Gov. Bill Haslam challenges Tennessee to lead nation in jobs, education in final State of the State

With a mix of reminiscing about the past while keeping an eye on the future, Haslam issued a new challenge to lawmakers: to have Tennessee lead the nation in jobs, education and government efficiency.

In his eighth and final State of the State address, Gov. Bill Haslam delivered an emotional early farewell by reflecting on his years in office while calling for lawmakers to take further action to help lead the nation on job growth and education gains.

"Whether, like me, you have one more year, or you intend to be here for years to come, let's use this time while we have the privilege of answering the call to lead, to be the force for good for the state of Tennessee," said Haslam, during an at-times emotional speech.

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"Let's decide now that Tennessee will lead."

Gov. Bill Haslam devliers his State of the State address at the Tennessee State Capitol Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. Photo: George Walker IV, The Tennessean.

The call to arms of sorts came as Haslam touted his own and the legislature's accomplishments in recent years, while also encouraging lawmakers to continue making investments in education and battling the state's opioid crisis.

With a mix of reminiscing about the past while keeping an eye on the future, Haslam issued a new challenge to lawmakers: to have Tennessee lead the nation in jobs, education and government efficiency.

"I don't just want us to compete," the governor said. "I want us to be the best."

The call comes as Haslam looks to shore up his legacy. His final budget proposal, which comes in at $37.5 billion budget for fiscal year 2018-2019, takes a similar approach as previous years. It once again makes investments in education, pay raises for teachers and state employees and setting aside money for the state's reserve fund.

Among the latest additions to the budget is the $30 million effort dedicated to fighting the opioid crisis. The topic of opioids and Haslam's recently outlined approach to combating the epidemic is prominently featured in his speech.

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"This will not be an easy fight or one that will be won overnight but it is one we must attack head on," he said to significant applause from the overflow crowd gathered in the House of Representatives.

Haslam's opioid proposal calls for spending $10.2 million on treatment alone.

The budget also provides $2.2 million to hire 10 new Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agents specifically tasked with fighting the opioid crisis. Haslam's proposal falls short of the recommendations of a legislative task force, which sought to add 25 new TBI agents.

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Unlike in past years, Haslam's final speech and budget proposal did not include more controversial proposals, like last year's measure to increase the state's gas tax.

Instead, the budget makes significant investments in both K-12 education and the state's higher education system, including pay raises.

The latest investments will help solidify Haslam's legacy as the state's education governor. In his two terms, the governor will have dedicated $1.5 billion toward K-12 education alone.

"Tennessee is now viewed as a change agent, an innovator in the world of public education," Haslam said, while calling for more to be done. "Tennessee can and will lead the nation in education."

He touted the move to provide education to all Tennesseans as evidence of the state's major accomplishments. Receiving the loudest applause of the evening, Haslam pointed out the state is on pace to meet its goal of getting 55 percent of working-age Tennesseans to complete a college education early.

Haslam's also called for improving the state's juvenile justice system. Although his comments did not provide many details about the measure — dubbed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018 — Haslam said the legislation will lead to responsible reforms.

Haslam noted that while the state has made significant investments, it has also kept its fiscal house in order, by cutting the size of state government. His administration is touting the fact that during his tenure, the state's budget has only grown at a rate of 2 percent.

Aside from his budget proposals, Haslam thanked members of his cabinet, who received a standing ovation, for their service before calling on lawmakers for further action.

"Tonight I'm challenging us to take the next step," Haslam said. "While we have accomplished so much, our work is not done. We must not let up. We must not slow down."

Haslam concluded his speech by considering how his life will change in the coming months, as he serves out his final days in office.

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"The people of Tennessee have given us this incredible opportunity to be a force for good," Haslam said, before receiving his final standing ovation of the evening.