published Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

Gov. Bill Haslam says he won't twist arms to push agenda

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam says it's simply not his way to bully lawmakers into going along with his agenda and points to successes in this year's General Assembly as proof it isn't always needed.

"It's not my style to try to twist every arm we can and get one more vote than the other side," Haslam said Tuesday as he discussed this year's legislative session with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "I don't think long-term that's how good government works."

Haslam saw some proposals shot down in the Republican-controlled legislature this year, most notably an effort to grant local school systems more flexibility on teacher salaries and average class sizes. It died amid concerns that it would embolden county commissions to cut local education budgets.

But Haslam pointed to any number of legislative successes in areas including civil service reform.

The governor's list also includes passing a budget that cuts taxes and government, despite the loss of up to $900 million in federal revenue, overhauling some state boards and commissions, promotes government efficiency and sets up new state education accountability standards.

The latter allows the state to get out from under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

"We're doing exactly what I said we were going to do," Haslam said of his campaign pledges compared to his first 16 months of office.

Last year, Haslam successfully pushed tort reform and dramatic changes in teacher tenure laws, directly tying tenure to teacher performance on testing and other measures of student achievement.

"As I've said, we're not always trying to get to our answer, we're trying to get to the best answer," Haslam said. "In the process we actually had some legislation where some things, we think, along the way get improved."

"With very few exceptions I think we passed everything he wanted to pass," said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who had responsibility for the administration's 55-bill package. "We made a lot of good changes in state government."

McCormick pointed to the civil service overhaul, which makes it easier for the state to hire, fire, promote, demote and offer merit pay to some 40,000 state workers.

The Tennessee State Employees Association and minority Democrats as well as some Republicans sought changes, some of which the administration accepted.

For example, while the new law does away with seniority as the prime consideration in layoffs and promotions and focuses on merit, Haslam agreed to let seniority and work record be kept as secondary recommendations. The state employees group will also have input on evaluations the administration plans to develop.

But Haslam maintained his insistence that the complex system of "bumping and retreating," in which senior employees can knock colleagues with less experience out of jobs during layoffs be eliminated. It stayed.

In the end, the TSEA and many Democrats went along with changes, albeit reluctantly.

"We did it in a way different from Wisconsin and New Jersey," McCormick said, alluding to uproars over changes in those states, including a planned recall vote for Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker. "Just about everybody bought into it."

McCormick said that Haslam is "about reducing the size of government in a responsible way and trying to do it by bringing different personalities and groups together rather than going out and picking fights with them -- even though we've done some controversial things."

Not everyone's happy. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville noted that Haslam went along with GOP legislative leaders desire to give tax breaks "to the wealthiest without replacing them with anything. We have a very limited tax stream anyway."

More over, Turner said, the governor's decision to eliminate the $15 million gift tax and begin phasing out the $94 million inheritance tax "limits our ability to lower the sales tax on food."

Haslam included a quarter-cent reduction in the state's sales tax on groceries at a cost of about $22 million. He plans a similar cut next year but Democrats wanted to accelerate and deepen the cuts.

Turner also said he's concerned about what he calls Haslam's "power grab" by getting power to appoint the heads of some agencies such as the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. Haslam said it makes sense to have better coordination between an administration and higher education.

"Personally he's a likeable fellow, but I'm not sure he understands the coalitions and the different groups that make government run properly," said Turner, who continues to worry about civil service changes. "I think he's trying to rebuild it where he'll have firm control and maybe won't have to put up with those interests."

Haslam laughed and said he is trying to reconcile being likable and power hungry.

The governor, who once thought about entering the ministry, wound up dismaying some social conservatives on several issues.

Last week he announced plans to veto his first bill, a measure that sought to pressure Vanderbilt University, a private institution, into abandoning its "all-comers" policy.

Faith-based groups are in an uproar about the policy, which they say forces religious groups to accept members who don't conform to their beliefs.

Haslam said, "I just have some strong misgivings telling a private institution what to do."

He said he earlier talked to Vanderbilt trustees in an effort to persuade them to change the policy. But he also is telling friends that if the legislation becomes law, it would set a precedent if and when liberal lawmakers get control of the General Assembly.

"Do you want them telling your private institution what to do?" Haslam said.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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