Haslam’s Modest Brag-Bag 

Given the fact that, even in Nashville, people were preoccupied on Monday with the forthcoming caucus results in Iowa, Governor Bill Haslam's State of the State address garnered somewhat less traction than it normally

click to enlarge Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam
  • Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam

would. Not that his address wasn't well received. The governor's brag-bag of boasts and proposals was like a decently packed post-Christmas stocking, containing a fair number of comestibles, even if lacking in the surprise hardwares — an unexpected wristwatch, a brand-new iPhone —that can give the annual gift-giving ritual the sense of holiday-style delight.

Or, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there was not much there there. Conspicuously missing in the governor's message was any mention of the two great issues that have been more addressed in statewide commentary and political cross talk than any others over the past year —  Medicaid expansion and infrastructure repair. No Insure Tennessee pitch as with last year's speech and no substitute proposal for accessing the billions of federal dollars still lying in wait for the state's indigent population and struggling hospitals. No highway tax or any other concrete proposal (pun very much intended) for dealing with Tennessee's deteriorating highways, roads, and bridges. 

There was a small revenue surplus to feel good about and a modest boost in the state rainy-day fund, but these did very little to diminish a sense of continuing austerity. Nor, given the continuing blockage of Medicaid funds, did the governor's statements concerning a "really well-run" TennCare system raise many pulses. And his satisfied proclamations concerning the state's plans for its diminishing real estate may have gratified the outsource lobby, but they gave the rest of us something of an empty-nest feeling.

To be sure, there is some good news on the education front, including an investment, said Haslam, of "more than 414 million in new dollars in Tennessee schools, more than $200 million of that toward increases to teacher salaries." The boast that went with that was less edifying. As the governor said, "we're not investing in the same old public education system in Tennessee." The raise in standards he claims to have achieved is disputed by many serious educators, and what he calls the "expanded education options for children" could also be described as the draining away of local responsibility for education as the state Achievement School District, unmonitored by any elected body, picks off schools, keeping them from thriving local initiatives such as the iZone program of Shelby County Schools.

State employees will come in for some pro forma (and long overdue) pay increases, although Haslam accompanied this bit of lagniappe with some cold-shower rhetoric regarding "the hard work and discipline of our departments" as mediated by "the conservative fiscal strategy employed by the General Assembly, our constitutional officers, and this administration."

The governor used much of his address to lavish praise on the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and the state's first responders. He did not dwell much on Tennessee Promise or his various initiatives to boost adult education in Tennessee, but he is no doubt entitled to some commendation for these efforts.

All in all, his State of the State address recalled that old line about it being "the thought that counts." Thought is fine, but we cannot escape the feeling that a little more action would have counted more.

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