Haslam Hints at Renewal of “Limited” Voucher Program, Still Leery of Kelsey Plan

Governor’s remarks made at grand opening ceremonies for Electrolux plant on Presidents’ Island.

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Governor Bill Haslam with Electrolux CEO Jack Truong
  • JB
  • Governor Bill Haslam with Electrolux CEO Jack Truong

Governor Bill Haslam, speaking Thursday at the ceremonial grand opening of the new Electrolux plant on Presidents’ Island, hailed the addition to Memphis’ (and Tennessee’s) industrial landscape as a practical symbol of the state’s manufacturing aspirations.

“‘In Tennessee, we still make things,” the governor said. “We want to be the place where one out of three cooking units in the country is made We want to be the state that leads the country in manufacturing growth. We want to be the state that sees a resurgence in furniture manufacturing.…..We already sell a little bit better whiskey than anybody else.”
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The plant, which will make Electrolux brand-name appliances, essentially is an expanded and technologically upgraded version of a previous manufacturing unit that was located in the Canadian province of Quebec. It was shifted to Memphis on the strength of significant financial incentives from both local and state government sources.

Now employing some 550 employees, the plant will expand to 1200 or so and is capable of manufacturing 600,000 units a year, said George Robbins, local plant manager, in the course of giving visitors to the facility a tour. Haslam, who was joined by Mayors A C Wharton and Mark Luttrell and other local officials at the ceremony, presided over by Electrolux CEO Jack Truong , hailed the plant for its ability to provide “everything from entry-level jobs to high-tech jobs.”

In a brief Q-and-A with reporters afterward, Haslam offered some insights on the forthcoming legislative session, scheduled to begin in Nashville next week.

On school-voucher legislation:

“We’re going to make our recommendation next week. As you know, we favored a more limited approach to school vouchers. I still think that’s the right one, because it’s focused on those lowest performing schools which are actually..., a lot of which are our responsibility now in the Achievement School District and others.

“So in something like this we think it makes sense to take a more measured approach as you look at vouchers, and let’s see the impact. There’s a lot of concern as to the effect it has on an existing school system, and how much difference does it make for the student. As the physician, operating on ourselves first, we think, makes lot of sense.”

The governor was asked about a more extensive (and expensive)voucher program proposed last year by state Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), who has said he will offer it again this year. At the end of last year’s session, Haslam asked his legislative sponsor, state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, to pull the more moderate gubernatorial pilot program rather than submit it to the changes desired by Kelsey.

“You know, we obviously last year felt much more comfortable with our position. We want to come up with something that’s the best idea. Last year, we didn’t hear another approach that we thought made sense, given everything else we have going on in education.”

Asked about the prospect of minimum wage legislation, Haslam said, “I’d be surprised if that gets much traction.”

On prospects for the “Tennessee Plan,” a private-sector alternative to Medicaid expansion under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, Haslam said, “We’ve just had an additional conversation with [Health and Human Services] Secretary [Kathleen] Sebelius, and several folks from CMS [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] are coming down to Tennessee, I think, next week to have additional conversations."

Federal subsidies for Haslam’s plan under the ACA (aka “Obamacare”) would require a federal waiver, which thus far has not been approved.

“I don't want to mislead anybody into thinking we have something imminently worked out, but we do think we're making some progress,” the governor said.

On the rape-kit controversy which has flared up in Memphis as well as nationwide: “Senator Norris has some legislation on that.” He thinks a statewide approach is in order and acknowledges having had conversations with Mayor A C Wharton on matters of state responsibility and state funding support for working through backlogs but did not elaborate.

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