Opinion » Editorial

Haslam’s State of the State: Imperfect But Passable

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When Governor Bill Haslam gave his final State of the State address in Nashville on Monday night, he accentuated the positive, not unexpectedly. Haslam cited figures relating to job growth and educational achievement that seemed indeed to indicate a measure of progress. And, while his boast of having cut taxes is somewhat undermined — as is more generally the case with the tax cuts of President Trump, by the tilt of these advantages toward the wealthiest taxpayers (how many other Tennesseans have really had to worry about the inheritance tax, for example?) — the reduction on the state grocery tax is a legitimate advantage for everybody.

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There have been clear failures among the first seven years of the Haslam administration, though, and the several Democratic legislators who pointed out afterward that the State of the State was conspicuously silent on the issue of health care were right on target.

Haslam might say, in his own defense, that his Insure Tennessee proposal of 2015 was a fairly strong, if belated, proposal, designed to tie into the billions of federal dollars that the Affordable Care Act would have made available for health-care expansion in Tennessee. But Insure Tennessee was scuttled by Haslam's fellow Republicans in the General Assembly, the same ones who had successfully pressured him to put off a decision on accepting ACA funding in 2013 or 2014, when he could have done so on his own initiative, unbound by the legislative straitjacket that was imposed on the governor's freedom of action by 2015. That rural hospitals in Tennessee have failed for lack of access to ACA funding is one of the consequences.

Quite properly, the governor made reference in his address to the ever-growing opioid-addiction menace that looms over the state. As Haslam said, "The opioid epidemic is crippling our state and our country." But his answer to the dilemma is embedded not in concrete systematic proposal but in one of those cutesie catchphrases characteristic of the governor's administration. As Haslam put it, "Last week, we announced TN Together, a comprehensive plan to end the opioid crisis that focuses on prevention, treatment, and law enforcement." So far, the comprehensiveness of the plan is less notable than its vagueness.

That Haslam has all too often not been able to assert himself against special interests, such as the gun lobby and the partisan hardliners in his own party, has been one of the drawbacks of his administration, and that fact, understandably, was not included in the State of the State.

Much was said in the speech about education and the testing procedures imposed on teachers and students, but omitted was the loss of all collective bargaining opportunities for teachers, something imposed on the governor's first education package in 2011 by then Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey. (Also omitted was any reference to the debacle suffered by the state when the agency entrusted with testing student performance proved unable to do so and defaulted on its contractual responsibilty.)

Still and all, Haslam has proven for the most part to be a well-intentioned chief executive, and many of the claims of progress made in the State of the State (see Politics, "Haslam Points with Pride in State of the State" for specifics) are no doubt justified or at least arguable.

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