In his third State of the State speech, Gov. Bill Haslam presented to lawmakers a nearly $33 billion annual spending plan that includes a staffing shakeup at the troubled Department of Children's Services and a heavy investment in higher education, but he sidestepped for now a decision about expanding Medicaid that could affect hundreds of thousands of Tennessee.
The Republican governor also introduced a limited school voucher program in Tennessee to allow parents to use public money to send their children to private schools, but he offered few details in his speech.
According to the Associated Press, the school voucher legislation filed in the Senate on Monday would be limited to 5,000 students in the school year that begins in August, and grow to 20,000 students by 2016.
Haslam acknowledged that the proposal will be "hotly debated," and Democrats issued a statement before the speech to criticize the plan.
Tennessee doing things differently was a continuing theme in the governor's speech.
"We have a long history of fiscal restraint that crossed party lines," Haslam told a joint session of the House and Senate.
State of the State speeches is typically a laundry list of accomplishments, proposals and challenges that lawmakers and Tennessee will face during a coming fiscal year.
This one was no different.
The governor touted things lowering the sales tax on food a quarter cent, raising the exemption for the tax people pay on things like interest or dividends, and decreasing wait times at notoriously slow driver license stations.
He addressed what he called the "elephants in the room," a reference to some saying the new Republican supermajority will fight among themselves, while Democrats will focus on "playing politics."
The governor said that perception "makes caricatures out of us and sells all of us short."
The governor touted the state's long history of bipartisanship and fiscal responsibility.
"A good example was last year when there was a temptation for some was to quickly commit and spend funds that were coming in above estimates, but in the tradition of the state's discretion, we held the line," said Haslam at the beginning of his 40-minute speech.
He said the line was held so that new money could go to things like the rising cost of Medicaid which at nearly a $350 million increase gobbles up much of the new state revenue.
The program, which in this state funds the TennCare program covers 20% of Tennesseans.
Among the long list of areas that will get more money is the troubled Department of Children Services (DCS).
It will add more case workers while cutting some managers.
Higher education which will get hundred of millions of dollars in building projects while pledging to hold tuition increases at six percent.
"That will provide relief for Tennessee families who have faced double digit tuition increase for far too long," said the governor in his speech.
Also included in the speech Monday was a delicate reference to the politically unpopular option of expanding Medicaid as part of President Obama's health care law.
"Most of us in this room don't like the Affordable Care Act, but the decision to expand Medicaid isn't as basic as saying, no Obamacare, no expansion," added Mr. Haslam who did not give a timetable about a decision.
Democrats who are about a quarter of all lawmakers thundered back that Medicaid expansion means lives
"It literally means the life and death of people in Tennessee," said Senate Democrat leader Jim Kyle. "It means 330,000 people will have health care and if people don't have we will see mortality rates increase in Tennessee."