Sunday Column: On the Governor’s Expertise in Inaction

A couple of observations scribbled in a notebook while lost in Legislatorland:
Unlike many Republicans in the Legislature, Gov. Bill Haslam has never been wildly enthusiastic about school vouchers. So his decision to yank his bill providing “opportunity scholarships” on a limited basis at a strategic moment, assuring that no legislation on the subject passes this year, has touched off a lot of speculation among those who are wildly enthusiastic.
Were they been bamboozled by a clever governor who has shown a knack for getting his way while avoiding controversy? Maybe so.
Recall that the state Senate passed a voucher bill in 2011, but Haslam appealed for a halt in the House. His request was granted, a task force set up to study the matter through last year. And, finally, hesitantly, he this year backed a bill that set up a program for providing a maximum of 5,000 vouchers in the first year to children from low-income families in the state’s worst schools.

Not enough, said the voucher vicars of the General Assembly, backed by a host of lobbyists for organizations such as StudentsFirst and American Federation for Children. groups that had already made hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions to legislators supporting their version of education reform.
In the maneuvering that ensued, the voucher vicars pushed for a expansion to cover all schools and students from middle-income families with no limits. That was probably a pipe dream. There are some Republican legislators — mostly in the House — who are as uneasy as most minority Democrats about the whole proposition of giving taxpayer dollars to private schools.
In the last stages of maneuvering, compromises were offered to the governor. Apparently, the last called for leaving the 5,000 limit in place, but allowing any vouchers not allocated to the poorest children in the worst schools to go to not-so-poor children in not-so-bad schools. That was fairly dramatic back-peddling, but Haslam gave that idea the thumbs down, too, and — acting through Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, sponsor of his bill — yanked the bill.
Now, as a matter of legislative strategy, Norris could have put the bill up for a vote in the Senate Education Committee and opposed any and all amendments. If one was adopted against gubernatorial wishes, he could have then withdrawn the bill.
But that could have meant a public fight, the sort of confrontation our governor wants to avoid. By simply not putting the matter to a vote, in accord with key staffers’ advice, the same result was achieved: No voucher system this year. And, rather subtly, the governor has shown the gung-ho gang and allied lobbyists who’s boss, setting the stage for next year.
And, you know, he never was that enthusiastic about vouchers anyway. Now, he’s on record as being for them while making sure they don’t exist — at least for another year or so. Sorta like back in 2011. Sorta like Medicaid expansion, too, for that matter.
n While it took two years of gubernatorial maneuvering to get to the point of the Legislature doing nothing on vouchers, Haslam achieved his goal of having the Legislature do nothing about tying welfare benefits to school performance in only a couple of weeks.
Sen. Stacey Campfield’s bill to reduce welfare payments to the parents of failing children initially drew a critical eye from the Department of Human Services. But DHS retreated to a neutral stance after the bill was amended to give parents options for avoiding a reduction.
Then, after the matter got considerable media attention, Haslam jumped belatedly into the fray. Officially, he proclaimed opposition just three days before the bill was scheduled for Senate floor vote and after it had moved through committees with near-unanimous Republican support. But, though belated, that may have been a deciding factor. Campfield backed off his push for passage Thursday after Republican senators declared their opposition in floor speeches — at least one citing Haslam’s new stance.
Now the measure is officially to be studied until next year to see if some alternatives to promote parental involvement can be developed. Campfield says he would welcome input from the administration. But, considering how things went with gubernatorial input on the voucher issue, he might want to re-think that.

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