Haslam’s legislative liaisons — 40 with $3M payroll

When the 132 members of the Tennessee House and Senate convene for the 2014 legislative session in next month, Gov. Bill Haslam will have 40 “legislative liaisons” — collectively drawing state salaries totaling more than $3 million — on hand to explain the governor’s position on issues they consider.

“Everything we do in the (Legislative) Plaza has been part of the process (of)… speaking with one voice and that is the governor’s voice,” says Leslie Hafner, who oversees the Haslam team, holding the title senior adviser for legislation with a salary of $153,000 per year. “Our mantra is, ‘There’s only one position and that’s the governor’s position’.

”It’s how the executive branch and the legislative branch interface,” she said in an interview. “We need to be talking on a regular basis.”

Ben Cunningham, a founder of the Nashville Tea Party and anti-tax activist, says the liaisons are part of government “becoming a closed loop.”

Those within the loop, however, say the liaisons — they generally avoid use of the word “lobbyist” — are a necessary and integral part of state government relations. Others such as Dick Williams, president of Common Cause in Tennessee, say they fulfill a useful function but should have their names put before the public just as required for private sector lobbyists.

“The public — and the legislators, for that matter — ought to at least know who they are and what department they work for,” Williams said. The liaisons are exempt from registering as lobbyists, though Haslam spokesman David Smith notes that their names, job title and salaries are a public record when someone asks — as did the News Sentinel.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell both say they question some aspects of government lobbying government — in particular local governments hiring contract lobbyists — but appreciate the governor’s liaisons. Often, the speakers said, the liaisons work with legislators to deal with constituent concerns in various state government departments as well pointing out the intricacies of legislation.

In his first year as governor, 2011, Haslam had just 24 administration bills not related to the state budget, which typically involves the mammoth appropriations bill laying out state government spending for a year and half a dozen related measures. In 2012, there were 55 non-budget administration bills; in 2013, 59.

Beyond winning approval of what the governor wants, the liaison team works to scuttle — or revise through amendments — bills that Haslam or cabinet members disapprove among the thousands introduced. This involves “flag letters,” or an official notice of administration concern, as well as one-on-one discussion with lawmakers. There are “philosophical flags,” related to policy, and “fiscal flags,” which typically involve spending that is not part of the governor’s budget plan.

During the legislative session, Hafner said, the liaisons typically work 10 or 12 hours a day. Most represent various departments of state government, but five join her in presenting the governor’s overall viewpoint.

After spending Monday through Thursday meeting with legislators and monitoring lawmaker doings, they meet on Fridays to go over the following week’s legislative agenda of bills facing votes. Often, they spend weekends fielding calls and conducting research, she said.

When the Legislature is out of session, there are still multiple legislative committee meetings to keep tabs on along with research and preparation for the next session. Each department typically submits a “wish list” of legislation it would like, leaving the liaisons, cabinet members — and ultimately the governor — to decide what becomes part of the next administration package.

“We have to be judicious in what we offer the majority leaders,” Hafner said.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, serve as official sponsors of all administration bills — though, in practice, they often farm out many of the measures to other Republican lawmakers to handle much of the work.

Hafner first came to state government as press secretary for former Gov. Don Sunquist. She later went to work as a contract lobbyist — or “hired gun” in legislative lingo — for multiple clients before returning to government with the Haslam administration.

Some other liaisons were involved in lobbying before joining the administration. Stephen Smith, now representing the Department of Education with a salary of $121,000 per year, was previously lead lobbyist for the Tennessee School Boards Association.

“There’s a difference in liaisioning for state government and being a hired gun for a client,” Hafner said. “It’s subtle, but it’s there.”

She is one of eight liaisons drawing a six-figure salary, the highest on the 40-name list provided by Haslam’s administration being Michael Cole, who has the title of director of operations for TennCare and edges Hafner with $155,000. All make more than $40,000 annually — or twice that of the base annual salary of a Tennessee state legislator.

Here’s a list of legislative liaisons working for Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration and the monthly salary of each, as reported on a state government website.

Josh Baker, Workers Compensation, $5,635

Richard “Kurt” Hippel, Department of Mental Health, $6,119

James Dunn, Department of the Miltary, $4,227

Barbara Sampson, Department of Revenue, assistant commissioner, $9,320

John Grubb, Department of Revenue, attorney, $5,929

Roger “Gus” Hutto, Department of Safety, general counsel, $9,127

Jonathan Bryant, Department of Safety, $4,711

Michael Cole, TennCare, director of operations, $12,984

Ashley Reed, TennCare, executive assistant, $5,498

John Goetz, TennCare, executive administrative assistant, $3,876

Matthew Barnes, Department of Transportation, $6,937

Douglas Gunnels, Department of Transportation, $4,335

Lee Curtis, Department of Tourist Development, $5,997

Colin Lewis, Department of Veterans Affairs, $3,483

Carol Coley McDonald, Department of Agriculture, assistant commissioner, $7,692

Valerie Yancey, Department of Children Services, $6,937

Zackary Blair, Department of Children Services, $4.262

Denis Lawrence, Department of Commerce and Insurance, $6,276

Jim Thrasher, Department of Correction, $6,296

Sammie Arnold, Department of ECD, $5,250

Stephen Smith, Department of Education, assistant commissioner, $10,101

Richard Swindell, Department of Environment and Conservation, $6,881
Jenny Howard, Department of Environment and Conservation, legal services director, $9,303

Trammel (Richard?) Hoehn, Department of Finance, $5,503

Russell Marty, Department of Finance, $4,711

Ryan Hughes, Department of Financial Institutions, $4,879

Leah Dupree, Department of General Services, $3,545

Kelly Smith, Department of General Services, assistant commissioner, $8,884

Ben Simpson, Department of Health, $4,258

Valerie Nagoshiner, Department of Health, assistant commissioner, $8,041

Jeremy Davis, Department of Health, $4,994

Danielle Barnes, Department of Human Resources, assistant commissioner, $9,135

John McManus, Department of Human Resources, $3,621

Nathalie Essex, Department of Human Services, $6,296

Gary Gallion, Department of Human Services, $6,181

Working directly for the governor are:
Leslie Hafner, senior adviser for legislation, $12,750
Warren Wells, executive department, deputy for legislation, $7,422
Luke Ashley, executive department, legislative coordinator, $4,625
Katie Argo Ashley, executive department, legislative liaison, $4,624

Note: At the time the list was provided, there were three liaison vacancies – one each in the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Department of Commerce and Insurance.