Sunday Column: Haslam Kinda, Sorta Taking Stands

As Bill Haslam might say, frankly, I’m not convinced that our governor is ready to apply the brakes to fellow Republicans who are pushing an incredibly aggressive conservative agenda in the Legislature.
But, on the other hand, given his gentle nature, some of the things he’s been saying lately could be seen as a top-to-bottom review of potentially adjusting foot position below the dashboard of state government. Even if it’s incredibly difficult. Maybe.
OK. That’s a bit of exaggeration on gubernatorial lingo. He does, however, repeatedly begin sentences with “I’m not sure that ” or “I’m not convinced that ” or “I don’t know that’ in the course of avoiding a definitive declaration on his position.

And he uses “incredibly” and “frankly” almost as much as his predecessor, Phil Bredesen, used “certainly.” Sometimes, certainly, in reference to things not especially incredible or frank.
But there does seem to be a change lately, and not just on matters with partisan overtones. Consider:
n He has voiced concern about the new state law that requires Tennesseans to have a photo ID with them to vote. Not that he’s ready to do anything about it, but just acknowledging concern is a violation of current Republican orthodoxy, if not outright heresy in sounding like a Democrat.
n His commissioners have moved to close Lakeshore Mental Health Institute in Knoxville and Taft Youth Center in Pikeville, provoking objections from Republican legislators. Haslam appears prepared to adopt those proposals.
Now, granted, the legislators in this situation may be running counter to prevailing GOP thought, which holds cutting government workers is a good thing. But it does perhaps show a willingness to wade into a controversy rather than sidestepping.
n He has declared opposition to a pending Republican proposal to block city and county governments from requiring companies to pay specified salaries (“living wage” is the term used in Memphis) when working on city or county contracts. He doesn’t like living-wage ordinances himself, he said, but as a former mayor he feels local governments should be able to make their own decisions on such things.
This seems a bit of a turnaround from the last legislative session, when Haslam went along with a Republican bill to block ordinances prohibiting city contractors from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation.
n On the flip side, he stands opposed to the idea of changing the state’s Open Meetings Act, also known as the sunshine law. In this case, the proposal originated from local government officials who want to eliminate what they see as a state mandate against them casually meeting with one another.
n He has opposed the idea of eliminating the Hall income tax on interest and dividends, and the state inheritance tax. While expressing sympathy with the goals of the GOP sponsors, Haslam said the state’s tight budget doesn’t permit giving up a substantial chunk of revenue at this point. That’s about the same position as his opposition to Democratic proposals to cut the sales tax on food.
Actually, this is one where you can see the compromise coming. The governor will likely go along with some incremental reduction in the Republican-hated taxes — enough so that legislators campaigning for re-election can declare they voted to “cut the death tax” and/or the “state income tax.”
But give the governor credit for using the bully pulpit to declare that fiscal responsibility dictates against eliminating revenue at the moment. Previously, he might have just said, “I’m not so sure.”
Haslam has acknowledged being somewhat unprepared for dealing with the Legislature in his first session and perhaps even disinterested in its doings. But towards the end of the 2011 session, he did join in putting the brakes on a bill to create a voucher system for some Tennessee schools. He’s still officially undecided on that but has put the breaks on — by naming a task force to study the matter — at least until 2013.
A quote from the governor last week in looking ahead to the 2012 session: “I think what you’ll see is we’ve had the chance to do our homework better. Because of that, and because you’ve been around the track one time, I think it’s a little bit easier to be engaged in more things than we were last year.”
Still, I’m not convinced Haslam will be slamming on those brakes. Frankly, he may just tap them more frequently.

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