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Governor McWherter – A Tennessee Treasure


Written by Rep. Roy Herron

Ned Ray McWherter

Ned Ray McWherter

Nashville, TN – Governor McWherter was our greatest governor during my lifetime, and I believe he was our greatest governor during Tennessee’s lifetime. 

Governor McWherter led Tennessee to set records in the economy, job growth, education, building roads, criminal justice, healthcare, lowering taxes and debt.

When Representative Ned McWherter was elected governor, Roy Herron was elected to McWherter’s House seat. When Governor McWherter was leaving office, Herron wrote the following column summarizing McWherter’s accomplishments as Governor. 

A ‘Tennessee Treasure’

December 1994

The following taken from remarks made by state Rep. Roy Herron (D-Dresden), who represents Carroll and Weakley counties, at the opening of the traveling ”Tennessee Treasures” exhibit in Dresden.

Herron’s state House district is the one represented by Gov. Ned McWherter before he became governor.

By: Roy Herron

At this ‘Tennessee Treasures’ exhibit you will learn of historic leaders. But what about the one who brought the exhibit to us, who served the last 22 years as speaker of the House and governor? When future historians create another exhibit, what will they say about Ned McWherter’s years as governor?

Strongest Economy

Historians should note that for the first time in history, Tennessee’s economy was rated ”the strongest in the South.” That’s what Dow Jones said and the Corporation for Enterprise Development ranked our economy not only ”the best in the South” but also ”the fifth strongest in the nation.”

Most Jobs

But when Ned McWherter became governor, almost half our counties – 42 out of 95 – had double-digit unemployment. As a candidate for governor in 1986, Speaker McWherter talked about a ”95-county jobs program.” And he had one. Now Tennessee has the lowest unemployment since we started keeping records. Instead of 42 counties with 10 percent or more unemployment, today there is but one.

Better Education

Ned Ray McWherter

Ned Ray McWherter

This self-described ”college drop-out,” whose two children and their spouses earned nine university degrees, including three doctorates, saw education as crucial to our economy and our children’s future.

He promised his second term was ”for the kids” – and it was.

He took our schools back from the courts and gave them to the kids in a way children, especially rural children, had never had them. He created a funding mechanism that finally is fairer to rural schools while he helped urban schools, too.

In the last three years, Tennessee’s K-12 schools have had the nation’s greatest growth in state funding, an increase of 49 percent.  Our 21st Century Schools program has put those dollars directly into classrooms to buy textbooks and computers and add teachers, investing more than three times as much in classroom improvements in three years as was spent the previous 16 years.

With historic classroom funding has come historic accountability. For the first time, all school boards are elected by the people and accountable directly to the citizens. Tennessee taxpayers can see schools’ strengths and weaknesses in published report cards. In another first, Tennessee leads the nation with a new system measuring how much students learn.

Record Roads

There was another crucial part to Governor McWherter’s economic development plan. As he often says, ”Schools plus roads equal jobs.” As speaker and governor he created and carried out the largest road-building program in Tennessee history. A thousand miles of roads.

Middle Tennessee long has enjoyed its three interstates, as has East Tennessee, while West Tennessee had only I-40. Governor McWherter once noted that every governor is accused of building roads in his home area and, if he was going to be accused, he sure wanted to be guilty!

So now, instead of riding back roads, West Tennessee is becoming a crossroads.

It is true all across Tennessee. A man born near Palmersville and from Dresden knew we had to connect rural counties to city neighbors, to the commerce and opportunities of this entire country. Now all of us, country and city alike, benefit. Schools and roads have equaled jobs.

Criminal Justice

Before Ned McWherter became governor, the prisons had exploded in riots and escapes. Inmates and a federal judge had taken over.

To control criminals and protect Tennesseans, Governor McWherter built six prisons with 7,000 beds. He built more cells than all the governors since the Depression – combined.

His high-tech prison management system cut operating costs in new prisons by almost half (46 percent). Today Tennessee has the only fully accredited prison system in the country. He’s taken control of the prisons back from criminals and courts.

Governor McWherter also enabled this century’s only comprehensive revision of our criminal code, making protection from violent criminals the first priority.

Under his administration the legislature created the punishment of life without parole, which makes a life sentence mean exactly that.

Our families are never as safe as we want, but they are much safer because of these enormous changes in criminal justice.

Better Health Care

Ned McWherter knew our families were threatened by killers, not only criminals but also killing diseases and illnesses. And our state budget was threatened by a Medicaid system with costs soaring totally out of control.

We had three options:

  1. Continuing a government-dictated Medicaid system that either was going to suck hundreds of millions of dollars from schools, or drive taxes out of sight, or both,
  2. Catastrophic cuts in coverage for our neediest children, women and senior citizens. 
  3. Radical reform.

Tennessee in a year has done what Washington talks about doing in a decade. Washington aims for 95 percent of our citizens to have health insurance in the next millennium. Tennessee will achieve it next month.

To get that coverage, Washington talks about employer mandates; Tennessee did it without them. Washington talks about government cost controls, while Tennessee slows spiraling costs with reasonable reforms and free-market competition. Other states aren’t calling on Washington to lead; they’re calling Tennessee and asking how they can follow our lead.

Is everything perfect with TennCare? Certainly not. Federal bureaucrats blocked reforms the governor wanted, while a year’s experience shows other changes we now can implement. But is Tennessee better off than if we had kept Medicaid? Tennessee taxpayers sure are.  So are 390,000 members of working families who could not afford health insurance before but who have it now. So are former welfare mothers who no longer have to choose between a job and health care for their kids, but now can afford TennCare and are working taxpayers instead of

Lowest Taxes

What’s all this costing us? What’s the bottom line on taxes after Governor McWherter? Tennesseans now pay less in state and local taxes per $100.00 of personal income than citizens in any other state.

That’s right. When you look at our income and our taxes, our combined state and local tax burden is 50th of 50 states.

Lower Debt

If our taxes are the lowest, then did Governor McWherter finance these changes like Washington with enormous deficits, or like states with ballooning bond debts?

No. He balanced all eight budgets. The state’s bonded indebtedness, when adjusted for inflation and measured in real dollars, is substantially lower than when he took office. Furthermore, he’ll leave a record ”rainy day fund,” probably triple what it was when he took office.

Then how did he do it?

Best Management

The last two years City and State magazine recognized Tennessee as ‘the best managed state in the nation.’ Number one among 50.

Decades in business and 18 years in the legislature, including a record 14 as House speaker, made Ned McWherter the most experienced governor Tennessee ever chosen. He really did only need ”a cup of coffee and two vanilla wafers” before he was ready to work.

And Work He Did

He and his team worked like heck from early till late, with weekdays and weekends blurring together.

Governor McWherter is the first to give credit to others for Tennessee’s historic records and national marks in jobs, economic growth, education, roads, criminal justice, health care and managing state government. But he was the leader, the chief executive who knew how to work with the General Assembly, his Cabinet and state workers, private citizens, all of Tennessee.

He is right to say Tennesseans accomplish these things together. But we are right to say that few, if any, of these achievements would have happened without his leadership.

Now Governing magazine has judged Ned McWherter the nation’s best governor.

When historians put together the next exhibit of Tennessee treasures, they ought to recognize that America’s best governor today, and the best governor in Tennessee’s first 200 years, was our own Ned McWherter.




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