NASHVILLE -- In a first term packed with historic changes in Tennessee K-12 education, state civil service, lawsuit awards and other areas, Gov. Bill Haslam says it's another one of his achievements that he sees rising to No. 1.
"I'd put Tennessee Promise at the top," the Republican said of his program offering all state high school graduates free tuition at 27 two-year public community colleges and technical schools.
The governor's comments came in a wide-ranging Christmas week interview with the Times Free Press. In it, he reflected on his first-term successes, lessons he's learned during his first four years, the challenges he faces in his second term that starts Jan. 17 and what his political future might hold.
* Tennessee Promise: His No. 1 achievement
* K-12 education reforms: "I honestly think the ship's pointed in the right direction."
* Insure Tennessee's chances in the Legislature: "We wouldn't be proposing it unless we thought we had a chance."
* Any vice presidential aspirations: "You'd never say 'Oh, no, I'd never do that.'"
* State government: "It really does matter how you run it."
Asked to name his top three accomplishments, the governor cited Tennessee Promise, the often-controversial changes he pushed in K-12 education and an overhaul of the state's civil service system.
Citing the long-term impact of the Tennessee Promise and K-12 education reforms, Haslam said, "I really think that will create a different business environment and employment opportunities for people down the road."
"But," the governor cautioned, "you're not going to see the impact next year or the year after that."
Haslam said that while Tennessee Promise, enacted last spring by state lawmakers, is just now taking applications for its first class, the "chance to dramatically increase the number of students who go to school beyond 12th grade, I think, is a big deal."
Tennessee students apparently think so, too. Of the state's 65,000 high school seniors, 56,000 have applied for Tennessee Promise scholarships. The scholarships, which are funded by interest derived from a special education lottery reserve, will be awarded for the first time to the Class of 2015.
Not all those who have applied will go -- maybe half, state officials estimate -- but for Haslam that represents a real stride in his "Drive to 55" program. That's his focus on pushing the percentage of Tennesseans with technical school certificates, two-year community college and four-year university degrees from the current one-third of adults to 55 percent by 2025.
Tennessee Promise has drawn national attention, and Haslam in December outlined the initiative in a White House summit on college education.
State House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, was complimentary about the program but noted that Democrats in the past had discussed putting more of the lottery's huge reserves to use.
"It's his program -- don't get me wrong," Fitzhugh said. "But the use of the reserves has been talked about for many years. Getting more degrees, yes, I think those are all good ideas."'
K-12, civil service reform
Another top item on Haslam's list was K-12 education changes he said helped Tennessee students become the fastest-improving of any state on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly known as the "nation's report card."
"I think a lot of the education reforms that we put in place really do have a far-reaching impact," the governor said.
Over three years, Haslam's education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, drew withering fire from teachers, triggered a revolt among nearly half of local school superintendents and prompted harsh criticism from some lawmakers as he pushed tougher teacher evaluations with a heavier emphasis on student testing and tying tenure to evaluations.
Huffman announced his resignation last month.
"I realize they're really controversial now," Haslam said of the changes. "But I honestly think the ship's pointed in the right direction and it would be a shame to change course now."
One change -- Common Core education standards adopted by former Gov. Phil Bredesen and state lawmakers in 2010 -- has proven highly controversial among lawmakers.
The governor, who is reviewing the standards, has acknowledged challenges from fellow Republicans in the Legislature.
The review isn't expected to be complete until after the 2015 session, and legislation has already been introduced to turn back Common Core. Haslam has said any standards that are more Tennessee-specific must be "high standards."
He said changes in Tennessee's civil service system, among other things, made it easier for officials to hire and promote people they believe are best suited for the job.
Critics charged that the changes will bring back political patronage, but Haslam said they have "long-term implications" for how well state government is run.
"It doesn't have all the 'sizzle' of some of the more controversial issues," Haslam said. "But if our job is to provide services for people that they can't do for themselves -- people can't build their own highways or run their own prisons or run their own schools ... then the Civil Service Act, in continuing to bring high-quality people into state government, might be, long term, the most important thing we've done."
Also on the horizon
Besides Common Core, Haslam has other challenges in his second term.
He announced his own conservative take on Medicaid expansion in December and fully realizes that the two-pronged plan, which uses a voluntary hospital assessment to pay for the state's share of costs, will face opposition from some fellow Republicans.
So how difficult will it be to pass his Insure Tennessee proposal in the GOP-led Legislature?
"Very," Haslam said, laughing, but he quickly added, "I shouldn't say that. We wouldn't be proposing it unless we thought we had a chance."
He said the plan's voucher component, which helps workers afford their employers' insurance plans, should help win GOP support.
And Republicans, he believes, should like his revision of TennCare, the existing Medicaid program, to include incentives for healthier behavior. The plan also accelerates the state's move from fee-for-service to outcome-based health care.
Haslam said he intends to get through his second term without raising the state sales tax, now 7 percent. That, too, won't be easy and will require cuts, he said. That's why he is opposing lawmakers' efforts to cut other levies, such as the Hall income tax on stock dividends and interest income, which mostly benefits the wealthy.
In the next few years, Haslam has said, the state will need to maintain and build new roads and bridges. He said he's still not sure whether he will press for a funding solution in 2015, but he insists on a long-term solution.
Haslam, a former Knoxville mayor, said he has been surprised to learn how broadly government can affect what happens in the state and how important it is to make government run well.
"And you might say, 'duh,' but I think the chance for good policy to really impact what happens is more than I thought," he said.
"We've got 40,000 employees. We do so many different things, from teaching kindergarten to building roads to running prisons to dealing with mental health issues and on," Haslam said. "And it really does matter how you run it."
He also noted the fleeting nature of such power in a state where governors are restricted to two four-year terms.
"I don't think you should be governor for more than eight years," Haslam said. "... But you're making really long-term decisions if you're doing it right. And those two things don't always work hand in hand."
Last month Haslam became chairman of the Republican Governors Association, a political organization that focuses on electing governors. A number of his fellow governors are eyeing presidential runs in 2016.
"I'm learning a lot," said Haslam, who has hired an executive director and is staffing up to help Republicans in governors' races in Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana.
"Then we'll really kind of turn our focus to doing two things. One is, you're always raising money to help in races that need it down the road," he said. "This year will be a light year but you try to bank a little from years like this where we just have three races."
He said he's now working on the right plan "where we can help out in those states where there are races." After that comes drawing newly elected governors into the group's fundraising efforts.
As RGA chairman Haslam will meet major donors, fundraisers and other important Republicans in any number of states as well as mixing with top-flight political strategists.
More than a few Tennessee Republicans believe Haslam has national ambitions, including possibly becoming a vice presidential pick in 2016 or running for the top job sometime later.
In a recent op/ed piece, Vanderbilt University political science professors John Geer and Josh Clinton wrote that Haslam "may well become an increasingly visible part of these presidential sweepstakes."
The two cited Haslam's 70 percent approval rating in a November poll and noted he's popular with Democrats as well as Republicans.
The two wrote that "politicians, in fact, dream about such approval numbers."
Still, they noted, any aspirations for higher office could depend on how he handles the divisive issues looming in his second term. Haslam himself was cagey about his ambitions.
"The first minute you're elected to a job people ask you, so what else are you interested in doing?" he said. "If you're on the city council, people want to know when you're running for mayor. If you're mayor they want to know when you're running for governor. And when you're governor ..."
Asked specifically about the presidency or the No. 2 spot on a Republican presidential ticket, Haslam said that wasn't his goal in accepting the RGA chairmanship.
"And anybody who wants to plan their life around getting chosen as vice president isn't being very far thinking," he said. "There's a lot of twists and turns in that road. And I can honestly say doing this had nothing to do with any desire for another position."
So, would Haslam rule out accepting the No. 2 position on the 2016 GOP ticket if the presidential nominee offered it?
"Well," Haslam said, laughing, "I mean, who's asking? Who's asking me to be your vice president? No, there's just so many hypotheticals.
"You'd never say 'Oh, no, I'd never do that.' But obviously it depends on who the person was. If it was somebody you thought you'd be excited about them being the president of the United States would be the place it would start."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.