Tennessee's State Of The State Makes Big Promises But No Big Surprises | Nashville Public Radio

Tennessee's State Of The State Makes Big Promises But No Big Surprises

Feb 9, 2015

Making good on promises: That was one of the themes to emerge Monday night from Gov. Bill Haslam's State of the State address.

Haslam pledged to spend an additional $100 million on teacher salaries and said he’ll finally give colleges and universities a long-awaited reward for raising graduation rates. He also promised to budget for state employee pay raises and change the way those workers are compensated.

WPLN breaks down some of the speech's highlights.

Education Funding

Haslam has been talking about increasing teacher pay since 2013. He said his budget will be a big step forward by giving teachers an average raise of about 4 percent.

"One of our goals in Tennessee is to not only be the fastest improving state in academic achievement gains, but to also be the fastest improving state in teacher compensation," he said.

The governor also recommended giving colleges $25 million to fulfill a promise made back in 2010: They were told then if they raised their graduation rates, they’d see more funding.

"We're expecting more from our schools than we ever have before," Haslam said. "But we know that we have a role to play in that process, too."

Haslam made similar pledges in last year’s State of the State, only to scrap them a few months later when tax revenues failed to meet projections. 

Jim Wrye, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, said teachers will work to hold Haslam to his promise this time.

K-12 Standards

Gov. Bill Haslam’s State of the State address also included a defense of Common Core — though not using those words. The governor avoided direct mention of the controversial education standards, which he believes have been mischaracterized. But Haslam made it clear that he still thinks the goals behind Common Core are sound.

“To me, it doesn’t really matter what we call our standards. What does matter is that we have the highest standards possible," Haslam said.

A recent poll by Vanderbilt University found that Tennesseans generally support higher education standards – as long as they aren’t called Common Core.

Insure Tennessee

The timing of the annual address put it less than a week after his Medicaid expansion plan was voted down in a special session of the legislature. The governor didn't shy away from the topic — in fact, Insure Tennessee turned out to be the first thing he talked about. But he stayed purposely vague.

"Health care costs are still eating up too much of our state’s budget and impacting the federal deficit and nation’s debt," he said. "So, though the special session has ended, I hope we can find a way to work together to address those problems."

He brought up Insure Tennessee toward the end of the speech too, but only to say he didn’t regret bringing the proposal to lawmakers.

Worker Pay

Haslam wants to set aside $48 million for pay raises for public workers. But not every state employee will see an increase. Some might even see their checks shrink.

State workers currently receive a bonus, once a year, to reward them for their continued service. They get $100 for each year they’ve worked, up to $3,000. Haslam wants to do away with that practice and instead reward workers based on their performance.  

“It makes sense to take the next step to move toward rewarding employees like the private sector does — on their performance and results, not just on seniority," he said.

Although longevity bonuses are going away, state workers will get half of that money back as an increase to their base pay. The rest must be earned through performance.

Senior workers could take a hit — especially if their reviews have been bad. But Haslam said the new pay structure will make the state more competitive, especially as it replaces retirees with new recruits.

Here is the full text of Haslam's speech.