An ambitious plan to get more Tennessee high schoolers into college, along with capital improvement projects and funding to help adults go back to school to earn a college degree, featured prominently in Governor Bill Haslam's annual State of the State message.
The majority of Haslam's address, delivered Thursday night at the state capitol in Nashville, was dedicated to education.
His "Tennessee Promise" plan would waive fees and tuition for any graduating high schooler who chooses to enroll in a two-year community or technical college.
"We are committed to making a clear statement to families that education beyond high school is a priority in the state of Tennessee," Haslam said. "Tennessee will be the only state in the country to offer our high school graduates two years of community college with no tuition or fees along with the support of dedicated mentors." The $302 million plan will be paid for through an endowment supplied by revenues from the Tennessee Lottery. Haslam's budget proposal requests $15 million in additional funding for the effort.
Haslam also defended education reforms that have rankled many teachers across the state. He pointed to improvements in Tennessee's rank on national education assessments as evidence the reforms are working.
The news for higher education was not all good. The 2014-15 spending plan does not include $40 million requested by the Tennessee Board of Regents to help reduce tuition increases at four-year colleges and universities. And the plan makes changes to the state's HOPE lottery scholarship program, reducing the amount students could receive in the first two years, but boosting it in the second two years.
The balance of Haslam's forty-minute speech was spent on issues ranging from the retirement of State Senator Douglas Henry to tax cuts.
The governor criticized the politicization of Medicaid expansion in the state. Halsam remained noncommittal on a possible expansion, though he said burgeoning TennCare costs have "squeezed out other critical needs" in the state budget. Haslam noted TennCare expenses now take up an estimated 30 percent of Tennessee's annual budget, and in 2014 is projected to cost another $180 million.
Haslam’s budget proposal also includes funding increases for social services in the state. That means more money for the Department of Children’s Services and Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
Overall, the governor's spending plan for the fiscal year that begins in July trims about $600 million. The belt-tightening came in part in response to tax revenues that fell $176 million short of economists' projections this fiscal year, and expectations for slow growth in the coming year.
At one point, Haslam asked legislators if tax cuts were the right action in the face of those sluggish revenue numbers.
The short answer, he said, was yes.
"Working together, we have cut taxes in a methodical, thoughtful way," Haslam said. "When you look at the taxes we’ve cut, several of them will actually create more revenue in Tennessee over time."
Tax cuts under consideration in the General Assembly this year would cost the state an estimated $170 million annually.
The governor was interrupted many times for applause, but the longest reaction was reserved for State Senator Douglas Henry, retiring after more than forty years in the General Assembly. When Haslam recognized Henry, his fellow legislators rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation that lasted nearly a minute. Henry was also given the responsibility of introducing the governor as he entered the House chamber.