By Scott Robertson
Governor Bill Haslam delivered his annual State of the State address the evening of Feb. 1 in Nashville. It was an upbeat message with the theme, “unique opportunity.” Of more substance was the inclusion of details regarding the governor’s proposed budget.
Conservatives love the fact that the governor is putting $100 million into the state’s Rainy Day Fund. That fund will end the fiscal year at just over two-thirds of a billion dollars. It’s important because Tennessee’s constitution mandates a balanced state budget. In lean years, Rainy Day dollars are used to prevent tax hikes.
State employees love the fact that the governor is including almost $100 million in wage increases for them, with almost 40 percent of that earmarked for those rank-and-file workers who make less than $50,000 annually.
The central focus of Haslam’s budget is education. He makes the largest contribution to K-12 history in Tennessee history (without a tax increase). The budget further funds Haslam’s Drive to 55 plan, including:
• $50 million for the Complete College funding formula for higher education;
• $20 million for the Drive to 55 Capacity Fund to help community and technical colleges meet the growing demand for degrees and certificates; and
• $10 million for the Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP) helping communities align degree and course offerings with the needs of the local workforce.
In addition, the governor is proposing more than a half billion dollars to fund new buildings at UT-Memphis, UT-Chattanooga, Tennessee Tech and Tennessee State.
The response from the state Democratic Party leadership, such as it is, gave little in the way of specific rebuttal to the governor’s remarks about what’s happening in Tennessee, instead focusing on something that is not happening, Insure Tennessee.
“Governor Haslam has such pretty plans for the year. Sadly, though, our Republican Governor is not a leader,” said Mary Mancini, chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party. “Just look at Insure Tennessee, the health care plan he designed to attract Republican votes. Yet, even with a Republican supermajority in the House and Senate he couldn’t get it out of committee.”
“Even worse,” Mancini continued, “when the going gets tough, he gave up. He could have brought back Insure Tennessee. He could have used his leadership to pass a health care plan that would have saved lives and created opportunity. Instead, he caved to the extremists in his party.”
I agree with Mancini’s desire to have Tennessee accept the federal Medicaid dollars that are flowing now to other states. The notion that Tennessee is somehow doing something noble by not accepting those particular federal dollars is, at best, hollow, considering Tennessee has the third largest percentage of its total revenues from the federal government of any state in the union (39.5 percent, according to the Washington Post article, “Some of the most conservative states rely most on federal government aid” by Niraj Choksi, Jan. 6, 2016).
The simple fact of the matter is Tennessee’s legislators have no stomach for accepting federal dollars in a high profile way, such as voting for something that smacks of Obamacare. But they’ll take the dollars that are flowing into the state from Washington already, because they don’t have to take public responsibility for those.
So Mancini’s desire to have Haslam bring Insure Tennessee back to the legislature again in 2016 is tilting at windmills. She would have the governor waste everyone’s time with a doomed effort. That’s not efficient government.
Just so, legislators reportedly told the governor before the legislative session began they would not fund increases in highway spending until his administration had made a good faith effort to pay back into the highway fund the dollars that were taken from it to pad the general fund during leaner times. Haslam’s currently proposed budget puts $130 million back. Now that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the $6 billion in projects awaiting funding. But Haslam is playing ball with the legislature, trusting they’ll give highway funding a fair shake next year. If they don’t, that’s won’t be Haslam’s fault, though Mancini may well skewer him for it anyway.
Haslam is right in saying the state is in far better shape financially than it has been in several years. And his pro-education stance is not just welcome, it’s necessary, given the gap between Tennessee and competing states in workforce readiness. Tennessee is going in the right direction. Hopefully the governor has the fortitude to stay the course and not be bogged down by nuisance-creating extremists on either side of the aisle.