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Gov. Bill Haslam urged Republicans to take seriously the growing problem of income inequality, in one of his first public appearances since launching his campaign for a second term.

Haslam said at the Davidson County Republican Party's First Tuesday luncheon in downtown Nashville that Republicans should not deny evidence that wealth is being spread unevenly or write off such concerns as Democratic propaganda.

The governor, whose family fortune is estimated to exceed $1 billion, said income inequality can be addressed best by improving the education system.

"The Republican answer — I think, the smart answer — is to say we're going to give everybody the opportunities that they deserve," he said. "There's some people who say ... we can just tax more people at the top end and that can help more people at the bottom end, (and) it'll all work out.

"But we've been trying that for the past 50 years, with the Great Society and all of that. The problem has only actually gotten worse."

About 120 people attended the event, giving Haslam a warm reception. Carol Swain, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School, particularly praised Tennessee Promise, Haslam's plan to offer free community college to all high school graduates, starting next year.

"I'm not here to criticize the governor this time," Swain said. "I'm standing because I am a community college graduate. ... I really commend the governor, because in my life, it enabled me to enter the middle class. I believe it is the way up for a lot of people."

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