A sometimes emotional Gov. Bill Haslam used his annual speech to the General Assembly and the state of Tennessee to take a victory lap of sorts Monday night.
All those controversial ideas, like merit pay and closing government buildings? He says they're finally paying off.
In his sixth State of the State speech, Haslam didn't just lay out his agenda for the upcoming year. He also devoted a good portion of his nearly 40-minute address to answering critics, who've questioned his efforts to re-engineer state government along business lines.
Haslam said Tennessee's budget surplus, which has approached $1 billion over the past 17 months, is proof it's worked.
"I want you to hear this. The surplus didn't just suddenly materialize."
Haslam credited his administration, lawmakers and other Republican officials for taking a careful approach to managing the state's finances. He says cuts in leaner times means the state is better positioned to handle the next economic downturn.
Haslam urged lawmakers to remain cautious, but he said the state can also put some of the surplus to use, especially in education. He proposed putting more than $400 million into K-12, half of it in teachers' salaries, and almost as much into building and fixing up university campuses.
Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro said he agrees with most of the governor's spending plans. But he can't take all the credit.
"You know, I think Tennessee has, for a very long time, been a well-managed state. And I think when you combine our state's general management philosophy with the economy that we're seeing across the country, that you're going to see a budget surplus."
'Repaying old debts'
Roads also figured prominently into Haslam's speech. As expected, he proposed diverting a portion of the surplus — $130 million — back into the state's highway fund.
It sounds like a lot of money. But Haslam says the state needs $6 billion to keep its highways from choking with traffic. Finding that much money won't be easy, says the governor.
"A first step is toward repaying old debts."
Haslam's predecessor, Phil Bredesen, took out twice what Haslam proposes "paying back" to balance the budget during the last economic downturn.
The repayment won't buy much asphalt, but it could gain Haslam some political leverage. He hopes eventually to increase the gas tax, Tennessee's main source of money for roads. Before he leaves office, Haslam says he wants to come up with a comprehensive plan to pay for roads.
But already anti-tax groups are lobbying to keep the tax where it is. Andrew Ogles with the libertarian organization Americans for Prosperity wants the Haslam administration to list publicly exactly how the money will be spent.
"We want to make sure that those dollars are spent wisely. And that taxpayers get the best return on their investment and that those dollars refunded don't turn into political favors, but rather goes to the needs of the people of Tennessee."
Helping the vulnerable
Haslam also called for helping those who he described as "vulnerable citizens," especially those with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Sometimes, the things they need seem so basic they're overlooked, the governor said.
One program Haslam wants to put more money into: seating and positioning clinics, where technicians adjust the cushioning for wheelchairs.
"It's hard to put into words the physical challenges faced by the people they support," he said.
Haslam also proposed putting $24 million into CHOICES, the state's employment program for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Officials estimate that money would be enough to help 1,700 people find jobs in the first year alone.
Advocates for the disabled welcome the spending. But, Tony Garr with the Tennessee Health Care Campaign said the state could be doing more. He was one of the several dozen activists who turned out to urge state lawmakers to expand Medicaid.
"It could help 280,000 vulnerable people in Tennessee. I mean, the number one reason for personal bankruptcy is medical bills. This could help a lot of those."
Garr says he's not surprised Haslam didn't mention Medicaid expansion in his speech. But activists hope the governor might lead lawmakers in that direction.
Haslam has said he may present another plan after the November election. It's an issue that will loom large during his remaining time in office.
The governor made it clear that he's already thinking about his legacy. He noted that in a few decades he and most state officials will be long forgotten. But the decisions they make now, he said, will affect generations.
Choking up, Haslam said the time he has remaining to make those decisions is starting to run out.