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Gov. Haslam visits TWC
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam spoke on campus about his first year in office and what he would like to see for the future of the state.
Daily Post Athenian, Citizen News Editor
Lowering taxes, improving education and job creation are among the priorities for Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who shared his message at a community breakfast hosted by Tennessee Wesleyan College on Thursday.
TWC President Harley Knowles said he was "deeply appreciative" Haslam made time to visit Athens; during his campaign, the governor spoke at an Athens Kiwanis Club meeting in the summer of 2010.
On Thursday, Haslam spoke to an audience filled with local officials, community leaders and a few TWC student leaders. He commented on the state budget and several legislative priorities he plans to focus on in 2012.
Asking the audience members what they thought the governor's job should be, Haslam responded to called-out suggestions of balancing the budget, jobs and education.
Haslam said that, unlike the federal government, Tennessee is required to have a balanced budget.
"No one ever asks at the end of a budget year, 'How did you do?' " he said.
Last year, state government "beat" the budget by $20 million while providing services to the citizens. That information will likely be part of Haslam's State of the State Address on Monday, Jan. 30.
Saying he was "hired" to do the best job at the lowest price, which is what value is, Haslam said he spends most of his time recruiting jobs for Tennesseans. Haslam said he met Wednesday with representatives of Volkswagen, who said they love the spirit of Tennessee, but they have been disappointed in the depth of technical and engineering talent they've found in the region.
Haslam said the State of Tennessee is "a 40,000-person organization" dealing with a variety of services including operating schools and prisons, among others.
"We have a wide variety of things we do," he said.
Haslam said government is about providing services for citizens that they can't do themselves: Improving roads, running schools, etc.
"Our job is to provide the very best service we can at the lowest price," he said.
"We don't think of there being a price in government but there is and they're called taxes," Haslam said.
Tennessee's tax base is made up of primarily of sales, franchise and excise taxes. Haslam proposed to lower the grocery tax, which is now 5.5 percent, and the estate tax.
For groceries, the plan is to lower the tax to 5 percent over the next three years.
"This year taking it from 5 1/2 percent to 5.3 percent," Haslam said. "It's something that will touch all Tennesseans."
This change to the tax will cost about $18 million in revenues, he said.
In regard to estate tax, it is "a tax for dying," Haslam said. The federal government has an exemption level of $5 million - Tennessee's is $1 million. One aspect that is being hurt is the family-owned business; many people in that situation live here but have residency in Florida or other states with no - or lower - estate tax.
"What we've done is chase them ... and their capital away," Haslam said. "The people we're penalizing the most are the very businesses we want to stay and encourage."
While he's governor, Haslam plans to raise the exemption level to $5 million; the change will "cost about $14 million." He is convinced change to the estate tax will "bring more money into the state as people stay here and grow more opportunities as well," he said.
Haslam said prescription drug abuse is a problem in Tennessee; emergency rooms see more overdoses from prescription drugs than from illegal narcotics. Also, he wants stiffer penalties for people with prior felony convictions who are involved in crimes involving firearms, as well as for gang crimes.
"Anytime three or more people are involved, we think the odds of something bad happening go up," he said.
Haslam added he is advocating a minimum jail sentence for repeat domestic violence offenders.
"There's a price tag to all that," he said. "Longer sentences mean more dollars ... for the state it will cost us an additional $6 or $7 million for those longer sentences, but we're convinced for the long term that's worth it."
Haslam said he is looking at incentive programs; for example, expanding on what existing cash grants can be used for. Haslam is also looking into strategies as to where incentives are offered, focusing on more rural areas where the impact of 150 new jobs, for example, would be greater.
Haslam also plans to review the state's employment practices.
"We're like a football team that can't recruit," he said.
Currently, the State of Tennessee hires from a registry in which a candidate's years of experience are given the most weight. Haslam said that is not necessarily a bad practice - pointing out his own cabinet has more white-haired members than not - but he added he was allowed to approach and hire whomever he wanted; that is not the case with state employment.
Another employment practice Haslam is concerned with is "bumping," which allows one state employee to replace another based on his or her number of years of service. At no point does job performance factor into the equation, he said.
Haslam said the state has both "at will" and civil service employees - about 10 percent and 90 percent, respectively. A study showed both categories of employees have about a 12.5-year tenure, he said.
"We're addressing a problem that's no longer as it used to be," Haslam said.
Haslam said the current system protects against "political patronage," but said the cure is worse than the sickness "ever was."
Haslam said education is "...one place in Tennessee we're making progress, but we've got a long way to go."
"In Tennessee we've ranked too low for too long," Haslam said later, in response to a question from the audience.
Citing National Assessment of Educational Progress, "the nation's report card," the state has ranked near the bottom for reading and math in fourth and eighth grades, he said.
"We have some real issues," he said, adding, though, there is a changing culture around education and putting more of a value on it.
"We have to raise the expectations around education for every Tennessean," Haslam said, adding that is true for students, teachers, principals, parents and for legislators and the public.
"College is not for everybody," he said. "But it has to be for more Tennesseans than it has been in the past."
Currently, 21 percent of adults in Tennessee have degrees.
"Nationally, that's 30 (percent)," he said.
After Haslam's comments, he answered questions from the audience, the first of which was whether he planned to sign off on the state's redistricting plan.
"Yes, I am," Haslam said, adding redistricting is the Legislature's responsibility and "an incredibly difficult process." "They've worked diligently to get it fair and get it right," he said of state legislators charged with the task, which occurs every 10 years after the U.S. Census.
Asked if the Amazon.com tax issue has been resolved, Haslam said an agreement has been reached pending the passage of another needed piece of legislation. The company has made a commitment to collect sales tax next year and create more jobs in Middle Tennessee.