In his first “State of the State” speech, Gov. Bill Haslam declared a “new normal” of Tennessee government getting by with less money; his second was centered on the phrase “believe in better,” suggesting that policy changes can improve things without new spending.
The governor hasn’t said what the theme will be in his third State of theState address, scheduled for delivery this evening at a joint meeting of the state House and Senate. But he has said it will be “more of the same” in the general sense of striving to reshape state government toward being more friendly toward business and more efficient in operations.
The state budget plans presented in his speeches of 2011 and 2012 both contained a mix of spending cuts in some areas and expansion in others with overall expenditures roughly stable in the $31 billion range. With state revenue rebounding in recent months, the overall figure will likely rise in the 2013 edition of a Haslam budget, though he says projected increases in TennCare costs and other factors will eat most of the new money.
Still, he has promised to budget for another small cut in the state sales tax on groceries, dropped to 5.25 percent from 5.5 percent last year. This year, he will propose a reduction to 5 percent, a proposal uniformly popular with legislators.
The only tax controversy involves Democrats who think the cut should be bigger and some supermajority Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who would prefer that the Hall tax on stock and bond dividends and interest be cut instead — or in addition to the incremental adjustment in grocery taxes.
Along with giving some details on his budget plans, Haslam has declared that he will present specifics tonight on at least two proposals for state policy changes.
On the business-friendly front, Haslam will propose an overhaul of the state’s workers’ compensation system for insuring employees who are injured on the job. A gubernatorial task force has been studying the matter for more than a year. The proposal is widely expected to lessen involvement of the court system in dealing with workers’ compensation claims, an idea popular with the business lobby — just as Haslam’s successful 2011 effort to limit businesses liability in lawsuits was.
On the policy front, the governor has said he will outline his plans for Tennessee’s first voucher system, providing state funds to support children in private schools. Again, the Haslam plan follows a lengthy task force review. He says it will be limited to students from low-income families in low-performance schools, but has given no details.
Those details could decide the fate of Haslam’s voucher proposal. Most Democrats are opposed to any voucher plan, and several Republicans have expressed misgivings.
Haslam has indicated that he may propose some other modest measures in education policy revisions, including a move to give local school systems more flexibility in teacher pay. He proposed last year to do so by revising state law on classroom size, but abandoned the idea after widespread educator criticism.
The governor has also indicated that he will steer clear of personally embracing proposals for a “parent trigger” law, making it easier for parents to push for transforming a public school into a charter school, and a “state authorizer” bill that would allow charter schools to be approved over local school board objections. But Haslam says he will be open to working with legislators on the ideas.