Sunday column: The honeymoon is over between Haslam and the Supermajority

With the passage of Valentine’s Day, it may be appropriate to observe that the honeymoon is over between Gov. Bill Haslam and the Legislature’s Republican supermajority — though bouquets of flowers, boxes of chocolates and sentimental cards are still exchanged on appropriate occasions.

Some troubles might have been foreseen at the outset of the bonding, marriage perhaps being an inappropriate analogy given the polygamous nature of the arrangement. There is, you might say, one gubernatorial groom and, at last count, 97 legislative brides — 26 Republican senators and 71 Republican representatives. The potential for problems is apparent.

Still, there was a time when the worshipful wives of Legislatorland and the grateful, glowing husband Haslam would simply smile, sigh and exchange business-friendly embraces any time a hint of discord arose.

No more.

Yes, listening to them these days, the governor and the supermajority sound rather like a married couple who still profess love and respect with sincerity, but who are increasingly frank about acknowledging differences. Rumors are that they often quarrel in private — where, one hears, some legislators have declared themselves no longer in love — and recently there have been episodes of public dispute.

The specific disputing matters mostly concern rather humdrum decisions made in daily governing life. Say, for example, the question of who gets to appoint members of boards and commissions.

The governor asserts traditional executive branch values in declaring that he gets to make those decisions, though lovingly saying the legislators could get to make a few, too (just not the majority). The legislators say, no, this is a new day when we depart from those traditional times; there are a bunch of us and only one of you, so we get the majority (though, lovingly, we’ll still let you make a few).

Similarly, there are other assertions of legislative equality — bills that declare the governor doesn’t get to make a decision on his own without specific assent of the spousal supermajority. These involve a fundamental matter of any marriage — trust.

One example is a bill declaring, as amended, that the governor cannot lay off more than 50 state employees without the Legislature’s approval. This may stem from what is seen by some as a flagrant disregard of consent last year, when the trusting legislators dutifully approved the governor’s budget bill and, a couple of days after they did so, the administration closed Department of Labor and Workforce Development offices across the state, laying off 70 state employees — each a legislator’s constituent and each, of course, with family and friends. That blindsided some lawmakers, who felt their trust had been betrayed by a governor who didn’t even bother to tell them what he was going to do, much less ask approval.

Similarly, there’s the politically charged bill on what the Senate sponsor calls “Obamacare Medicaid expansion.” Why, there are rumors within supermajority ranks that the governor is secretly flirting with Democrats here! The governor has adamantly denied this, of course, but at the same time has confessed that he is open to the seeking at some unstated time, under some vague circumstances, conceivably, maybe, possibly accepting federal funding to add more low-income people to TennCare.

If he ever did such a thing, the governor has publicly promised, he would first seek legislative approval. The bill now rolling toward passage says the governor must first seek legislative approval. It delivers a simple message to the governor: “We don’t care what you say, we don’t trust you.”

Meekly, the governor has accepted that one and understandably so. After all, the original version of the bill, before an amendment, declared that legislators — not the governor — would decide that Tennessee never expands TennCare under any circumstances. So it was like sending a sentimental card for Haslam to say he’d go along with a symbolic defiant gesture declaring that he must do what he had already said he would do. Yes, dear.

Doubtless, this will all be worked out. There are many business-friendly ties that bind in the relationship and divorce would be unthinkable in all reasonable Republican circles. But now that the honeymoon is over, maybe some counseling is in order.