Governor discusses bold legislative agenda for year

Gary B. Gray • Jan 17, 2012 at 10:32 PM

One week after Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam opened the second session of the 107th General Assembly by proposing 55 non-budget related bills, the sophomore Republican state leader walked into the Johnson City Press with a bounce in his step.

Haslam met with the Press’ editorial board and laid out his legislative priorities which revealed the following goals: to improve the state’s antiquated hiring system, including teacher salary schedules made strictly on seniority, restructure bureaucratic-heavy boards and commissions and to incentivise business not only to come to Tennessee, but to stay.

The governor plans to restructure 22 state boards and commissions to eliminate duplicative functions and provide more accountability and oversight.

“There are 200 different state boards and commissions,” he said. “The concern from the Legislature for years has been the money being spent on these employees who don’t really report to anyone. I favor reducing their size and having the heads of these boards and commissions report to elected officials. The state’s purpose is to provide services at the lowest prices possible for the things people can’t provide for themselves.”

Haslam called the state’s hiring process “archaic at best.” Should the state have a need for an engineer, for example, it cannot just thumb through East Tennessee State University’s best and brightest. Instead, the hiring system is based on experience.

“The system now puts a great emphasis on experience, and the only players that can play on the team are those that have been on the team for years,” he said.

Another proposal gives local school districts more options in how they approach classroom instruction and teacher compensation by maintaining maximum class size requirements but eliminating average class size mandates for each school.

Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford responded to the proposal last week by calling the elimination of the average class size mandates a “radical proposal” and a “threat to student learning.”

“Right now we’ve got what they call an average class size as mandated by the state, and that varies by grade level,” said Joe Crabtree, Johnson City Education Association president. “Smaller classroom size gives teachers better opportunities to get to know each individual student and provide one-on-one instruction. That’s the main thing.”

Haslam said the legislation also would do away with what he called outdated requirements of state and local salary schedules made strictly on seniority and quantity of training while giving districts the opportunity to set these boundaries on their own.

Districts know best how to manage their schools, and it also allows systems to reward teachers at their discretion, he said. Haslam doesn’t expect teachers’ salaries to drop and he feels more teachers could see their paychecks increase as a result.

State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman has pretty much been in agreement with Haslam on these initiatives.

Crabtree said Haslam’s desire to ditch the current state salary schedule in favor of raises based on merit would cause even more friction when dealing with today’s state-mandated evaluations.

“Our fear is if we go to merit-based pay there may be increased competition (among teachers),” he said. “We want to avoid that so that we have the entire team (teachers, principals, administrators, etc.) involved.”

Meanwhile, one of Haslam’s proposals strengthens the Department of Economic and Community Development’s FastTrack program by budgeting more for the grants and giving the department more flexibility in utilizing them to attract and grow Tennessee jobs.

The proposal would de-emphasize tax credits and boost the state’s ability to give grants on the front end, which the governor says has been more popular among businesses looking to build in Tennessee. Previously, state grants could only be applied toward infrastructure and training. If accepted by the General Assembly, state funds also would help pay for pay site work and relocation expenses.

But Haslam said these incentives are geared toward employers planning to create a large number of jobs, and the primary target areas are small communities and rural areas.

“I want to lower the state portion of the sales tax on food from 5.5 percent to 5.3 percent, and over three years, I’d like to lower that to 5 percent,” he said.

The governor said this would cost the state about $18 million. So how does the state compensate for that loss?

“Our sales tax revenues are up, and the current budget came in $20 million under,” he said. “Also, the planned legislation for (the) estate tax will bring in more revenue, and it will mean more money will be staying in Tennessee.”

Haslam wants to eventually raise the state inheritance tax from $1 million to $5 million.

“Tennessee is very conservative when it comes to budgeting, and there’s a reason why we have a triple-A rating,” he said. “And for the last 14 months, we’ve come in under projections (expenditures).”

Haslam now has one year under his belt, and he was asked about his highs and lows.

“Passing a budget unanimously that was $1 billion smaller than the previous budget definitely was a high point, and I think we’ve shined a light on the customer service aspect of state government. I wouldn’t call it negative, but when I was sworn in there was a $31 billion budget due. The legislation was on the field getting ready for the kickoff while we were trying to figure out how to put our pads on.”

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