Haslam to give second State of the State address

On January 29, 2012, in News 2012, by Mark Norris

LUCAS L. JOHNSON II, KnoxNews.comJacksonSun.com , WashingtonExaminer.com, Commercial Appeal.com

January 29, 2012

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — As Republican Gov. Bill Haslam prepares to deliver his second State of the State address Monday evening, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are laying out their wish lists for the upcoming budget year.

They’re hopeful that rebounding revenues will allow increased spending. But GOP leaders are trying to tamp down expectations, despite improving financial numbers. Last month’s revenue collections were $123 million more than the budgeted estimate.

“We’ve got holes to fill,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville. “We want to make sure that certain essential services are attended to … and not think that necessarily happy days are here again and we can go on a spending spree.”

Haslam will unveil his full budget plan with the speech but he’s already given a broad outline of his agenda and it’s drawn little criticism among the Republicans who dominate the General Assembly. The proposals include cuts in the inheritance tax and the sales tax on groceries, changing civil service rules for state workers and changing teacher pay and average class size rules.

Haslam initially said the state couldn’t afford tax breaks because of its tight budget, but pressure from GOP lawmakers and rebounding revenues caused him to change his stance.

The governor’s plan would raise the estate tax exemption from $1 million to $1.25 million and reduce the sales tax on most grocery food from 5.5 percent to 5.3 percent.

“I think the governor is on the right track to the extent we can … grant some tax relief,” said Republican Sen. Doug Overbey of Maryville.

While most lawmakers from both parties agree there should be some type of tax relief, they’re divided on other issues, such as a proposal among higher education officials to borrow up to $2 billion for capital projects at the state’s colleges and universities.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said he would like to see Haslam propose at least a billion dollar bond issue while interest rates are low.

“Part of our money management needs to be taking advantage of low rates,” Kyle said. “This is the time to do that. It would put people to work. It would repair some buildings. It would help our higher education process.”

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said he understands the higher education need, but he’s concerned that using the bonds for capital projects would hurt the state’s strong credit rating.

“So, hopefully we’ll meet somewhere in the middle and be able to fund more capital projects than we have in the past,” Ramsey said.

Another issue of contention among lawmakers is education reforms that continue to have teachers outraged.

Last session Haslam proposed new evaluation standards that require half of teacher assessments to come from testing data, and the other half from classroom observations. Some principals have complained that they don’t have enough time to perform multiple evaluations of teachers, while many teachers have voiced concerns that their subjects are not covered by standardized tests.

Haslam has slowed implementation of the new system and commissioned an outside review of it.

The governor is moving forward, though, with proposals that would allow local school districts to determine class sizes, eliminate outdated requirements of state and local salary schedules made strictly on seniority and training, and give districts the flexibility to set parameters themselves.

Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters said both proposals are bad ideas he hopes Haslam will reconsider.

“First of all, raising class size could in no way help improve student achievement,” he said. “And then secondly, how are we going to attract and retain the best teachers when the state cannot guarantee them a decent salary?”

Haslam has said the measure concerning class size would give local school districts more options and flexibility in how they approach classroom instruction and teacher compensation, and that the other might result in better pay for teachers who could be awarded for their performance.

Norris said he hopes the governor will use his speech Monday to highlight the benefits the Republican-backed changes will bring to teachers.

“We need to do a better job of communicating what the reforms he has in mind can do to assist them in their classrooms, and enhance their jobs,” Norris said.

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