Republican Gov. Bill Haslam in his annual State of the State address proposed what he called Tennessee’s largest investment in public education without a tax increase in the state’s history.
Haslam’s $34.8 billion spending plan also provides new spending on colleges and universities, road projects and another large deposit into Tennessee’s emergency budget reserves.
“Our commitment to education continues in a big way tonight,” Haslam told the joint session of the General Assembly gathered in the House chamber.
The governor’s plan calls for $261 million in new funding for K-12 education, including $105 million to pay for teacher raises that are part of Haslam’s efforts to make Tennessee the fastest-improving state in the nation in terms of teacher salaries.
“I’m really pleased with the speech and think the governor is listening to the citizens of Tennessee,” said state Rep. Judd Matheny. “It includes increases for capital outlay projects for higher education which we’ve been demanding more and more and we’ve not been able to meet those infrastructure needs.”
Matheny said post-secondary enrollment is soaring in Tennessee thanks to programs like Tennessee Promise, which provides two years of free tuition at community colleges and technical schools. Some of the money for infrastructure, he said, will simply be used to build more classroom space.
“The governor has an ambitious goal to have 55 percent of Tennesseans with some type of degree by 2025 and he’s put the money in place to make that happen,” said Matheny.
State Rep. Kevin Dunlap also lauded the governor’s commitment to education in his proposed budget.
“These are historic investments in our public education system,” said Dunlap. “We’ve made drastic improvements. We’re the fastest improving state in the nation when it comes to education and we don’t need to take a step back. One thing we need to avoid is taking money away from public education through vouchers because that will send money to for-profit schools and religious schools. Public dollars should be for public education. We can’t afford to pull hundreds of millions away from public education over the next five years.”
The fight over school vouchers is expected to intensify in the General Assembly next week.
While the governor took a victory lap on his administration’s accomplishments inside the chamber, protesters outside sang and chanted about the failure Haslam’s proposal last year to expand Medicaid in Tennessee. Haslam did not mention his Insure Tennessee proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 people during his 38-minute speech, and has said he won’t seek to revisit the issue until after this year’s presidential election.
The governor credited his fiscally conservative spending priorities for putting the state in a strong budget position. Lawmakers applauded when Haslam noted that Tennessee has the lowest debt per capita in the country and that the state is amid the second-longest period of not raising its sales tax.
At the same time, Tennessee has cut the sales tax on groceries, eliminated the estate and gift taxes and reduced the Hall tax on earnings from stocks and bonds for senior citizens. Meanwhile, Haslam proposed placing $100 million into budget reserves that would bring the state’s rainy day fund to $668 million, its second-highest level on record.
“We’re using taxpayers’ money like we would use our own,” Haslam said. “We’re holding in the reins during good times so we’re prepared during the bad times.”
Haslam’s budget proposal does not include money for some legislative priorities like a new building for the state library and archives or a deeper cut in the Hall income tax. But it also doesn’t incorporate his controversial efforts to outsource more state-owned buildings.