Knoxville Mayor and gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam came to the Alcoa Panera recently for a breakfast meeting with a group of conservative Blount County residents.
If he thought it was going to be an easy morning of sipping coffee and shaking hands, he was wrong.
Affectionately known by many as “The committee,” the group took full advantage of the candidate’s visit with rapid-fire questions about topics ranging from education, to the state budget, health care reform and economic development.
Half way through the hour-long get- together Haslam took a deep breath.
“This is a good crowd,” he said. “I feel like I’m on ‘Meet the Press.’”
At the breakfast were Dick Ray, Bo and Shirley Henry, Buddy Allen, Dr. David Erwin, Steve Frana, John Stein, Lynn Kidd, L.V. Cox, Larry Henry, John Webb and Judy Henry.
“The Committee” questioned Haslam about education funding and standards, asking him if the education problem in Tennessee would be remedied if Memphis scores weren’t included in the state average.
“One hundred percent not,” Haslam said. “It is not just a high urban area problem. I think our issue is this: Our kids take the TCAPs, and Tennessee set our bar very low. Last year, 90 percent of our kids tested out as proficient,” he said. “Next year, 25 percent will test out proficient under the new national standards. It’s not just a Memphis problem.”
Lynn Kidd asked about state government redistributing funds from good-performing schools to lower-performing schools.
The Knoxville mayor said education standards have to be more rigorous because the world has changed, and students have to compete on a global scale. “I think the issue is across the board. Rural and urban schools have to raise standards,” he said.
Haslam said the community needs to be more aggressive in convincing individuals to stay in school. “We have to tell them the numbers. If you drop out of school, your lifetime average pay is $9,000. If you graduate from high school, $20,000 a year. It is $40,000 a year if you graduate from college,” he said.
Haslam said the state has three distinct but interconnected challenges -- budget, jobs and education. “The state budget is overwhelming, and we have to bring in jobs, which is virtually tied to education,” he said.
The mayor said the state had a $1.3 billion shortfall this past fiscal year. “We bridged it with money out of savings and Stimulus money. We started with a budget of $29 billion,” he said.
Kidd asked if Haslam was advocating a “Sundquist Solution,” meaning instituting a state income tax, to which the Knoxville mayor quickly replied, “Absolutely not.”
Haslam was asked about how he would go about hiring the right people. “When you run for office, what people ought to ask is, ‘Who have you hired last?’ You have to get individuals who can be trustworthy and be effective. It’s important to also hire people who have done similar jobs before,” he said. “The truth is, whether you are mayor, governor or president, you have to hire people you implicitly trust.”
Haslam said another issue in the election will be economic development. “In the end it will be about job creation and who can do the best job of bringing jobs to the state. I’ve done that in private industry, and I’ve done that as mayor,” he said.
Haslam echoed concerns Gov. Phil Bredesen voiced recently about national health care reform adding $700 million to the state budget over the first five years. “If you expand the range of who we cover with Medicare, the federal government pays two-thirds, and we pay one-third, which will be about $700 million. It is really going to put every state in an impossible situation. You take a big hole and dig it four levels deeper. It will be hard to dig out of the hole. It will be virtually impossible.”
Haslam was asked about tenure for professors and teachers.
“Right now, in K-12, you have tenure after three years. The question is, is the bar set at the right level? I’m not sure we have the standard set high enough,” he said.
When asked about how he would stand regarding highway and road construction for such projects as the Pellissippi Parkway Extension, the mayor said is it would be a matter of priorities and which road projects are needed most.
“We’re not going to have the money to fund all of them,” he said.
Haslam talked about the challenges of running for governor. “It’s about a two-year race. The good thing is you get to have conversations with a lot of smart people, and it’s a learning process,” he said. “You are raising money, building a team with people helping you county by county, and you’re learning. And you better be doing all three.”
Dick Ray encouraged Haslam, and said he was impressed with him. “Keep at it, babe,” he said before Haslam left the breakfast. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone more knowledgeable in all the subjects he will face as governor. I’m impressed with his enthusiasm, knowledge and commitment to the state,” said Ray.
Kidd wasn’t as quick to endorse the Knoxville mayor. “I’ve got to hear the other guys,” Kidd said. “He said all the right things and didn’t touch the third rail of Tennessee politics - a state income tax. I remain open,” he said.
Buddy Allen said he was impressed with Haslam. “He’s very knowledgeable in every subject we hit him on,” Allen said. “He has a great personality, and he’s a good Christian man.”
Former State Rep. Bo Henry said he liked what he heard from the Knoxville mayor. “I was impressed by his knowledge of the education system in the state and his knowledge and philosophy of state government,” Henry said.
Haslam will be back in Blount County on Monday, Oct. 26, for “Making Education Tennessee’s Top Priority,” a forum sponsored by the Blount Education Initiative on education. Scheduled to participate in the forum, which is open to the entire community, are Haslam; former Tennessee House Majority Leader Kim McMillan, who has announced her candidacy for the Democratic primary gubernatorial race; Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican gubernatorial candidate; and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, also a Republican gubernatorial candidate.
The forum is from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 26, at William Blount High School auditorium.