Speeches & Floor Statements

Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) National Governors Association

Posted on February 27, 2007

It’s a privilege to be here. It was former governor and former U.S. Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri who once said that a senator who would say he preferred being senator to being governor is a senator who would lie about other things, too. I feel very privileged to be a United States Senator. I enjoy it, and I feel I’ve been doing some good, but there is nothing that quite compares with being governor of your home state. Bart Gordon has done a terrific job not only leading on competitiveness in the House of Representatives but of summarizing it, so let me take a slightly different approach. Let me tell you 3 short stories. Alex Hailey told me one time, if I announced I was going to tell a story rather than saying I’m going to make a speech, someone might listen. Here are what the stories are about: 1. About the Washington forces that have their feet on the neck of states that are trying to help our country deal with competitiveness and what you can do about it. 2. How the report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” actually got started and how you can do the same thing in your home state. 3. The saga of what has happened in the last 25 years concerning the most important obstacle to helping our country be the most competitive, and what you can do about that in your home state. Let me start with the Washington forces that are on your neck. These are called unfunded mandates. Nothing made me madder when I was governor than to have some congressman come up with a big idea, put it into law, hold a press conference, take credit for it and then send me the bill. And then that congressman would usually be home at the Lincoln Day or Jackson Day dinner the next month, making a big speech about local control. It happens all the time up here. I’m sorry to say that we Republicans who got elected in 1994 promising never to do that are just as bad as the Democrats – and sometimes worse. Let me give you an example of how this affects competitiveness: Since 2000, state spending on Medicare, which I’m sure all of you struggle with, went up 57 percent over a five year period. State sending on higher education over the same time period went up 10 percent. In other words, state spending on Medicaid is up five times as much as state spending on higher education. Now “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” says that higher education is the second most important area that needs priority in our county if we want to be competitive. The first is K-12 education. Tuition at four-year public universities was up 52 percent, 5 times as much as state funding for higher ed. Total federal funding for post-secondary education was up 81 percent. So the bottom line is what’s been going on and what governors grapple with – in the eighties when I was governor, in the early nineties, and even today – is that Medicaid costs going up have made it harder to find enough money for colleges and universities. That meant tuition costs went up, but federal spending, contrary to what some believe, continued to go up at a very rapid rate. When I left the governor’s office in Tennessee 20 years ago, 51 cents of every state tax dollar went for education. I worked for 8 years to get it from 50 cents to 51 cents. 16 cents went for health services in the state budget. Today for Governor Bredesen, 40 cents instead of 51 go to education and 26 instead of 16 go to health services. That’s the result of federal requirements concerning Medicaid. That’s not the only such program. We all know about the programs for children with disabilities in the 1970s that are a continuing struggle for states and communities. But then there are others too, and they keep popping up. The internet tax debate two years ago basically was having Congress tell you that you can’t put a sales tax on telephone calls placed over the internet. Well maybe you want to do that and maybe you don’t, but my feeling was it was your decision. It’s an unfunded mandate to tell you instead of a sales tax you need an income tax. Or instead of tax on telephone calls you ought to have a sales tax on food. That’s an unfunded mandate. There are combinations of statutes and consent decrees with the federal courts as well. That sounds very good until you get to the third or fourth year of your governorship and you find out you’ve got federal courts running six of your departments and you can’t get it undone before you get out of office. And it adds to your costs because that is what these consent decrees and federal statutes tend to do. Senator Pryor and I have a bill to try and change all that. And then more recently, Real ID. This is a law that could only have been passed by congressmen who have never been to a driver’s license examiner’s office and which would turn all the driver’s license examiners in all 50 states into CIA agents trying to identify who’s legally here and who’s a terrorist. It’s a preposterous proposal. The only reason it is law is because it was stuck on the back of an appropriations bill that the senate had to accept. It would cost the states up to 11 billion dollars over the next few years, but that’s not the worst part of it. It’s not the right way to deal with identity theft; that should have been done in a thoughtful way. So there are a whole series of examples. What can you do about these? One, I’d shoot the enemy that’s closest to you, starting with Real ID. Senator Collins of Maine has a bill that will put it off for a year so we can fix it and figure it out. On internet tax: those are some real dollars, and the original proposal would have cost Tennessee $300 or $400 million in sales taxes each year. I told Governor Haley Barber that in Mississippi it was $200 million – that finally got his attention. I called some governors and they thought they were doing me a favor. I was trying to do you a favor. It was going to take away your tax breaks. The consent decree legislation needs your support. And my final suggestion on that is just do it yourself. I got active on consent decrees because Governor Bredesen called me himself and that makes a difference. On to my second story: how “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” got started. That story is pretty simple. In China President Hu assembled the Chinese National Academies of Sciences in the Great Hall last July. He told them that over the next 10 years they would put four percent of GDP from China into innovation. They will recruit Chinese professors in American universities. They will improve the teaching of math and science, and they are very serious about it. Here Senator Bingaman and I and Bart and others just walked down the street to the National Academies of Sciences and said, “Please tell us exactly what to do to keep our brain power advantage in priority order. Give us 10 things.” They gave us 20, and we’ve been working for 2 years, and I hope that Senator Reid and Senator McConnell will introduce in the America COMPETES legislation that will include most of this. My suggestion for you is you scour the report for things you can do in your state. Bart mentioned several: the summer programs for teachers of math and science, the scholarships for teachers such as the UTeach program of Texas where in the chemistry department you recruit them to be chemistry teachers and you pay them for 5 years after they teach, the Summer Residential Academy for Math and Science, scholarships and graduate fellowships. The price tag is $10 billion a year. That seems to be pretty cheep when we spend $2 billion a week on Iraq. We spent $70 billion last year on hurricanes. We spend $350 billion on debt. If we don’t invest in science and technology on job growth we won’t have enough money to pay all our bills. What else can you do? I will give you one more example. I was in east Tennessee last week and Eastman Chemical Company announced it is going to spend a million dollars in partnership with East Tennessee State University to have two-week summer programs for existing math and science teachers, of the kind Bart mentioned, so they can improve their skills in teaching math. This is low cost, big impact and exactly what the report said needed to be done. The private sector is eager to help. If I were governor I would walk to some version of the National Academies in Tennessee and say: this is what they said about the country, now tell me the 10 things we need to do to our state and I’ll hand it to the legislature and we’ll try to do the same thing. Now finally, the third story. What do you suppose to be the single biggest obstacle to American competitiveness? Well I’ve got my candidate for that. In 1983 as I was beginning my second term as governor, I looked around and asked this question: “How many states are teaching more for teaching well?” The answer in 1983 was not one state was paying one teacher one penny more for being a good teacher. You could make more money by staying around, by going to school, but not for being good. And the women upon whom especially we had relied to be our teachers were getting very attractive offers other places. And they were leaving. So were many other talented people. Because the salary schedule was like this: You read in the paper that people leave after five years. One reason is the salary schedule doesn’t go up very much over time. So it seemed to me to be obvious to change it. Well, it’s harder to do than one might think. Many of you have tried. But if you look around and ask that question today, how many teachers in your state are being rewarded for good teaching, you’ll find it’s not very many at all. Why is that? Because it’s not easy to find a fair way to do it. Another thing is there is a secret alarm at the National Education Association (NEA) and they send more troops to stomp this out than Bush is sending into Baghdad. There is something visceral about this. With the NEA it was true 25 years ago and it’s true today. And it makes it difficult for a single state, especially a single school district, to do something about that. I see all these education conferences, all these meetings. Education in my opinion boils down to the parent and the teacher and the principals and everything else is about 5 percent. I don’t know how to do a better parents bill, so we need to work with teachers. And why not find a fair way to reward outstanding teachers. Others have tried. The only way I know is to have every single governor try over the next four years to have at least one way to find a fair way to reward outstanding teaching. Find a fair way to keep them in the classroom. So those are my stories. And in summary: 1.Call your senator and read him or her the 10th amendment and stop unfunded mandates. That will help competitiveness. 2.Have your own “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report in your own state. That will help competitiveness. 3.Go to work in your state to find one fair way to pay outstanding teachers and principals more for being good teachers and principals. That may be the single most important thing we do.