When we took office in 2011, we took meaningful steps, right from the beginning. We passed tort reform, teacher tenure reform, greater access to charter schools and expanded lottery scholarships for summer courses in that first year. It was only a start, but a good one, because those first moves helped lay a foundation for accomplishments that would continue for eight years.
We can look back now at some of the strides and point to that first year as the beginning of something special. We went on to attract more than 400,000 new private sector jobs, gained national attention for our improvements in primary schools and modernized higher education by dramatically broadening access for students and putting a more focused structure in place for our colleges and universities.
Year after year, we passed legislation that showed fiscal discipline. We cut taxes by $572 million, including reductions in the sales tax on groceries, the Hall tax, the inheritance tax, the gift tax and the franchise and excise tax, making our state among the lowest-taxed states in the nation as a percentage of personal income. We also cut $578 million out of the state budget and tripled the state’s Rainy Day Fund to $861 million, acquiring an AAA rating from all three major bond-rating agencies.
Even at that, we focused on creating accountability in our schools and invested heavily, putting an additional $1.5 billion into K-12 education with nearly $500 million going to teacher salaries. Today we have the highest high school graduation rate in state history.
In our second year, we passed the TEAM Act – the Tennessee Excellence, Accountability and Management Act – which I think has done more to reform government than anything we’ve done. We went from a system where employment decisions in state government were based solely on seniority to a system based on performance.
In 2013, we launched our signature Drive to 55, and currently we are ahead of schedule to have 55 percent of our citizens with college degrees or credentials by 2025. The initiative led to the Tennessee Promise in 2014, the groundbreaking legislation that brought tuition-free education at our two-year colleges for high school graduates, and Tennessee Reconnect in 2017, which gave the same opportunity to adults to go back and get a degree. We were the first state to offer statewide tuition-free community and technical college.
We addressed our serious infrastructure needs with the IMPROVE Act in 2017, with road and bridge projects slated for all 95 counties. And we did that without taking on new debt. Through the years, we have passed comprehensive public safety legislation, as well, and addressed public health issues, from attacking the methamphetamine problem in 2014 to addressing the opioid crisis in 2018.
Since 2011, we have partnered with the Tennessee General Assembly and community stakeholders to pass 311 administration bills, a 95-percent successful passage rate of our proposals.
Put together, they are overwhelming proof that Tennessee will lead – in jobs, education and efficient and effective government. I am grateful to the General Assembly for working with us to make Tennessee the very best it can be.
Bill Haslam is Republican governor of Tennessee.