Haslam pitches legislative agenda to Chamber audience

Facing a hometown audience hosted by the Knoxville Chamber, Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday outlined a legislative agenda that's heavy on business-oriented goals.

Speaking at a breakfast meeting, the former Knoxville mayor touched on everything from crime to education, but many of his goals relate in some way to improving Tennessee's business climate.

Haslam is pushing to build more flexibility into the process for recruiting new businesses and supporting existing ones, particularly when it comes to cash grants provided by the state for infrastructure and job training. In addition, he is calling for reductions in the state's inheritance tax, with an immediate goal of raising the inheritance tax exemption from $1 million to $1.25 million, with an eventual goal of raising the cap to $5 million.

While that change would likely affect a relatively small number of Tennesseans, Haslam pitched a cut in the sales tax on food — from 5.5 percent to 5.3 percent, with an eventual goal of 5 percent — as a way to enact broad-based tax-cutting.

"If we're going to lower taxes for all Tennesseans, that's the right place to attack it," he said.

He also emphasized the need to improve K-12 education, saying companies like Volkswagen have hailed the business environment in Tennessee but are concerned about the state's breadth and depth of talent, particularly in technical fields. "The thought that we can take our foot off the pedal now is just wrong," he said, referring to education reforms.

Haslam is a former president of his family's company, Pilot Corp., and also spoke about the need to promote more effective and efficient services within the state ranks. The governor said 40 percent of the state's 40,000 employees will be eligible to retire in the next five years, but said the state's system for hiring is archaic and inefficient.

Specifically, he said the system emphasizes experience, adding that "I value experience, but that shouldn't be the only criteria."

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