By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday issued an appeal to officials from Tennessee cities and towns to help influence what he described as a “changing” state Legislature less concerned with the interests of traditional institutions.
The Republican governor said in a speech to the Tennessee Municipal League that local officials need to get directly involved in engaging with state lawmakers on key issues if they want to get them passed.
“I’ve talked with governors all over the country,” Haslam said. “And the nature of state legislatures is changing in terms of who gets elected and their view of what government looks like.”
Haslam told reporters after the speech that once powerful institutions like lobbyists, the media, chambers of commerce and hospitals no longer carry as much sway with the General Assembly.
“We have a changing Legislature and the old ways of doing things won’t necessarily work,” Haslam said. “So I think you’ve got to be visible and present here.
“It’s just a different world,” said Haslam, a former Knoxville mayor. “You can’t rely on sending a rep to do what they’ve always done and expect the same results.”
The governor during this year’s legislative session twice saw lawmakers defeat his signature Insure Tennessee proposal to extend health insurance to an estimated 280,000 low-income people despite strong public support and the backing of business and hospital groups.
He was also put in the position of having to sign a bill to strip local governments of the power to ban all firearms in local parks, ballfields and playgrounds. Haslam as mayor presided over a vote to keep gun bans in place for some Knoxville parks and had long argued for local control over the issue.
The governor also faces a steep path with lawmakers if he decides to try to raise the state’s tax on gasoline next year. The tax hasn’t been increased in 25 years, while fuel efficiency has improved and federal funding has wavered. That has left the state with more than $8 billion in unfunded transportation needs.
“It’s not as much as a felt need right now as it needs to be for there to be a transportation bill passed,” Haslam said. “Transportation issues are big deal to a lot of folks here, but I’m not sure their state reps feel the pain the way they might.”
Although many lawmakers acknowledge the funding crunch, there is also a widespread wariness supporting a tax increase even if it packaged as a “user fee.”
Haslam in the speech said he understands that local officials have their hands full without the added duty of trying to lobby their state lawmakers. But he called it “critical” that legislators hear from officials in their district.
“At the end of the day, you can send all the lobbyists you want,” he said. “But nobody can be as effective as you who lives in the communities with that state legislator there expressing your concern.”