Haslam Touts First-Term Successes, Pledges Continued Emphasis on Education, Economy

Republican Bill Haslam is promising that one thing he definitely won’t do in his second term as governor is “coast to the finish line.”

“Four years from now, someone else will be standing in this spot and preparing to take over leadership of Tennessee,” Haslam said in his inaugural address after being administered the oath of office on Saturday by Tennessee Chief Justice Sharon Lee. “I feel an obligation to pass the baton to him or her with the state as prepared for the future as we can be.”

Haslam was first elected to the state’s highest office in a landslide in 2010. Four years later, in 2014, he faced no serious opposition and won with an even larger percentage of the popular vote. And the governor promised that over the course of the next four years he’ll continue focusing on two of the issues that he touts as his areas of greatest achievement in his first term.

“In education, we are now the fastest improving state in the country. Our high school graduation rates have increased from 76 percent to 88 percent over the past decade,” said Haslam, who prior to becoming governor served two terms as mayor of Knoxville. “There are now 100,000 more kids proficient at grade-level in math, and more than 57,000 additional students are proficient at grade-level in science. The number of students needing remedial math when they get to community college has decreased by 10 percent.”

He also talked up his “Tennessee Promise” program, launched last year, that offers two free years of college to any graduating high school senior.

“We are the first state ever to promise high school graduates the chance to attend community college or technical school free of tuition and fees,” said the governor.

Haslam noted that with respect to drawing successful businesses to Tennessee — something he said his administration has made a key priority — the skills and overall preparedness of prospective employees are crucial points of interest to corporate executives considering a move or expansion.

“Every company I talked to looked me in the eye and expressed their concern about whether Tennessee’s workforce is ready for tomorrow’s challenge,” Haslam told the several-hundred strong audience that turned out for the noontime ceremony on the south steps of the state Capitol. “Every company emphasized to me that we needed to quickly increase the percentage of our population with a certificate or degree beyond high school. To achieve that, we have to make certain that our students graduate from high school prepared for post-secondary education.”

Haslam’s comments were well received by both Democrats and Republicans on hand for the event — and for mostly the same reasons. Prominent members of both parties said they appreciated both his optimism and vow to keep fully engaged throughout his second term.

Tennessee House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh likes that Haslam plans to press an aggressive policy agenda.

“I don’t want him to just sit down and let these last four go by,” said Fitzhugh, D-Ripley. “I am ready for him to press forward on some of these issues.”

Fitzhugh said he has “a good working relationship” with the Republican governor. If Haslam is “a little accommodating” and commits himself to remaining “open to compromise,” then the next four years should be good for Tennessee, he said.

“Today is a great day to be optimistic about our state,” said Fitzhugh.

Likewise, Chris Devaney, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, appreciates that Haslam is assuring Tennessee “he’s not going to let off the pedal” in the homestretch. “He has been somebody that has had innovative ideas for moving the state forward on education and economic development, so we are excited about the next four years,” Devaney said.

He brushed off suggestion that Haslam, viewed as a centrist or even a liberal within the GOP, could himself become an increasingly divisive figure within his own party, which dominates both chambers of the Tennessee Legislature.

“As the family continues to grow, like in any big family, there are going to be arguments within the family,” said Devaney, who in December won a fourth term as leader of the TNGOP. “I think that at the end of the day, people have seen the good things that Bill Haslam has done and suggested. He has really been moving the state forward, so I think we are really going to have a good four years.”