Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's hand challenged by restive lawmakers

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's hand challenged by restive lawmakers

April 21st, 2014 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

Bill Haslam

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NASHVILLE - The legislative session that just ended proved to be Gov. Bill Haslam's most challenging year yet as he faced a tough state budget and increasing pushback from his fellow Republican lawmakers - especially on education.

From a full-fledged rebellion over testing related to Common Core education standards, leading to a one-year delay of the new tests, to the death of administration bills such as school vouchers and raising seat belt fines, Haslam and aides were kept on their toes in his fourth year in office.

Haslam downplayed problems last week as the 108th General Assembly adjourned.

"As always, [we] faced a lot of difficult issues," Haslam told reporters. "I thought this General Assembly worked hard to get to the right answers, and I'm most appreciative."

The governor pointed to successes such as passage of his recommended $32.4 billion budget and his Tennessee Promise initiative, which is intended to provide free community college tuition to in-state students.

"I think Tennessee Promise is a game-changer," said Haslam, whose goal is to raise the number of Tennesseans with college degrees. "The long-term ability to change the state, I think that's right up there."

Still, Haslam couldn't take things for granted despite Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate.

Nowhere was that seen more than in education, a Haslam priority, through initiatives that tie teacher tenure to student learning, promote public charter schools and more.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said Haslam "wound up making more compromises than they were used to."

"I think part of that is we've had so much change so quickly -- I don't want to call it a backlash," McCormick said. "I think there was so much change over the last couple of years that people felt they needed to go in and make some adjustments to those changes and there was some of that."

And, he added, "the first couple of years is a honeymoon, and as that wears off you get more pushback from the legislative side."

Quipped House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley: "It's gone from honeymoon to lame duck, I guess."

Common Core uproar

The pushback peaked over Common Core and related issues. Not that the governor didn't have warning. The rebellion had been brewing for months among hard-right conservative and tea party Republicans, who distrust the states-led initiative that creates higher education standards and puts them on the same page nationwide.

Conservatives see the program, especially the tests, as an intrusion into states' affairs, an affront to their values and a threat to students' personal information.

Haslam and his education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, may have been dazzled by Tennessee's stellar showing on National Assessment of Educational Progress rankings. The state had the biggest single-year gain in NAEP's history, and Haslam and Huffman saw it as national vindication of their policies.

But the Common Core issue was festering, and it eventually resulted in a rare, successful revolt on the House floor.

Tea party Republicans, stymied in their attempt to push a House bill addressing concerns, joined with Democrats who had their own gripes with Common Core and also saw a ripe political opportunity. The Tennessee Education Association teachers union and the socially conservative Tennessee Eagle Forum made common cause against Common Core.

Critics amended an education bill on the floor to force a two-year delay in Common Core standards and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests associated it.

The Senate fell in line, and Haslam and Huffman only could do damage control.

The final bill, passed on the last day of session, delayed the standards for one year and required testing be competitively bid with the contract reviewed by lawmakers. Other provisions dealt with privacy and forbade expanding the tests beyond math and English without legislative approval.

In the meantime, the Haslam administration will use the existing Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests for the 2014-15 school year.

Haslam claimed to a partial victory.

"I think the biggest thing is we didn't want to back up on the standards, and what passed didn't back up on the high standards," the governor said. "We were prepared to go ahead with use of the PARCC as the assessments. A lot of questions came about as to whether it was the right assessment tool."

Asked if a veto was ahead, Haslam said that "all in all" he could go along with lawmakers' actions.

Vouchers and teacher licensure

For the second year, a Haslam bill to create a limited school voucher program for Tennessee's worst-performing schools failed in the House.

It would have affected five school districts, including Hamilton County, and used taxpayer dollars for "opportunity scholarships" so low-income parents could send their children to private and religious schools.

Republican senators, including Speaker Ron Ramsey, back vouchers. Many House Education Committee Republicans were opposed. With minority Democrats, opposition was strong enough that vouchers never got to a vote.

Another bill targeted Huffman's effort last year to tie teacher licensure to student gains as measured by the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System. The State Board of Education initially backed it but backed off later.

This year, Republicans pushed a bill barring implementation of the rule.

Huffman and the governor opposed it. Democrats supported it, and it passed on the last day of the session.

Meanwhile, social conservatives opened up a Tennessee front in the multistate battle over textbooks. A successful bill took away the governor's sole appointment authority for Textbook Commission members. Now the governor has three appointments, and the House and Senate together have six.

Meth mess and Hall headache

Lawmakers split over the best way to combat Tennessee's methamphetamine problem.

Senate Republicans, supported by law enforcement, wanted strict limits or a prescription requirement for cold and allergy medicines containing pseudoephedrine. House Republicans, backed by drug manufacturers, opposed limits or a prescription requirement.

Though senators were on his side, Haslam's middle-ground approach got trapped in a House subcommittee. Dueling bills wound up in a conference committee, and what emerged on the last day of the session was basically the House bill. It limits consumers to 5.75 grams per month, about 48 tablets, with an overall cap of 28.8 grams a year. More than that requires a doctor's prescription.

Another headache for Haslam came on a bill phasing out the Hall income tax on investment and dividend income, whose revenues are shared between cities and the state.

Republicans such as Ramsey for years have chipped away at the tax by raising exemption levels.

This year, two powerful Washington-based groups -- Americans for Prosperity, which is associated with the billionaire Koch brothers, and Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform -- jumped into the debate.

While sympathetic to the goal of ending the tax, Haslam faced a budget shortfall that already had forced him to abandon promised pay raises for teachers and state workers. He said the state and cities couldn't afford Hall reductions right now.

With the bill mired in House and Senate committees, Americans for Prosperity went on the attack with a radio ad.

It charged that Haslam, a multimillionaire who would have benefited from reduction more than most, "doesn't think our seniors should get tax relief."

"Gov. Haslam is blocking tax cuts that would help those that need it most," the ad trumpeted.

Fitzhugh, the Democratic leader, said there was "quite a bit of scrambling" as Haslam worked on House Republicans to back off the reduction.

This is one battle he won: The bill was shelved by its Senate sponsor.

He opposed a Senate-passed bill that would have allowed anyone who legally can own a gun to carry it openly in public, without a state-issued permit. Another would have stripped cities' ability to stop permit holders from going armed at local parks, ballfields and playgrounds.

Neither made it through the House, and both died with the end of the session.

Proposals to elect the State Board of Education and to make the governor get legislative approval to lay off workers, both of which drew Haslam's opposition, didn't pass either.

Another issue Haslam won't face is a legislative veto override session.

No such session has been held since 2001, when majority Democrats called one during Republican Gov. Don Sunquist's term.

Haslam told reporters he couldn't think of any immediate candidates for a veto, including the Common Core test and meth bills.

Offered Ramsey later: "I don't think there's going to be anything to veto."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.