Bill Haslam became the 49th governor of Tennessee Saturday, promising to set the state on a course toward economic recovery with retraining for the jobless, “top-tier” schools for children and healthier lifestyles for all.
"It is time to aspire to be more,” Haslam declared in his inaugural address. “As Tennesseans, we often aim too low when it comes to education, our health and our economy. It’s time to raise our sights.”
More than 1,000 people watched as Haslam took the oath of office on a sunny day at Legislative Plaza. It marked the first time since 1869 that Republicans controlled both chambers of the legislature as well as the governor’s office.
“Our goal is simple,” the former Knoxville mayor said. “Top-tier education for our children, retraining for those out of work and underemployed, a healthy lifestyle — all three will make Tennessee number one in the Southeast for high-quality jobs.”
The new governor gave no details for how he might achieve his goals and repeatedly cautioned against expecting too much from government.
To the state’s unemployed, he said, “Please understand this point. Government stands ready to assist, but government is not the solution. Offering hope through workforce development, technical training and work keys are building blocks on the road to job recovery and job security. But equally important is the individual determination and drive to invest the time and energy and hard work to be more.”
Haslam pledged to continue education reforms begun in the administration of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen, who raised standards and tied teacher salaries to student test scores for the first time in Tennessee.
“The expectations and standards of education excellence for every student in Tennessee are high,” he said. “This is the time to continue significant education reform. And shame on us if we let this moment escape without meaningful action. The path for better jobs now and into the future requires more than the current one out of five Tennesseans over the age of 25 who have a college degree.”
To the state’s principals and teachers, he said: “This is my commitment to you. We will improve our teaching, learning, retention and graduation. Every student deserves a great teacher, and every school needs a great principal. The tools will be in place — the rest is up to each of us to seize the opportunities.”
Haslam urged citizens to take personal responsibility for improving their health, calling that another key to economic growth.
“A quality workforce also embraces healthy choices and personal responsibility and accountability for a healthy lifestyle,” said the governor, an avid jogger. “We can’t remain 44th out of the 50 states in the health of our citizens and attract the jobs that we want, nor obtain the quality of life we desire in Tennessee.”
Haslam is taking office at a watershed time for state politics. Tennessee now is essentially a one-party state. With Haslam as their leader, Republicans took unassailable control of the legislature as the 107th General Assembly began this week, and the public is watching whether they can govern capably.
State government faces daunting challenges. Although tax collections have been ticking up in recent months, revenue is more than $1 billion below pre-recession levels. Federal economic stimulus cash that propped up the state government for the past two years is vanishing. With any tax increases off the table, the new governor immediately confronts the possibility of the need for steep cuts in health care for the poor, higher education and other services.
Under the current state budget, 314 state employees are paid out of one-time savings. Unless their positions are funded, they would lose their jobs when the next budget year begins on July 1. Through voluntary buyouts, 1,500 workers left state government in 2008 and 850 more were laid off last year. Haslam has said he won’t “make wholesale layoffs in the very beginning.”
“As we slowly reverse the negative trends of the economic downturn that gripped our state and nation, we will be diligent in watching the weight of state government, going on a diet of efficiency and effectiveness,” Haslam said in his speech. “State government will live within its financial means, and a top-to-bottom review will set priorities and establish measurable goals.”
“Our measure of effective state government is whether our citizens are served well and at the lowest possible cost,” he added. “The people of Tennessee are our customers and we will be all about excellent customer service.”
The governor is expected to present his state budget blueprint on March 1. The legislature already cut $770 million in fiscal 2009-10 and $420 million in fiscal 2010-11, which began July 1.
Haslam made a flurry of appointments Friday to fill 20 positions in his cabinet. They include seven women, five minorities and geographical representation from across the state, his transition team noted.
Candidates for the education and health departments remain under consideration with decisions expected soon, aides to the governor said. In the interim, Commissioner of Health Susan Cooper will continue to serve indefinitely and Patrick Smith, who is the executive director of the Race to the Top oversight team, will act as the education commissioner.
“I am pleased that during the transition we have been able to attract a strong, diverse team to lead the departments,” Haslam said. “Experienced men and women from across Tennessee will provide the leadership for great customer service and efficient operations.”