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Haslam issues challenge

In his eighth and final State of the State address, Gov. Bill Haslam delivered an at-times 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,” Haslam said. “Let’s decide now that Tennessee will lead.”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 during a speech that lasted roughly 30 minutes. “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 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 sets aside money for the state’s reserve fund.Among the latest additions to the budget is the $30 million effort to fighting the opioid crisis. The topic of opioids and Haslam’s recently outlined approach to combating the epidemic was a big part of his final address.“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 chambers of the state 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.Praise and some skepticismHaslam’s vision for the state and his legislative look-back was met with praise and skepticism among Republicans and Democrats, respectively.House Speaker Beth Harwell, RNashville, said the state, led by Republicans, will work to continue the momentum seen under Haslam.“We put great policies in place and we’re just going to keep the momentum going,” said Harwell, who is seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination.Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said Haslam’s speech was too much of “victory lap” while overlooking the many challenges the state faces.“We’ve got a million people suffering from opiates, with over 20,000 overdoses just last year, and we’re not really doing much about it,” Yarbro said, noting the state’s decline in workforce participation and ongoing health care issues.As has been the case over the years, the governor’s speech and the joint gathering of the legislature was met with protesters.As lawmakers entered the House chamber, around 25 protesters broke out in chants, holding signs opposing a so-called “bathroom bill” and a tax-free weekend for gun sales, which are among the hundreds of bills introduced this legislative session.The small group of protesters from the liberal grassroots activist organization “We Are Watching” cheered and shook the hands of Democratic legislators as they entered the chamber. Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, took selfies with the protesters as he walked by.The group, which drew a significantly larger crowd at the governor’s address last year, plans to gather in the Capitol to protest each Monday that the legislature is in session, said Kirk Braaten, among the regular participants in the demonstrations last year.Avoiding controversial proposals in final yearUnlike 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, if his final spending plan wins approval.

“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 said the state is on pace to meet its goal of getting 55 percent of working-age Tennesseans to complete a college education by 2023 — two years earlier than planned.

Haslam 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 said 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 how during Haslam’s 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.

“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.

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