The local GOP faithful filled the Mountain View Inn to meet and greet Haslam and share some time with pictures and handshakes.
In a conversation with the Cleveland Daily Banner, Haslam said there have been pleasant surprises about being the governor of the state.
“I think in a very good way the biggest surprise has been how much difference you can make — whether it be on education initiatives, job improvement, trying to get the budget structured right — you really do have the ability to make a big difference.”
He said another surprise has been the diversity of the job.
“As governor, you deal with everything from prisons to building roads to educating 4-year-olds to educating PhD students to mental health issues,” Haslam said. “There’s a lot of different things you deal with and I personally love that aspect of the job.”
When asked if there was a moment when having the governor’s job was put into perspective, he said there could be a long list of those examples.
“Just about a week ago, I was with a family who had a 17-year-old with the desire to go to college, but they didn’t have the ability to pay for it,” Haslam said. “The Tennessee Promise initiative has allowed them to say they now know they are going to get two years of college free. Hopefully, they can get two years of Hope lottery scholarships to pay for the last two years.”
“There was a family who had dreamed forever of having their child attend school, and now we know it can happen.”
Haslam took a moment to greet the new owners of the Mountain View Inn, Rusty and Mary Ellen Eldridge, who are transplanted Mississippians.
Kay Shamblin, local GOP stalwart, joked she had purchased a Tennessee smartphone application for the pair.
The Eldridges provided the area for the governor’s visit and the opportunity for guests to eat breakfast.
State Rep. Kevin Brooks performed the honors of the gubernatorial introduction.
“I want to talk about the Bill Haslam you haven’t seen, the one I work with, the husband, the father and the caring person who is in charge,” Brooks said.
“I have seen him in the very important decision-making moments where your families and your well-being are what he’s thinking about.”
Haslam said he appreciated being made to sound like “a really big deal,” but he recounted a recent trip back to Knoxville where he served as mayor.
“We went by a frozen yogurt place and as I was going through the line there were two 20-something year old cashiers and I could see them staring at me,” he recalled.
As he went to pay, the cashier said his name.
“I go yes. Then he asks if I used to be the mayor of Knoxville. I said I did. Then they asked, ‘What are you doing now?’”
That drew a big laugh from the audience before he began speaking about why he was seeking a return to office.
“I love doing this job,” Haslam said. “It is an incredible honor to do it and I don’t take it for granted.”
He said there were things being worked on “we feel we’ve made great progress on, but there’s still work to do.”
Haslam said the state’s budget is now run “the way that you would run your own or your business.”
“You owe less state debt per person now than any other state in the country,” he said.
He noted there have been cuts in taxes including grocery sales taxes, inheritance taxes and Hall income taxes for senior citizens.
“All of this was to make Tennessee a more affordable place to live,” he said.
The governor said one of the things that has not been done was to “go and borrow more money.”
“We actually owe less than we did when we came in,” he said. “We haven’t raided our rainy day fund. It’s about double what it was when we came in.”
Haslam said Tennessee has not delayed funding for K-12 grade education “which is what a lot of states have done as they have tried to put their budgets back in shape.”
“They have actually cut the money they use to fund K-12 education,” he said. “We knew we couldn’t do that in Tennessee because we have ranked in the bottom when it came to education for as long as many of us can remember.”
He said right now Tennessee is the fastest improving state in the country when it comes to improving education results.
“So much so the commission of education in New York sent out a tweet that said, ‘If we work really hard, we can be like Tennessee,’” Haslam said. “When have you ever heard of anybody from New York saying anything like that?”
He said the price of entry into a competitive world is no longer “just to be average in education.”
“We have to provide a workforce that’s better than not just our neighboring states, but around the world,” Haslam said.
He said within the next decade, 55 percent of the jobs will require a degree past high school.
That was an impetus to create the Tennessee Promise initiative.
“We think that can change the future for more Tennesseans than almost anything else we can do. We are the only state in the union that can say that you get two years of community college or technology school absolutely free,” Haslam said. “We have to do that if we are going to attract the employers we need.”
He noted Tennessee was named the state of the year for economic development last year.
“There is a lot of work that has happened and there is a lot of work still to be done,” Haslam said. “These are challenging times. None of our competitors are standing still. We have to compete hard.”
The governor followed up on that theme by paying a visit to the Wacker Polysilicon plant in Charleston.