It has not been a good summer for Gov. Bill Haslam and his administration, having endured unwanted controversy on matters ranging from a new state logo and the sexism seen in an anti-DUI campaign to prison system problems and an emerging privatization plot.
In all these things, there is something in common: All were developed in somewhat secretive fashion, with little or no proactive public discussion outside the government bureaucracy. In three of the four given situations, most state legislators felt blindsided — and they like to know about such things.
The exception is the Department of Correction’s new 28-day work schedule, which was discussed in hearings earlier this year, albeit somewhat after the fact since implementation was already underway. Lawmakers listened, didn’t ask many questions and acquiesced after being assured that it would save the state $1.8 million a year in overtime costs to prison guards.
This summer came reports of correction officers quitting in droves, publicized episodes of prison violence and questions about the correctness of correction information. Haslam and Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield have basically declared there’s really no problem, things are as fine as they can be in prisons, given they are prisons. But they’ve still tinkered with the policy specifics and started offering $600 signing bonuses to new guards, indicating something was amiss, while legislators held hearings. Some think they were misled.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick declared it was a mistake to abolish a legislative committee that regularly kept an eye on administration prison dealings. Despite administration assurances, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey declared, “When there’s this much smoke, there’s usually fire somewhere.”
In the logo launch, the Haslam administration quietly paid a PR firm $46,000 to design a new logo and never got around to announcing it, acknowledging ownership of the project only after it had become the target of considerable ridicule and condemnation on social media and elsewhere. Haslam forged ahead, defended the design and the abbreviation TN now appears all over the state’s website while the administration seeks trademark status and hopes the headache will fade away.
The Governor’s Highway Safety Office, meanwhile, worked with a PR firm to design the anti-DUI campaign targeting young males in some pretty strange ways — a drinking story competition, discussion of cleaning up drunken vomit with a cat and the lack of wisdom in picking up who seem to be “hot chicks” while intoxicated. On that one, the governor declared that he knew nothing of Governor’s Highway Safety Office effort and disapproved once he heard about it. The campaign was aborted.
The Tennessean reported last week, having collected 306 pages of internal documents, that the project was budgeted at $725,934 and $456,923 had been spent — wasted? — when canceled. A GHSO official said no offense to anyone was intended and, besides, it was all just federal money anyway.
Then last week, media discovered that Haslam has taken the first step toward a broad privatization effort, kept under wraps until officials had to abide by law and publish a notice that corporations were invited to survey the possibilities of making a profit on operations of state parks, universities, prisons and such.
The governor told reporters that, yes, now that you mention it, we are looking at the matter and hope there’s a way to save some state money there. Oh, and now that cat’s out of the bag, we’ll be willing to talk about it publicly.
Perhaps worth noting: The administration has arranged for the Corrections Corporation of America to build a new facility in Trousdale County housing 2,500 state prisoners. There’s a state law that says only one state prison can be run by a private corporation — and there already is one — but since the state contracts with the county and then the county contracts with the state, why, the state is abiding by the law because the county acts as middleman.
Thus, the governor has had some success by being as quiet as possible on the front end of potential flaps, then reacting to criticism afterwards. Granted, he’s publicly talking about road funding this summer, but holding any specific proposal as an official mystery until this fall — a sort of semi-secret strategy.
If it is a strategy.
Note: This is a slightly modified version of a column appearing in Sunday’s News Sentinel.