By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam has proven to be enormously popular with Tennessee voters, but fellow Republicans in the General Assembly have been a tougher crowd to win over.
They have turned up their noses at initiatives the governor has put muscle behind, including an expansion of Medicaid and a hefty boost in road funding.
But don’t expect Haslam, who is one the country’s richest politicians, to drop a few million dollars of his own money into trying to reshape the Legislature in this year’s elections.
“We haven’t done that, and we won’t do that,” Haslam in an interview with The Associated Press this week. “I just don’t see that’s the appropriate role for the governor.”
(Note: Recent related post on Haslam stashing far less money in his leadership PAC than other GOP political leaders, HERE.)
Haslam said he plans to make targeted contributions and personal appearances for legislative allies.
“The main thing I’ll try to do is go tell people why it’s really important why this person gets re-elected,” he said.
Haslam was re-elected in 2014 with 70 percent of the vote following a campaign that was light on substance or specific policy objectives. Three months later, Haslam proposed his Insure Tennessee plan to extend coverage to more than 280,000 low-income people in the state. Despite strong public support and the backing of business and hospital groups, fellow Republicans in the Legislature rejected the plan twice.
And Haslam’s later efforts to drum up support for increasing road funding in Tennessee — most likely through the state’s first gas tax hike since 1989 — have been punted until at least next year as lawmakers cast a wary eye toward election season where support for any kind of tax increase could hurt them.
Haslam said he understands the needs for strong allies in the Legislature who could use his support.
“There’s a lot of people here that take a lot of bullets for making hard decisions that they think is right,” Haslam said. “And if they’re ones that I agree with, I’m going to be out there supporting them.”
That would translate into some financial contributions and public support, he said.
“The governor of Tennessee is a strong position. We don’t have a lot of other elected statewide offices like other states do. In that sense it’s really powerful,” Haslam said. “Where it’s not is that it just takes a simple majority to override the veto.
“So what you realize is that you have to have some people who are on the hard things willing to go to bat for you,” he said. “And if they’re going to do that you need to help them all you can.”
Haslam was heavily criticized by some ultra-conservative state lawmakers in 2012 for the role of a political action committee run by supporters in some of their primary campaigns.
The PAC opposed lawmakers such as then-Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, who ultimately lost his race after calling it a “fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.” Fellow Republican Rep. Rick Womick of Murfreesboro, who is retiring this year, labeled Haslam a “traitor to the party”
Haslam at the time denied any direct role in that PAC, but shrugged off the criticism.
“I don’t know why my supporters should be precluded from doing what everybody else is doing, in terms of being engaged and trying to make certain good people are elected,” he said. “Obviously we have folks who care about our agenda and helping make that happen.”
Haslam said in this week’s interview that he wants to wait for the results of this year’s presidential election before taking another run at a potentially revised Insure Tennessee proposal. He also intends to make the road funding issue a major priority.
“Next year we need to seriously address it. If not, the state’s going to be in a bad position,” he said. “It’s really unfair to leave that on the new governor’s table for his or her first year.”