Having broken the teacher's union, pushed through an excessively partisan and punitive voter ID law, and taken away planning assistance from rural counties last year, Gov. Bill Haslam's legislative agenda for the new year seems almost moderate.
In the new session of the Legislature, he seeks merely to dismantle Tennessee's admittedly encrusted civil service rules for 40,000 state employees, to gain authority to give new businesses cash incentives to locate in Tennessee, to free local school boards to give individualized merit pay increases, and to lower state inheritance taxes for a small number of the affluent at a cost about $14 million. That's not much less than the $18 million he proposes to parcel out to all Tennesseans by lowering the state's sales tax on groceries from 5.5 cents a dollar to 5.3 cents.
No fix on gun pipeline
He also wants to toughen laws on crimes involving guns, but he won't make a move to close the state's open sewer line to gun purchases through totally unregulated, wide-open gun shows.
Repeat felons and gang members -- literally anyone of age -- can walk in and buy firearms at such gun shows without ever being required to show an ID or to pass the federal background check that gun stores must process for purchases. Jesse Matthews, the Colorado parole violator accused of the fatal shooting of Chattanooga Police Sgt. Tim Chapin last April in the armed robbery of a Brainerd pawn shop, for instance, traded several stolen guns for an assault rifle at such a gun show here days before he allegedly killed Sgt. Chapin.
Gov. Haslam discussed his legislative agenda in an editorial board meeting Friday with this newspaper. He said he had not fixed a budget yet for the cash incentives "fast-track" program he wants to create as an alternative to the state's traditional use of tax credits and tax abatements as incentives to recruit new businesses. But he said the ultimate cost would be about the same.
Cash incentives favored
He logically contends that some businesses would find up-front cash a more useful incentive than long-term tax abatement, because it would reduce their immediate investment costs. He said cash incentives, however, would be weighed for long-term value, commitments and job growth, and focused chiefly on rural areas. If crafted to prevent abuse and political cronyism, the program might be constructive. It would have to be strictly monitored, however, to prevent the abusive corporate cronyism with political pals that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has allowed under a similar capital incentive plan for new businesses.
Haslam's proposed revamping of civil service rules for state employees also could be useful if it comes with reasonable oversight. Haslam surely is correct in his criticism of some elements of tenured civil service. Mandatory applicant registers, arbitrary civil service classifications of applicants' skills, and seniority bumping rules for layoffs and mobility are needlessly clumsy and inefficient. The current system cannot match the efficiency or merit system of nimble companies in the private sector.
The civil service system, however, was reasonably created to rid state government of abusive cronyism in hiring and political patronage jobs in varied offices across the state. Just 10 percent of the state employees, for example, are subject to political appointments and exempted from civil service rules. Opening up the system to more efficient and streamlined rules could be constructive, but only if it comes with effective, bipartisan oversight to prevent political and personal cronyism in numerous state bureaucracies.
Merit pay for teachers
Similar care must prevail if local school districts are given the right to hand out salary increases for merit, and to loosen hiring requirements for special categories of teachers. Haslam believes school districts should be allowed to waive requirements for teaching degrees and fixed pay scales in the hiring of teachers for, say, math and science. That sounds reasonable given the shortage of excellent math and science teachers and the broader social need for stronger achievement in these subjects. Still, looser rules require transparent oversight and measurement.
Capital for higher education
After four years of cutbacks and shrinking capital investments, Haslam's proposal to streamline oversight over higher education and to expand capital funding for facilities is welcome. Tennessee can't raise its lagging rate of workers with college degrees unless state leaders are willing to invest more in the facilities that are needed to accommodate higher student enrollments.
The governor, thankfully, still opposes the goal of his party's right wing to require state appellate judges to stand for statewide elections. Haslam correctly views the time burden for conducting election campaigns, and the potential political corruption of the judiciary by lobbyists and big-money donors, as intolerable risks for ending the state's yes-no judicial retention system.
Blind to voter ID burden
Unfortunately, Haslam is still unconcerned about the need to lighten the burden of complying with the new voter ID law by providing each county election commission with a photo-ID machine and authority to issue bona fide voter ID cards. He refuses to consider money for that purpose. Yet just 42 of Tennessee's 95 counties have a driver's license center equipped to issue a state photo ID card for voters.
That leaves tens of thousands of citizens who need to obtain new voter ID cards -- typically voters who are elderly, home-bound, or part of a minority; the voters Republicans don't want to vote -- left to rely on the uncertain favors of others to get to a crowded driver's license and wait, possibly for hours, in excessively long lines to maintain the right to vote. Tennessee cannot hold a fair election until this burden is lifted.