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Haslam goes off script during MJ Rotary visit

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LAURIE EVERETT / The Wilson Post

Education, roads, prosperity of the state and healthcare were topics Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam addressed when he decided to chuck a prepared speech and instead asked Rotarians what a second term governor "should focus on," during his visit to Mt. Juliet Tuesday morning.

His hour-long visit with the Mt. Juliet Breakfast Rotary Club at Victory Baptist Church at 7 a.m. was a lively discourse, with more than 50 members and dignitaries present to take part in the refreshing and intimate exchange.

State Rep. Susan Lynn introduced the governor and said he has "results driven, common sense leadership" that has Tennessee with the fastest improving schools and tagged the "third best managed state in the nation."

After a casual prompt for focus items, education was the first issue on the minds of those present.

Haslam noted when he started his first term, about 90 percent of graduates were proficient at grade level.

"But, 70 percent needed remedial work at the community colleges," Haslam said. "There's something wrong there. Raising accountability was our biggest goal."

He explained his Drive to 55 challenge and initiative to ensure that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans have a certificate or degree beyond high school by the year 2025. About 32 percent are in that category now, he noted.

Haslam also reviewed the Tennessee Promise Grant in place now where any adult can go to a school of applied technology to obtain higher education so they may gain new skills, advance in the workplace, and fulfill lifelong dreams of completing a degree or credential. There are 27 in the state, and Haslam said they have an 80 percent completion rate.

"Almost 90 percent of the graduates get jobs right out the door," he said. "I spend a lot of my time selling Tennessee to locate businesses. The No. 1 question is about the skill level of the work force. I feel we are making strides."

State has 50 percent less to spend on roads

When asked about roads, Haslam did not shy away and said most likely, when thinking long term about how to maintain roads, "we are going to have to decide to raise the gas and diesel tax." While he said it would be hard to do this, he "personally thinks we will before I leave office." He explained the state has about half the money to spend on roads than it did 10 years ago. He attributed this to cars with better gas mileage, among other things.

"There is less cents per gallon going into the roads," he said. "....We haven't passed a highway bill in a long time."

When a Rotarian said the prosperity of the state should be one of the things a second term governor should put at the top of the "To Do" list, Haslam said when people say the state should be run like a business, "we when do they don't really like it."

"We have to have a mindset of customer service," he said. "We exist because we have some things you can't buy yourself. We want to provide the best service at the lowest price."

He noted under his administration there are fewer state employees and the state budget was cut $650 million.

Healthcare emits groans from audience

The audience groaned when someone noted healthcare should be a priority. The governor said one out of three dollars the state spends goes into healthcare.

"As an American, you should be concerned about how much goes in to the federal budget," he said. "It's not just an issue for us, it's an issue for our country." One of the biggest hang-ups, according to Haslam, is the "lack of market tension in healthcare."

He said five years from now, people will most likely just pay one price for a procedure.

"We can't just keep going on with fees for each service," he said.

Haslam briefly referred to his Insure Tennessee initiative that he introduced because of Tennessee's approximately 280,000 non-insured. It swiftly failed. Haslam attributed this in part to the "political sensitivity" to President Obama's Affordable Care Act (Obama Care).

"We will see what happens," he said.

At the end of the day, he will also focus on job creation during his second term.

"The more we can have in Tennessee, the better we will be, he said, "I'm encouraged with the job growth. We have 240,000 new private sector jobs.

"This growth is because of Tennessee's quality of life, access to other resources and being at a good place on the map," Haslam said.

Presidential run in Haslam's future?

The room exploded with laughter when someone asked if Haslam was going to run for president of the United States.

The governor was self-deprecating in his answer and said running for office is "an incredibly difficult" endeavor.

Haslam waxed poetic about the discipline and interest those in attendance had, to wake up so early to hear him speak.

"I love the opportunity to do this," he said. "It's so encouraging what most people bring up to discuss.''

The governor milled around and spoke to people before he headed back to Nashille.

"It was great to have the governor in Mt. Juliet," said Mt. Juliet Mayor Ed Hagerty. "I appreciate him coming and sharing with us. I look forward to working with him in the months to come."

Victory Baptist pastor and Rotarian Chuck Groover said the club was "thankful" for the governor's visit during the busy time of the legislature. This was a rescheduled visit do to inclement winter weather.

"The fact he came out here while so busy tells us we have a governor interested in engaging the people he serves," Groover said.

Writer Laurie Everett may be contacted at laurieeverett1@gmail.com.

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