Governor Bill Haslam gave his final state of the state address on Monday night, touting his legacy as a job creator while imploring lawmakers to do more with education and the state’s ongoing Opioid Crisis.
This was the 8th time that Haslam, 59, addressed both chambers of the state legislature. His successor will be chosen in November during the state’s general election. The Governor said that over the last eight years his administration has created nearly 500,000 private sector job. The high school graduation rate is currently the highest in state history but critics say there are still major issues that need to be addressed including the highly flawed TN Ready test system.
“We have not compromised. And I’m asking you to stand with me to ensure that we don’t back up now. Now now. Not this year. Now next year. Not ever,” Haslam said.
“Tennessee can and will lead the nation in education,” he added.
In previous years, Haslam has used the state of the state speech to announcement major sweeping policy initiatives. At last year’s address the Governor told law makers he would be seeking to raise the state’s gas tax in order to help pay for desperately needed road and infrastructure projects. Unlike his failed Insure Tennessee healthcare initiative, the gas tax proposal passed last year. Largely cementing Haslam’s legacy as a fiscal conservative who still convinced his party to raise taxes.
“This evening I am proposing a bold new challenge. I want Tennessee to lead the nation in jobs, education and government efficiency. I don’t just want us to compete; I want us to be the best,” Haslam told the audience.
Perhaps the most impassioned part of the address came when Haslam once again addressed the ongoing Opioid Crisis. This year state lawmakers will be asked to give more than $14 million to the newly created TN Together program. The initiative is aimed at prevention and recovery programs for opioid addicts. Haslam is also asking lawmakers to give nearly a million dollars to programs that would distribute prescription drugs to treat opioid dependency and create a pilot program in county jail that would help addicts who end up there.
But the 2018 budget only fund 10 new TBI Agents to help deal with the crisis when Director Mark Gwynn previously said he would need at least 25 new hires in order to effectively fight the opioid epidemic.
While the proposed $37.5 million budget will increase funding to education it will largely cut funds to the Department of Children Services and the Department of Workforce Labor and Development.
In his speech though Haslam said he would ask lawmakers to enact the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018. Specifics of the proposal though were not immediately available.
“We know that too many kids get lost in the juvenile justice system,” he said.
Haslam concluded by imploring his fellow lawmakers to continue working diligently on behalf of the people of Tennessee.
“Let’s use this time while we have the privilege of answering the call to lead, to be that force for good for the state of Tennessee.”
Democrats though were quick to attack Haslam's speech, saying his plans to address the opioid crisis don't go far enough.
"governor spent too much time taking a victory lap and too little time addressing problems that we face in 2018," Democrat Jeff Yarbro said.
The Tennessee House Democratic Caucus also responded with a collective statement saying:
Democrats responded to the Governor’s State of the State Address by introducing their own plan to radically increase funding to fight Tennessee’s opioid crisis.
“Sadly, the Governor’s paltry 25 million opioid plan represents a business-as-usual approach to the opioid crisis – our communities are facing a dire emergency and we need to take bold action to stem the tide of opioids that is destroying Tennessee’s families and communities,” said Democratic House Caucus Chair Mike Stewart. “The Governor was willing to eliminate a hundred million dollars a year when they repealed the estate tax on Tennessee’s richest families but proposes to spend a quarter of that amount on Tennessee’s most pressing health crisis – we can obviously do much better,” Stewart added.
“This disagreement isn’t politics, its math,” Democratic Senate Caucus Chair Jeff Yarbro said. “If you look at the numbers, we would get a fraction of the people who need it into treatment, when we had 21,000 overdoses that led to death or hospitalization last year. We believe this is a fight we could actually win, if the Governor’s hands weren’t tied behind his back by the supermajority leadership.”
“The easiest way to get many Tennesseans much needed treatment is to expand healthcare, as we’ve been urging the Republicans to do for years,” Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh stated. “If the Republicans won’t do that, then we need to put the resources in the budget to adequately address the crisis.”
Democrats pointed to alarming statistics to underscore the crisis currently faced by Tennessee’s communities:
* The number of overdose deaths in Tennessee continues to skyrocket, with over 1600 deaths in 2016, a 12 percent increase over the prior year. More Tennessee citizens now die of opioid overdoses than car accidents. (#_ftn1)
* From 2005 to 2016, the number of Tennessee babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome has increased six-fold. (#_ftn2)
* The economic costs of opioid abuse in Tennessee are estimated at $2 Billion annually, including 1.29 billion in income lost because people have dropped out of the job market and $422.5 million for hospitalizations associated with opioid abuse. (#_ftn3)
* Vermont obtained a special Medicaid waiver to subsidize their approach to opioid addiction. As a result, Medicaid alone now pays for most of the expenses incurred by the system’s more than 8,000 opioid addiction patients, each of whom costs on average nearly $16,000 a year. (#_ftn4)
“We saw with the crack epidemic that failure to provide treatment to addicts hurt families and for years made it difficult if not impossible to really get the problem under control. In this drug crisis, as any, government should respond effectively and equally to the total community. Let’s not repeat past mistakes with this new crisis,” stated Assistant House Democratic Leader Joe Towns.
 (#_ftnref1) Holly Fletcher, “Tennessee overdose deaths jump 12% in 2016, as opioid crisis rages,” Nashville Tennessean (September 18,2017).
 (#_ftnref2) Sycamore Institute, “The Opioid Epidemic in Tennessee: Key Policy Milestones and Indicators of Progress” (2017).
 (#_ftnref3) WKRN, “Analysis: Substance abuse annually costs Tennessee billions” (December 5, 2017).
 (#_ftnref4) German Lopez, “I looked for a state that’s taken the opioid epidemic seriously. I found Vermont.”, Vox Media (updated-Oct. 31, 2017).