard from Haslam.
“Overall, I was surprised and pleased with the governor’s budget,” Turner said. “The devil is in the details. How you get to some of the places he got to is what we’ll be analyzing.
“I disagree on the tenure, but he’s trying hard to reach out to the Democrats and include us in what he’s trying to do.”
Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for the state teachers union, the Tennessee Education Association, gave Haslam good marks. “Generally, I was very pleased,” Winters said. “I think the governor set a very positive tone. He very clearly pointed out that the future of this state was tied to the quality of education in Tennessee.
“He also made very clear the role of teachers, and I think he showed some respect for teachers that’s not being shown by some individual legislators up here with very divisive bills,” added Winters. “We are willing to work with him on any of his education plans and look forward to continuing that discussion.”
GOP lawmakers offered little in the way of criticism.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said the speech was “refreshing.”
“Realistic but refreshing,” Norris said. “I was very pleased with the responsible approach, across the board — forward thinking, upbeat. I think he appealed to everybody’s better nature in there, and I like it.”
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said he’s hoping Haslam’s budget passes with bipartisan support.
TNGOP Chairman Chris Devaney issued a statement Monday night calling the governor’s budget “sensible.”
“Governor Haslam laid out a bold and responsible plan about how to reform the way our state government does business,” said Devaney. “This plan includes setting clear priorities in our state budget, encouraging entrepreneurship to create an environment for more good-paying jobs, and elevating student achievement in our public schools.”