One week ago, the General Assembly completed its work for the year. It was a successful session which built on past accomplishments and extended our commitment to excellence in education and efficiency in government.
The people of Tennessee placed their trust in us and we took that trust seriously. We made education reform and improvement a priority. We remain a pro-growth, pro-jobs state, placing a premium on expanding homegrown business as well as attracting out of state business.
We balanced our budget, continued to cut taxes and found new ways to continue to make Tennessee the best state in the nation to live, work and raise a family.
Education is the foundation
While Tennessee has always been a relatively well-run state fiscally, one area in which we fell short under previous Democrat regimes was education. No longer.
Education reform is crucial because our pro-business climate and economic development successes do no good if our citizens are not qualified for the jobs created.
The way I see it, there is no silver bullet to education reform. In the past we have eliminated collective bargaining, reformed tenure and expanded charters. This year our fiscal position will allow us to become more competitive in teacher pay.
No one thing can cure everything that ails our current education system. Education reform is a jigsaw puzzle and all the pieces matter. This year we added a few more pieces to the puzzle.
Our biggest accomplishment is the full repeal of Common Core. At the beginning of the session, I said that Common Core was dead in the state of Tennessee and everybody knew it.
Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville) and Rep. Billy Spivey (R-Lewisburg) answered the call and crafted a bill that sets up a review panel to create new Tennessee standards based in Tennessee values. We will make sure that the new standards come from Tennessee, not Washington, DC.
But the most important thing we need to remember when fashioning these new standards is that there is no going back. Conservatives are right to oppose Common Core. Top down, Washington-based solutions — especially in the age of Obama — never work.
While conservatives oppose Common Core for legitimate reasons, the TEA and the Democrats oppose it for very different ones. They want to go back to the old days when standards didn’t matter and we were content to stay at the bottom of national education rankings. We are never going back.
The most gratifying moment in my political life was the day that Governor Haslam called to let me know that Tennessee was the most improved state in the history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test.
I want more moments like that. This legislature is committed to continued improvement in education so that the jobs we are bringing to Tennessee go to Tennesseans educated in Tennessee schools.
It matters who budgets
Before our Republican majority, when a budget deficit appeared legislators would look first toward raising taxes to fill the gap. That’s just not how we think in the General Assembly these days.
When revenue is down, we tighten our belts. When revenue is up, we put away money for a rainy day and return the excess to the taxpayer. We understand that every dollar we spend comes from the back pocket of a hard-working Tennessean with a family. That’s the mindset at the root of Tennessee’s fiscal responsibility.
The budget this year includes $200 million in strategic cuts. The efficiencies we created through cutting big government gave us the funds necessary to increase spending on K-12 education at a rate more than double the national average.
I am proud to report that since 2011, the General Assembly will have reduced government spending by $450 million. And as of this budget year, Tennessee’s Rainy Day Fund sits at its highest level since 2008. We are a fiscally responsible, low-debt state with our priorities in the right place. With your help, I plan to keep it that way.
Repealing the retirement tax
When looking for a place to spend their golden years, many retirees settle on Tennessee due to our lack of a state income tax. Then, they discover the Hall Tax. While we don’t tax wages in Tennessee, the Hall Tax does tax dividends and interest. I have long opposed this tax – it is devastating to those who have scrimped and saved for retirement.
It has always been my goal to slowly raise the exemption rate for seniors until virtually no one over 65 pays the tax. This year, we again worked toward that goal.
Senate Bill 32 ties exemption and income limits to inflation, so fewer and fewer seniors pay the tax. Next year, I will continue working towards my ultimate goal of eliminating the tax for seniors.
Restoring common sense on abortion
Last November, Republicans, Democrats and Independents voted overwhelmingly to approve Amendment 1. The constitutional amendment stated that our state constitution is neutral on abortion. This enables the legislature to put in place common sense restrictions and regulations to ensure the procedure remains safe and rare.
The voters spoke and we listened. The General Assembly restored the restrictions Tennessee had in place before the Tennessee Supreme Court struck them down in 2000.
Senate Bill 1222 mandates informed consent and a 48-hour waiting period prior to an abortion, while Senate Bill 1280 requires abortion facilities performing more than 50 abortions a year be held to the same health and safety standards as other outpatient surgical facilities.
Conservative Health Care Reform
While the media focuses on Insure Tennessee, your General Assembly was hard at work looking for ways to keep health-care costs down, bringing health insurance to more people, and making sure no one goes without care.
The Obamacare fiasco has revealed that the federal government is ill-equipped to deliver cost effective health care reform. It is the states who are best able to keep costs down while helping people in need.
To that end, the state Senate asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to approve a block grant to Tennessee for Medicaid funds. Only under a block grant can Tennessee enact conservative health care reform on its own terms, allowing us to cut costs within the entire Medicaid-eligible population.
In 1980 Medicaid cost Tennessee $116,000,000. TennCare now costs Tennesseans approximately $3,400,000,000. The only way to truly reform health care in Tennessee is to get these costs under control and the only way to get costs under control is through a block grant.
But our actions on health care reform have not been limited to the aspirational.
The Senate passed groundbreaking legislation allowing Tennesseans’ access to cost-effective telehealth services. Senate Bill 1223 makes sure that practitioners who offer telehealth services in the state will be held to the same high standard of professional practice as any other healthcare provider. This allows patients to get high quality care at a fraction of the cost.
But until Tennessee is able to pursue health care reform the Tennessee way – without strings attached from the Obama Administration – certain goals will remain out of reach.
I look forward to helping elect a Republican president in 2016 who will give Tennessee the latitude to institute real reform.
Victims’ lives matter
Crime is under control in Tennessee, but we can always do more, especially on behalf of victims. Defense attorneys are famous for putting the victim on trial and ignoring the basic humanity of those who have been raped, tortured or killed. Often activist liberal judges let them get away with it. Senate Bill 933 puts a stop to this and makes it clear that prosecutors are allowed to show an appropriate photograph of the victim while alive.
Sexual assault is a truly horrific crime. Victims often don’t come forward, and even when they do prosecution is difficult. Evidence must be handled properly for there to be any hope of justice at trial. Senate Bill 981 sets up procedures for the collection and storage of rape kits and requires law enforcement agencies to submit kits to the TBI for testing within 60 days. We can’t prevent every sexual assault in Tennessee but we can certainly make sure evidence is collected and stored so that prosecutors have the tools they need to gain convictions.
Domestic assault victims also have new protections. Senate Bill 610 removes the provision in state law that allows judges to waive the 12-hour “cooling off” period for domestic abusers.
No Tennessean should have to live in fear. I pray that no Tennessean is ever the victim of a violent crime. But rest assured, if it happens, you will have your rights protected and your interests defended.
Efficient sessions equal efficient government
As a goal-oriented person, I relish the opportunity to set a schedule to reach my goals. Time is a curious thing and a valuable commodity. If you never set a schedule, your goals — and your time — tend to get away from you.
An efficient and focused General Assembly can finish the people’s business promptly and save taxpayer dollars in the process. This year, we used 28 legislative days, the fewest in the modern political era.
Getting out “on time” saves taxpayers over $100,000 a week. And when we aren’t in session you don’t have to worry about us making intrusive new laws or reaching into your back pocket. You elected us to pass a balanced budget, legislate efficiently and leave.
Tennessee’s citizen legislature is unique. We cannot know the needs of our districts if we are in Nashville. I believe efficient sessions lead to a more efficient and more responsive legislature. The days of legislative sessions lingering into May and June are gone forever.
Promises made, promises kept
Since I became lieutenant governor in 2007, Tennessee has changed dramatically — and for the better. Tennessee’s government is more open, transparent and customer service oriented. Our operations are more streamlined and efficient. Voters asked for more jobs, less spending and smaller government. We have listened.
We cut government where needed while funding essential functions. We have focused like a laser beam on education. Tennessee is the most improved state in the nation and we have no intention of looking back.
The General Assembly accomplished much this session, but there is still much left to do. I cherish your continued support and feedback as we look forward to tackling the challenges ahead.