Top Agency Bosses Offer Their Visions for Tennessee

In line with Gov. Bill Haslam’s social media-driven communications strategy, the state’s new top decision makers are featured in the administration’s most recent “Governor’s Update” YouTube video

The three-and-a-half-minute video features six of the state’s more than twenty state commissioners, with the top department leaders in Health, Financial Institutions, Children’s Services, Agriculture, Mental Health and Tourism each offering a vision for their agency.

Commissioner Greg Gonzales, who oversees the Department of Financial Institutions, says he wants to build an environment where businesses can be successful, as does Commissioner Julius Johnson of the Department of Agriculture, who said he wants to make the state’s rural and agricultural communities better places to live.

“I believe we can do this by creating incentives for new jobs to be developed in rural areas, to make sure that the agriculture community grows in like-kind with urban businesses and so forth, to develop jobs and to have the same opportunity that the urban areas have,” he said.

Susan Cooper, commissioner of the Department of Health, said she hopes Tennessee can be the healthiest state in the nation while Tourism Commissioner Susan Whitaker wants to make the Volunteer State one of the top five destinations in the country.

Commissioner Kathryn O’Day of Children’s Services stressed the need for the state to reach out to the local community to best address the needs of kids, and Mental Health Commissioner Doug Varney said the state needs to be sensitive and responsive to the people his department serves.

“Many of these people, by the time they get to this point or are looking to services, they’re desperate. They’re dealing with very difficult situations,” he said.

Business and Economy Education News

Haslam Talks Education, Economy, Budget at Small Biz Meet-Up

Gov. Bill Haslam offered some of the first glimpses Tuesday of what is happening in his budget process, while reiterating his two-pronged agenda of a jobs plan and education reform to a group of small business leaders in downtown Nashville.

Haslam got full-throated support of his plans from the hierarchy of Republican leadership in the Legislature, as Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, the majority leader, all spoke to the group and backed Haslam’s proposals.

Haslam said Transportation Commissioner John Schroer has found $5 million in overhead that can be put into “building roads and fixing bridges, the sort of things the money is supposed to go to.”

He said Greg Gonzales, commissioner of Financial Institutions and a holdover from the administration of Gov. Phil Bredesen, has found ways to do without some assistant commissioners and refund money in banks’ fees.

Haslam hammered home his mission of looking at administrative costs, regulations and direct services and keeping as much focus as possible on the services.

“As much as possible, I don’t want to touch the part that’s direct service, whether it’s building roads or helping families that have issues around mental health or children’s services,” Haslam said. “We’re slowly making some headway.”

Haslam is expected to present a budget proposal March 14.

Haslam was back home after a three-day conference in Washington of the National Governors Association, and he used the gathering of the National Federation of Independent Business and the Home Builders Association of Tennessee to reinforce his intentions of keeping regulations from bogging down business. He also highlighted efforts at reforming education and making job recruitment his priority as governor.

Haslam even offered some insight on the job recruitment, noting that some employers can be a bit greedy.

“We are already out talking to several good prospects,” Haslam said.

“We have a lot of interest in Tennessee. I was amazed at the deal pipeline. I’m also amazed at what people want, quite frankly.”

Haslam told reporters he “easily could” weigh in on the issue of taking away collective bargaining from the teachers union in the state, an issue he has heretofore not voiced a position on, leaving it to legislative sponsors Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, to lead.

Haslam said there could be a “few more twists and turns” on the collective bargaining legislation, and it “depends on how that plays out” as to how much he would get involved.

Haslam’s emphasis on education reform has thus far focused primarily on his desire to change the teacher tenure process, extending the probationary period involved from three years to five years.

Ramsey noted that in his 18 years in the Legislature there have been two “sacred cows” in K-12 education that you just couldn’t talk about.

“They are tenure and collective bargaining. Guess what we’re talking about this year. Tenure and collective bargaining,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey recalled how he met with Haslam a few days after the election in November and talked about education reform.

“He started talking about how we need some kind of tenure reform in the state of Tennessee. I wanted to walk across the room and hug him,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey said his objection to the current system on collective bargaining is that teachers who are not represented by the Tennessee Educators Association are left out of the process and that the current system creates an adversarial relationship from the start.

Haslam, making a point about streamlining government, said he learned in Washington that about 80 federal agencies and commissions are involved in food safety. While Tennessee does not have that many agencies overlapping, he said he believes many state agencies and commissions do overlap. He described how he asked the reason for a fee in the state and was told it was to cover an additional cost to the government.

“Well, that’s not right,” Haslam said flatly. “We want to have government be there to serve you, to do our proper regulatory role, but we’re not here to have a fee that justifies our existence as we grow and put that burden back on you.”

Haslam said as he looked around the room he noted a difference in the business people and some Cabinet members in Washington.

“Not many of those Cabinet secretaries had ever really had capital at risk in a business,” Haslam said. “If you’ve never had capital at risk, you don’t understand the burden of regulations.”

During the Washington conference, President Barack Obama told governors he did not think it did anyone any good when public employees are denigrated, a reference to the clash in some states over benefits for state workers. Given Tennessee’s current scrap between the Legislature and the TEA, which is more subdued than the friction in other states, Haslam was asked after the event if he felt state employees were being denigrated by moves on tenure and collective bargaining.

“I’ve made that point about teachers. This is not at all about pointing fingers at teachers. If it is, it is the wrong discussion, and it shouldn’t be about denigrating state employees,” Haslam said.

“Believe me, I have incredible appreciation for state employees. It does have to be, though, about looking at what the overall equitable answer is for taxpayers, for employees, and for providing services. You have to look at all those.”

Jim Brown, state director for the NFIB in Tennessee, expressed his approval of what Haslam and the legislative leaders who addressed the group are trying to accomplish, noting that a tort reform bill Haslam is pushing is important.

Brown also said he has been impressed so far in what he has seen in Haslam’s administrative leaders and said they are trying to reduce the amount of red tape businesses face.

“What we’re seeing from them is they are looking at existing rules and regulations that have frustrated small businesses and home builders,” Brown said.

“The process should not take long. It’s costly. It discourages investment. It discourages growth and discourages adding jobs. He’s saying let’s look at everything in a full top-to-bottom review. That’s not a sexy press release, but it’s important.”

Press Releases

Recap of Haslam Appointments Thus Far

Statement from Bill Haslam, Tennessee’s Governor-Elect, Dec. 10, 2010:

“The last couple of weeks have been incredibly busy, yet very exciting as we continue building our team and preparing to take office in the New Year. Since the election we’ve had a great response from citizens all across the state offering suggestions for better government and with interest in helping our administration.

“I’m encouraged by the quality and depth of the leadership team (listed below) we’ve recruited to date and look forward to announcing more appointments soon. To read more about our appointments, please go to our transition website at”

“And with the Inaugural approaching and a goal to have the most inclusive celebration possible, things are really starting to come together for the weekend of January 15th. The festivities will kick-off Friday night with a celebration event downtown. The Inaugural Ceremony will take place mid-morning Saturday at Legislative Plaza and the evening celebrations will be held at the newly renovated Opryland Hotel. We are also honored to invite Tennesseans to the Executive Residence on Sunday for an Open House. Details are still being finalized with many of the events free and open to the public. A separate website with all of this information and more is in the works. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact the Inaugural Team at 615.690.8668.”

Press Releases

Haslam To Keep Bredesen’s Financial Institutions Commissioner

Press Release from Governor-elect Bill Haslam; Dec. 9, 2010:

Gonzales Has Been Commissioner Under Gov. Phil Bredesen Since 2007

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Governor-elect Bill Haslam announced today he will retain Greg Gonzales as Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Financial Institutions.

Gonzales has served as Commissioner since 2007 serving as the state’s chief regulatory officer of all state-chartered depository and licensed non-depository financial institutions.

He was acting commissioner starting in December 2005. He has worked in the department since 1986 working in such capacities as assistant commissioner and general counsel.

“We discovered quickly during the transition that Greg has incredible support across the state,” Haslam said. “He’s gained the respect of Tennesseans and the state’s financial institutions, and I know he’ll keep up his good work and maintain his strong commitment to serving all Tennesseans.”

Gonzales serves on the Board of Directors of the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, and he also is a member of the Board of Directors of the Money Transmitter Regulators Association.

“I’m very excited that Gov.-elect Haslam wants me on his team because there are a number of challenges out there,” Gonzales said. “I’m going to continue working with the state’s financial institutions to make certain they remain well-positioned to serve the people of Tennessee.”

Gonzales was born in Cookeville, earning a bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Technological University and law degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Gonzales, 53, is married to Lori, and they have a daughter, Annie. They are members of North Boulevard Church of Christ in Murfreesboro.

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