Gov. Bill Haslam moves slowly on rules

photo Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is pictured in this file photo. (Photo by Wade Payne, Special to the News Sentinel)

NASHVILLE -- Gov. Bill Haslam says changes in Tennessee's regulatory culture, rather than an actual overhaul of state rules, are what's needed to address most business complaints about red tape in state government.

In a series of roundtables with business leaders last year, "most of the feedback we got on state regulations was more attitudinal in nature rather than actually regulatory driven," the Republican governor told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in a recent interview. "It's more about a customer service mentality rather than 'there's a lot of broken regulations.'"

Haslam also said he expects to delay revamping dozens of state regulatory boards and commissions.

"It's a varied and complex task to address those," Haslam said. "We're going to make some suggestions this year on ways to redo some boards and commissions. We're not ready to do comprehensive [changes] because there are so many out there and the long-term changes, I think, are pretty complex."

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He did indicate he'll pursue changes to the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, which oversees many private utilities, including Tennessee American Water, which serves Chattanooga. He declined to go into specifics.

During his 2010 campaign, Haslam said Tennessee government "can't overregulate" and stressed "high-quality customer service" for businesses. Soon after taking office, he ordered a 45-day freeze on new rules or regulations by state agencies, boards and commissions.

He said complaints from business owners and executives at the roundtables often dealt more with federal regulations or with long waits to obtain state permits.

"We got back a handful of things; I don't know if a handful is five or 20, but it wasn't a hundred on things that are valid for the state to look at," said Haslam, who did not say which regulations he may seek to change or eliminate.

"But the overwhelming feedback on the state issues was, is there a different way to deal with the public than what you're doing now?" the governor said.

Last month, Haslam told Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation members that state Agriculture Commissioner Julius Johnson was working with Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau on ways to streamline permitting for chicken-processing plants.

Johnson said Tennessee's permitting requirements take more time than those of states like Alabama and Georgia. Wary environmental groups have voiced concerns about changes.

Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said businesses are often unaware of new rules created by state agencies.

"You can always improve the way we communicate with the public," said Watson, former chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee.

The panel periodically reviews state agencies, boards and commissions, as well as proposed administrative rules and regulations.

Under Watson's stewardship, the panel sometimes challenged regulatory proposals Republicans considered onerous for business.

Watson said some agencies are offering fewer proposals, and others are better prepared to justify new rules.

He also agreed with Haslam that comprehensive regulatory changes are complex and will take time. For example, consolidating regulatory boards and commissions can provoke fierce turf battles, he said.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said fighting state overregulation is "an ongoing battle" and he believes Haslam is off to a "great start."

"In state government we've got to be careful not to have what they call 'mission creep' in the military," he said.

He said he plans to challenge proposed new rules by the Transportation Department on outdoor advertising.

"It's not very advertiser-friendly," McCormick said.

Another issue is coal mining.

"It's a lot easier to permit a mining site in Kentucky than Tennessee," McCormick said, noting that a House energy task force has recommended changes.

Earlier this year, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, launched his own anti-red tape crusade.

It included a website that characterized Ramsey, who lost to Haslam in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary, as the "chief red tape cutter."

Speaking to reporters last month, Ramsey called for changes in handling of unemployment insurance claims by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

He said he has received complaints that workers fired for drug abuse or chronic absenteeism have gotten benefits.

"If you were fired from your job for just cause or maybe even stealing from your employer or chronic absenteeism, you shouldn't be able to draw unemployment," Ramsey said.