Learning year winds down for Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

Learning year winds down for Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

December 18th, 2011 by Andy Sher in News

Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, right, participated in a legislative roundtable at the Times Free Press with state Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, on Friday. Legislators discussed several topics including health care reform, higher education and the state budget.

Photo by Patrick Smith /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says he's learned a few lessons during his first year in office and plans a more sure-footed approach for 2012, from the budget to working with the General Assembly.

"If you don't climb the learning curve in any new job you're in, there's something wrong," said Haslam, a Republican who was elected in November 2010 to replace Democrat Phil Bredesen.

"There's a significant advantage to being here a year and having gone through everything once."

Regarding the Legislature, Haslam said, "We're further down the road and so we can be a little bit more engaged on the rest of the process [with lawmakers] as well."

Still, he noted, "I have a very healthy respect for the proper role of the Legislature. While I think the governor is obviously supposed to be involved with legislation -- and we will be more this year than we were last year -- my job is not to be the chief executive of the Legislature."

Gov. Bill Haslam listens to a question during his first news conference on Wednesday in Nashville. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Gov. Bill Haslam listens to a question during...

The governor's comments came in a sit-down interview last week in his Capitol Hill office.

The businessman and former Knoxville mayor reflected on his accomplishments and challenges since his Jan. 15 inauguration, as well as his approach to the coming year.

Among the top achievements he cited was balancing Tennessee's budget during the slow recovery from the Great Recession and the loss of most federal stimulus dollars.

Haslam also listed education, where he toughened teacher tenure laws and promoted more school choice by expanding publicly funded charter schools.

Even more important, he said, was "continuing to raise expectation across the board in education in Tennessee [for] teachers, students, parents, politicians."

The governor called 2011 a "pretty significant year in new jobs in Tennessee given the economic climate -- and I think we've done that while keeping a fairly disciplined approach to how we did incentives."

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said Haslam has "done great this year."

"He got us focused on job creation and economic development and tried to keep us on that course rather than straying," McCormick said.

State Comptroller Justin Wilson said that as governor, Haslam "has not been a 'revolutionary,' but he has been in the process of making meaningful change."

"I suspect [in 2012] he will be completely in control of his legislative agenda," Wilson said, noting that last session "there were a couple of places where [inexperience] showed."

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, offered a different take.

"Certainly the first portion of the year we saw very aggressive actions by the Legislature and too much extremism in many facets," Berke said. "The governor was just getting used to his job."

Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor, said that in the beginning "it looked like [Haslam] was being run over by the Legislature, by people in his own party in the Legislature.

"I think early on he looked like he was moveable by the more extreme elements in the Republican Party" who felt they "could push him a little bit," Oppenheimer said. "I think later, he got his feet under him a little bit."

Bumps and scrapes

Haslam is the first to acknowledge a slow start, particularly in dealings with a Republican-controlled Legislature filled with more experienced leaders.

Those include Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who came in behind Haslam and former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary.

Haslam has likened his situation to a football game where the other team -- in this case the Legislature -- was fully suited up and awaiting kickoff while his team was still in the locker room sorting out their shoulder pads.

"This time last year we didn't have half of our Cabinet named," said Haslam. Most of his team had no state government experience.

"I certainly had never been through a legislative session," Haslam said. "The budget, while I knew it from a macro level, ... I hadn't been into the intricacies of how we did things here budgeting. It's a whole different situation."

So in the last session, "we spent a whole lot of time working on our things because we were catching up. Obviously, we're still going to be taking time to argue the merits of our proposals."

But he intends to have some say in other areas as well, he said.

Amazon lesson

He's learned in other ways as well. This year he walked a tightrope over a verbal agreement Bredesen made to give Amazon a pass on collecting sales taxes at the distribution centers it built in Chattanooga and Cleveland, Tenn.

The deal was attacked by some lawmakers and a coalition of traditional retailers, but McCormick and other Southeast Tennessee lawmakers supported it for the thousands of jobs Amazon would create.

Haslam defended the arrangement, but pressure built when Amazon cut deals with South Carolina and California to collect sales taxes in the future. As Amazon outlined plans to build three more centers in Middle Tennessee, Haslam began renegotiating the agreement.

In the end, Amazon agreed to begin collecting Tennessee sales taxes in 2014, unless the federal government comes up with a national solution to taxing Internet sales.

Haslam deserves credit for salvaging a potential bad situation, McCormick said.

More recently, Haslam came under fire for the handling of Occupy Nashville protesters camped on top of Legislative Plaza.

State troopers made mass arrests, only to see their actions rejected by a Nashville magistrate and, later, a federal judge, because the state had no rules in place.

The administration is now going through an emergency rule-making process.

Going forward

This year the Ramsey-led Senate moved quickly and pushed beyond Haslam's agenda in areas ranging from abolishing collective bargaining powers for teachers to banning local governments from enacting anti-gay-bias bans for government contractors.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, a Haslam ally, was adjusting to her new role after a divisive race with a Ramsey supporter.

Haslam already is engaging more with the Legislature. In recent weeks he opposed some GOP leaders' call to end the Hall income tax on certain investments and the inheritance tax.

While ending those taxes makes sense in the long term, Haslam argued, doing it now could hurt still-fragile state revenues.

He's also against weakening the state's Open Meetings Act, as some lawmakers and local officials are trying to do.

And last week he named a task force to study efforts by Ramsey and others to resurrect legislation creating a school voucher program that would pay for low-income students to attend private or religious schools.

The task force won't report back until well after the legislature adjourns next year. Ramsey has agreed to the move.

Haslam told the Times Free Press that he likes Ramsey, meets frequently with both him and Harwell and that their understanding of one another has grown.

Ramsey told reporters last week that his relationship with Haslam "could not be better than it is now."

But he noted Haslam was on a steep learning curve at first.

"When he came in, I don't think he knew that the Legislature met from January until the end of May -- that you actually have to deal with these legislators to pass a bill. That's just human nature. When I came down here in 1992, I didn't understand the process," Ramsey said.

"So yes, absolutely, he understands it better," Ramsey said. "And I hope I've been part of educating him on how the system works. If we'll work together and stay on the same page, we can make Tennessee a better place to live and I think we've proven that."