Gov. Bill Haslam declares that he is successfully presiding over a “cultural shift” in Tennessee’s government operations and the state’s education system, though occasionally dealing with a “perception factor” caused by inordinate media attention to some legislative activities.
His own relationship to the Legislature, dominated by fellow Republicans, is marked by a general unity of purpose and broad support on substantive issues, Haslam said in an interview last week. He discounts talk of a conservative-moderate split in Republican ranks.
“I honestly think that’s exaggerated. I really do,” he said, though acknowledging that “Any time you have a party that has the majorities Republicans do now, you’re going have times when there are people who are not in agreement.”
The governor issued his first veto during the recently completed legislative session, blocking a bill aimed at overturning a Vanderbilt University policy that Republican sponsors saw as discriminating against campus religious groups. He also refused to sign two measures, one a bill that would protect teachers from discipline if they talk about creationism in the classroom and the other a resolution condemning United Nations Agenda 21.
Instead of such cultural issues, he much prefers to talk about the “cultural shift” in governing.
“We’re doing government differently,” he said.
“I’d hold up as a case in point everything from how we’re going to fund things at TDOT (Tennessee Department of Transportation), to how many youth development centers we’re going to have across the state, to whether we’re going to be in the mental health business in Knoxville, to thousands of smaller things that don’t show up that really are a different way of doing things,” he said.
Haslam has questioned media attention to the “craziest bills” pushed in the Legislature while more substantive matters are given scant attention. In the interview, he characterized this as “friendly interplay” between himself and “those in your profession.”
“A lot more attention gets paid to things that in the end won’t really matter,” he said. “A lot of the craziest things don’t ever pass.
“Go out and ask the average citizen what happened on ‘don’t say gay’ … or ‘guns in parking lots’ and the answer will be, it passed,” he said. Actually, neither bill reached his desk, though their demise got much less attention than the debate while they were pending.
“There is a perception factor you have to take into account,” he said. “The brand of Tennessee matters to me; what Tennessee says to people matters to me.”
Preferably, Haslam said, perception-problem legislation is dealt with on the front end, either by heading off passage or by changes to the pending legislation that makes it more palatable. The latter situation was the case, he said, with the “creationism bill” that he allowed to become law without his signature.
When a legislative initiative bill does reach his desk, he said, “The first thing you have to ask yourself is, ‘Is the policy good for the state, neutral or harmful to the state?'”
Those deemed good, naturally, are signed, he said, “and, if it’s kind of neutral, that’s actually pretty easy, too. If it’s really negative, then you have to look at it and think about a veto.”
In the case of the vetoed Vanderbilt bill, Haslam said, he agreed with legislators that the private university had a bad policy, but took a longer range view of the bill’s implications as a policy precedent.
“When there’s a more liberal Legislature — and at some point in time, there will be — do you really want them coming in and telling private Christian schools what their policy should be?,” he said.
Some proponents of the vetoed bill have questioned whether the governor’s decision was related to political support from John R. Ingram, a contributor to his campaign who served as chairman of Haslam’s inauguration committee. Ingram is a member f the Vanderbilt Board of Trust, which adopted the questioned policy. (Note: This post initially, and wrongly, referred to Ingram as chairman of the board.)
Haslam said that was not the case and he has not even talked with Ingram since the inauguration, though Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos did contact him at one point.
Beyond perception issues, the governor said the substantive reality of the 16 months that have passed since his inauguration is fundamental, if less noticed, transformation of basic state government to be “more efficient and effective” and building on education reform initiated by former Gov. Phil Bredesen. Those two issues, along with a vow to make Tennessee more business friendly to enhance job creation, were the basic promises in his campaign and he has followed through with accomplishments, Haslam said. There is more to come, he said.
His administration has laid off about 1,000 state employees, according to a review by The Tennessean, and that number will double in the coming year. The Legislature this year approved his plans to abolish the current civil service system and replace it with a new system for hiring and firing state workers that is oriented to emphasize merit as determined by evaluations.
“Ten years from now, I think the impact of that will be greater than anything else we’ve done,” Haslam said.
But he says there are many other fundamental changes. A couple of examples from among those listed in the interview:
n The $31 billion state budget for the coming year is actually about $900 million smaller than the budget as enacted for this fiscal year. While that actually is the result of cuts in federal funding that were greater than an upswing in state revenue, Haslam said it’s still an accomplishment — especially because there were cuts in state taxes on inheritances, gifts and groceries at the same time.n Those who deal with the Department of Environment and Conservation find “now it’s not just somebody that trying to catch me doing something wrong, it’s people who are trying to help me do it right” He said more examples of “regulatory reform” are in the works.
While crediting Bredesen for launching education reforms, Haslam said he is expanding things on that front — starting with overhaul of the tenure system for teachers last year and, most recently, by putting in place new “accountability standards” to replace those in the federal No Child Left Behind law. Tennessee was one of the first states to get a waiver from the federal standards and is now a national model for education reform, he said.
The Legislature, at Haslam’s request, took no action this year on two education issues — changes to the state’s evaluation system for teachers and a voucher system.
The governor said he awaits recommendations from a study of the evaluation system to decide what, if any, changes are needed, but believes teachers — after an initial negative reaction — are coming around to see the merits of their evaluations.
On vouchers, he declined to be specific about what proposal he will support, but said, “There is a commitment to do some part of it next year.”
Of the 55 bills in the legislative package submitted to the General Assembly in January, 45 had passed when the Legislature adjourned in May. The governor said he doesn’t know whether he will renew the quest for passage of the two most notable failures — a proposal to change state rules on class size in schools and another to let state government keep secret some information it collects from companies that want to receive economic development cash grants, including corporate ownership.
In both cases, he said a balancing of conflicting interests is required. With corporate information, Haslam said he has a “responsibility to protect the state” by getting as much information as possible from companies, and some won’t consider locating in the state if the information is made public. On the other hand, he said there is a desire to let the public know where tax dollars are going.
On class size, he said, on one hand there is a desire to give local school systems more flexibility and, on the other, a fear that if they get it county commissions will slash school budgets.
“It’s a balancing act. We’re still trying to figure it out,” he said.