AP Story on Haslam’s Second Legisltive Session: No Slam Dunk

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In the months following his first legislative session, freshman Gov. Bill Haslam frequently boasted in speeches about earning unanimous approval of his budget plan and a near perfect record with his legislative agenda.
The Republican’s sophomore effort wasn’t as much of a slam dunk.
Haslam’s $31 billion spending plan went to a conference committee for the first time since the income tax fights of more than a decade ago, and 29 lawmakers voted against the final version. The governor nevertheless declared himself pleased with the results.
“In the end, we’re very grateful that such a larger percentage of our agenda was approved, including the budget, which obviously is one of the biggest things we do,” Haslam told reporters after a groundbreaking ceremony at Middle Tennessee State University least week.
(Note: Of the 55 bills in the Haslam legislative package introduced at the outset of this year’s session, 45 were passed.)
Early in the session, Haslam had to abandon an effort to lift a cap on average classroom sizes after educators and parents expressed fears about growing teacher-to-student ratios.
His effort to seal records used to decide which private companies receive cash grants from the state stalled over concerns about keeping the identities of individuals receiving taxpayer money secret.

“We had some pretty bold proposals, we were dealing with some things that people have thought forever that we need to address, but hadn’t been addressed,” Haslam said. “Secondly, it’s like everything else: We learned a lot in the process and the Legislature was obviously a year further down the road in terms of their experience as well.”
The governor’s remaining signature proposals ultimately passed, but not without heavy debate and some significant adjustments to placate critics.
The governor’s proposed conversion of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority from having a full-time board to a part-time one didn’t pass until the last day of session. Another bill to make it easier to hire and fire state workers was only cleared for passage after some concessions to the Tennessee State Employee Association.
And Haslam’s efforts to require jail time for repeat domestic abuse convictions were dialed back from 45 days to 30 days on the second offense and from 120 days to 90 days on the third.
Haslam has said he wants his administration to be flexible and open to suggestions, pointing to his statement at the end of his State of the State address in January that his “administration will always work to get to the right answer, not just our own answer.”
Haslam sometimes struggled to exert pressure on lawmakers to abandon bills he didn’t agree with. Despite the governor’s concerns, a bill to rescind employers’ rights to ban firearms on company property advanced to the verge of floor votes in both chambers. A Republican bill to ban teachers from acknowledging gay issues in elementary and middle schools also came close to a floor vote despite repeated calls by the governor to drop the matter.
The governor announced his first veto, which will stop a bill aimed at rescinding Vanderbilt University’s nondiscrimination policies for religious student groups on campus. Haslam said he disagrees with Vanderbilt’s position, but argued that the state can’t tell private intuitions what to do.
The move has angered social conservatives, illuminating Haslam’s delicate balancing act among the various factions within the Republican Party.
Last year, the governor signed a bill reversing a Nashville ordinance requiring companies doing business with the city to have policies banning discrimination against gay and lesbian employees. Social conservatives applauded the move, but business groups and large employers like FedEx, AT&T and Nissan Americas spoke out against the law.
One factor complicating the passage of the budget was an attempt by bipartisan group of lawmakers to override Haslam’s decision to close the Taft Youth Development Center in Bledsoe County. Republican Rep. Cameron Sexton of Crossville led the effort in the House to restore funding for the facility.
Sexton’s budget amendment initially survived efforts to kill it on the House floor and it took furious lobbying by Haslam before the measure was defeated in both chambers.
Most other disagreements over the budget were based on competing interests in the House and Senate over local projects. Those were eventually worked out, and Haslam said he doesn’t expect to make any line-item vetoes in the spending plan.
Democrats praised the budget for a reduction in the state’s sales tax on groceries, a cut they argued benefits far more Tennesseans than Haslam-supported measures to do away with the tax on estates worth more than $1 million and gifts to family members worth more than $10,000.
Democrats criticized Haslam and Republican leaders for refusing to hold a spring meeting of the State Funding Board in order to recognize better-than-expected revenues flowing into state coffers, arguing that those funds could be used to hold tuition hikes in check and make further reductions in the food tax.
But the Haslam administration declined to make any additional funds available to lawmakers, arguing that the state needs to keep reserves on hands to pay for the state’s share of the federal health care overhaul should it survive a Supreme Court challenge.

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