A note from the state capitol
Posted: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 7:00 pm
As we begin a new year and look ahead to where we’re going as a state, it is important to look back on where we’ve been.
When I ran for governor just over two years ago, I said that this administration would be responsible stewards of your tax dollars, that we would pursue real reform of education; and that we would focus on jobs.
We started off with a significant financial challenge as we put together our first budget due to a tough economy and the end of federal stimulus dollars from Washington. We balanced the budget, which the General Assembly passed unanimously the first year, and did so without raising taxes. In fact, we’ve actually lowered taxes over the past two years.
We lowered the state’s portion of the sales tax on groceries from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent as the first step in a two year plan to reduce it to 5 percent. We also increased the exemption for seniors to reduce the burden of the Hall income tax. In working with the General Assembly, we repealed the gift tax, and the inheritance tax is being phased out to be eliminated in 2016.
Barron’s Magazine recently named Tennessee the third best-managed state in the nation. Along with lowering taxes, when we’ve seen increased revenues, we haven’t rushed to spend that money. That fiscal restraint earns Tennessee high ratings from the three major credit agencies, and we are among the lowest states in the country for debt per capita. We’re also boosting the state’s rainy day fund from $257 million to $356 million by June 30.
In addition to not raising taxes to balance the budget, we didn’t cut spending for education like other states have done to manage their budgets. Along with significant investments, we’ve taken bold steps including strengthening teacher tenure and expanding access to charter schools. And we’re seeing progress. For example, 55,000 more kids are proficient or advanced in 3rd through 8th grade math than were two years ago, up 12 percent; 38,000 more students are proficient or advanced in science, an increase of 9 percent; Tennessee is one of only 2 states making double-digit gains in high school graduation rates; and we’ve seen the largest aggregate gains ever in our students’ Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) scores.
We’re also putting an emphasis on post-secondary education, looking at cost, access and the quality of our programs. We need to be intentional about our investments in higher education so more Tennesseans are graduating from college and learning the necessary skills to get a high-quality job here.
We have taken a thorough approach to job creation, setting up regional job base camps and strengthening Tennessee’s attractive business climate through measures like tort reform to create more certainty for companies doing business here.
One of our primary responsibilities is to keep Tennesseans safe, which is why I created a Public Safety Subcabinet Working Group shortly after taking office that includes 11 state departments and agencies from Safety and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to the departments of Children’s Services and Mental Health. The group created a multi-year, comprehensive public safety action plan, which to date has resulted in new Tennessee laws including increased jail time for domestic violence offenders, tougher sentencing for gang-related crimes and tougher sentencing for convicted felons caught with guns.
We’re also making government more efficient. Each of our state departments conducted a top-to-bottom review to assess whether they were focused on their core functions and delivering services to Tennessee taxpayers efficiently and effectively. We also overhauled the state’s outdated employment system by shifting the focus from seniority to performance-based decisions, allowing managers to recruit top talent to serve in state government, and authorizing merit pay to reward above-average performance.
And we’re measuring our results. We’ve created a dashboard that tracks our progress and performance and shows how Tennessee ranks nationally on key issues. We not only want to know how we’re doing but think it is important that you know how we’re doing.
As we begin 2013, Tennesseans can expect that we will continue to focus on the issues that matter to Tennesseans: jobs, education and efficient and effective government. Published in The WCP 1.8.13