Gov. Bill Haslam to veto bill targeting Vanderbilt

photo Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at a press conference following the adjournment of the 107th General Assembly in Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday, May 1, 2012.

NASHVILLE - Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said Wednesday he intends to issue his first veto -- a bill that seeks to pressure private Vanderbilt University into dropping an anti-discrimination policy affecting campus organizations that has religious groups and conservative state lawmakers in an uproar.

In a statement, Haslam said that "while I don't agree with Vanderbilt's policy, as someone who strongly believes in limited government, I think it is inappropriate for government to mandate the policies of a private institution."

Haslam, who took office in 2011, said he didn't object to the bill's other provisions which ban Tennessee public colleges and universities from implementing so-called "all-comers" policies similar to Vanderbilt's. State institutions currently don't.

Vanderbilt's recently set policy requires that student groups allow any interested student to join and run for office.

Conservative lawmakers took up the banner in the General Assembly this year, pushing a bill affecting public colleges, later adding a provision directed at Vanderbilt and passing the measure on Monday.

Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, said Haslam gave him a heads up by telling him "that was something he was definitely considering and probably going to [veto]. I know that he and I are in full agreement that what Vanderbilt is doing is wrong."

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"He just feels this is not the approach to do it," Pody said. "I'm disappointed the bill didn't go all the way and become law."

Pody said he intends to bring the bill again next if Vanderbilt's policy doesn't change.

While the bill never mentions Vanderbilt by name, it says private institutions accepting $24 million or more in state funds come under the same ban as public colleges and universities, which Pody says Vanderbilt does through TennCare.

The 107th Republican-controlled General Assembly concluded its business Tuesday night.

After adjournment, Haslam, Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell paraded their successes before reporters, pointing to victories in passing a balanced, smaller budget that cuts taxes while making strides in areas like civil service reform and combating crime.

"I honestly believe that the state of Tennessee will be a better state," Haslam told reporters.

No one mentioned the Vanderbilt legislation until it and another measure dealing with sex education and the banning of "gateway sexual activity" were brought up by a reporter.

Haslam voiced reservations about the "all comers" ban.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said, "I respect the governor on that. I hope there won't be a need for that. I'll accept it."

On Wednesday, House Democrats took aim at some Republican actions.

"We did pass some crazy bills," Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville told reporters, noting he had asked Haslam to veto the Vanderbilt bill. "I just think it's terrible. I think it goes along with several other bills, from the 'monkey bill' to the 'gateway sex' bill to many of the bills."

The "monkey bill" was a reference to a new law passed by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson. It protects public teachers who discuss alternatives to scientific theories such as evolution and climate change with students, provided such discussions occur within the state's science curriculum "framework."

The bill drew national headlines. Haslam declined to veto the bill but did not sign it, saying while he didn't think it did all that much, it could lead to confusion.

Also Wednesday, Haslam said he plans to let another bill, which seeks to limit the number of foreign workers at public charter schools, become law without his signature. He questioned the bill's constitutionality and said he doesn't want to hurt state efforts to improve education standards.

Following Haslam's promised veto of the ban on the all-comers policies, Family Action Council of Tennessee President David Fowler issued a statement calling the planned move "extremely disappointing, "

A former Republican state senator who once represented part of Hamilton County, Fowler said in a statement that it was "unfortunate" that the ban on public institutions implementing "all-comer" policies also will be blocked.

"Hopefully, next year we will be able to work with the governor and the fine legislators who championed this cause to re-enact those provisions of this bill that protected student religious organizations on the campuses of our public colleges," according to the statement from the Family Action Council of Tennessee.