NASHVILLE-Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said Friday he doesn't see public unions as a huge threat in Tennessee and thus his priorities don't include "trying to destroy" the main one - the Tennessee Education Association.
"I don't think it's that big of a factor to us in Tennessee, so that is why I haven't spent that much time on it," Haslam said, noting the small presence of public unions. "The situation's not the same as it is in Wisconsin. Everything from pension liabilities to the role that public sector unions play. And so, I tend to address and spend time on those things that I think matter, that are a big deal to us."
The new governor's comments, his fullest yet on the issue, come as Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and his GOP allies stand firm in their effort to strip local affiliates of the 52,000-member Tennessee Education Association of their collective bargaining rights.
Earlier this week, House Republicans led by Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, a Haslam ally, began moving a compromise version. It would restrict sharply TEA members' ability to negotiate with school boards on merit pay and other issues such as how things such as layoffs should occur. But it doesn't ban collective bargaining.
Haslam, who has been pushing for tougher teacher tenure laws and expansion of charter schools, had until this week remained neutral on the Senate Republican effort. But when the compromise began moving in the House on Wednesday, he quickly jumped on board.
A day later, Ramsey posted "An Open letter to Conservatives" on his website. It rejects the compromise and appeals for help to pass the collective bargaining bill.
"Stand with me in this cause to make sure we as Republicans are who we say we are," wrote Ramsey, who came in third to Haslam in last summer's three-man Republican gubernatorial primary.
Ramsey likened the situation to Wisconsin, saying he is "convinced that ending the practice of factory-style, iron-clad, union contracts in education is essential to meaningful reform of our schools."
He also maintained the bill would "prevent government employee unions from locking taxpayers into long-term union contracts that we cannot afford. You have seen a version of this same debate play out in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other states."
Haslam disagreed, noting public unions' reduced role in Tennessee. Unlike teachers, the Tennessee State Employees Association, which represents many state workers, does not have collective bargaining rights under state law.
The governor acknowledged that while Knoxville's mayor, he opposed letting police and firefighters have collective bargaining with cities, thinking it would hurt local budgets.
But he said it is not "going to be my agenda to say I am going to go out trying to destroy any public sector union. That's just not going to be my priority. I am going to say ... the things that they [teachers] are doing that are not helping us do what we need to do in Tennessee, I'll work against those."
He said he "put forward those things regarding education that we thought were really important. So we led with tenure and charter schools for a real reason. We think that's an important thing to do."
When it comes to collective bargaining, he said, "if we have the ability to have merit pay, if we have the ability to have superintendents decide what happens in hiring and laying off decisions, that kind of flexibility is what's really, really important to me."
In recent weeks, Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, had noted the anti-TEA bill was having a difficult time garnering enough votes for passage among House Republicans. Democrats are vehemently opposed. The bill now moving, he said earlier this week, "took the best ideas."
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said the House bill should not be referred to a as a "compromise because it really wasn't a discussion between anybody other than Republicans. ... This bill has always been about politics and not about kids or students. What we should be focused on is kids, not politics."