NASHVILLE — At lunch one day last week, Gov. Bill Haslam decisively ordered a “redneck burrito,” a pork-based specialty he later said was good but caused a bit of indigestion.
In an interview over lunch, the former Knoxville mayor indicated that the state Legislature may have had a similar effect on his innards during his first months as Tennessee’s chief executive.
“Did my life change a whole lot since the Legislature left? Sure,” he said, referring to the session ending. “The things I’m doing now are the things that I ran for governor to do.”
He ran through a lengthy list of gubernatorial doings in the last 24 hours or so, ranging from a strategy session on education issues to dinner at the executive residence the previous evening with corporate executives considering Tennessee as an investment location. It was one of many such dinners he and his wife, Crissy, have hosted, he said.
Haslam said he was “absolutely astounded” at the number of potential corporate investments in the pipeline when he took over from then Gov. Phil Bredesen, and the number has grown. He was almost as surprised, however, at the amount of state incentives or subsidies that the would-be investors want.
That has him contemplating development of a “measurable metric” for calculating whether incentives granted by the state are worth the jobs that would be created. It seems the sort of businesslike, managerial thing that Haslam relishes.
At Haslam’s request, the Legislature in May authorized about $300 million in bond issues to cover subsidies for expanding businesses, mostly a follow-through on commitments made by Bredesen.
The legislation was part of a 20-bill administration package, about one-tenth the size of some legislative packages presented by past governors and their Cabinet members. He said it was a deliberately “narrow agenda,” focusing on priorities.
Since the session, Haslam has called for the General Assembly as a whole to cut down on introducing bills. About 2,200 were introduced this year, with more than 500 becoming law, and Haslam signed every one put before him. He suggests the number should be cut by a third, or about 700 bills.
House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey have voiced general support for the idea, though others — mostly Democrats — have questioned whether the Haslam bill-reduction proposal is an executive intrusion on legislative turf.
It is not, said Haslam. Rather, he sees every bill introduced as “creating work for someone” — including staff of the departments he oversees, which must evaluate the impact of each proposal and decide whether to support it, oppose it or remain indifferent.
“If we [Republicans] are the party of smaller government, why are there so many bills being proposed?” he said. “I just think we need to be more purposeful.”
As for himself, Haslam said he purposefully will avoid letting the Legislature become the center of his gubernatorial life.
“I don’t know that it’s the be-all and end-all of being governor that some people might think,” he said. “I think my primary responsibilities are about how to run state government. It’s 45,000 people ... looking at everything, from what are we paying for lease space to how do we run our prisons.”
Still, he said, dealing with legislators can be “incredibly important” even if unsettling on occasion.
Of the bills he signed this year, Haslam said the one causing the most heartburn was a measure that overrode a Nashville ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation by companies contracting with the city.
“That was a huge philosophical problem,” he said, creating a conflict between his belief that government should put as few restrictions as possible on business and his belief that “local governments should get to decide most things for themselves.”
Touch of restraint
An argument can be made that Haslam this year served as a restraining influence on the Legislature’s new Republican “supermajority.”
One of his few legislative priorities was passage of a tort reform bill and a bill putting new restrictions on teacher tenure. Both were approved with provisions perhaps less sweeping than would have been the case if he and his legal counsel, Herbert Slattery, had not been overseeing the process.
A model bill proposed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national organization of conservative legislators that is highly regarded by many Republican lawmakers, calls for a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages. The Haslam bill sets the general cap at $750,000 with exceptions allowing up to $1 million — and the caps don’t apply in some situations.
As for teacher tenure, the Haslam bill requires that a teacher spend five years on probation instead of three as under prior law. Legislation filed before the governor submitted his bill called for 10 years on probation and had other restrictions the governor did not include.
Asked about this, Haslam smiled and said, “I don’t know about that,” then avoided further comment on the matter.
Outside of his limited legislative agenda, there have been some questions about whether the governor’s disinterest in lawmaking has led to a decline in executive authority to legislative leadership, notably including Ramsey.
Haslam disputes this proposition.
“I think we did engage, probably a lot more than people thought. It’s just we’re not going to do it by press conference. We’re going to pull people together and solve things,” he said.
Haslam said he, Harwell and Ramsey, who was a rival in last year’s gubernatorial primary, get along well and stay in regular communication.
At the beginning of the year, he said, there was a difference in experience.
“You had Beth brand new in her role, and we were obviously totally new,” he said. “Ron basically had his team in place and had been in place himself. So, you know, when they came into session Jan. 8 or 11th or whatever, he was ready to go.”
While hoping there are fewer bills to deal with in the next legislative session, there will be some carryover measures that cause Haslam misgivings.
Asked about the so-called “don’t say gay” proposal to prohibit discussion of homosexuality in grades kindergarten through eight of schools, Haslam grimaced.
“That’s probably one I would encourage the Legislature to not spend a lot of time on,” he said.
Does that mean the bill, which passed the Senate this year, should simply be abandoned in the House and left to die?
“I just think there’s better things we could spend our time with.”
Would he veto the bill if passed?
“I haven’t gotten that far yet.”
Coming up again
Another bill that passed the Senate but was held up in the House would institute a school voucher system in Tennessee. Haslam said he is undecided on that issue, but promised the sponsors to engage in an “open and honest discussion,” including a review of similar legislation in other states such as Florida.
“I can obviously argue the benefit [of vouchers], but there’s a whole lot of questions around that. Is it going to be means-tested? Are they going to have the same accountability put on them [voucher payments to private schools] that public schools have put on them?”
He also voiced misgivings when questioned about some other leftover bills that will return, such as a measure encouraging teachers to have student discussions on alternatives to prevailing scientific theories such as evolution.
But decisions on such things can be delayed during the coming months when Haslam can focus on selling the state to businesses and managing the governmental bureaucracy.
“The piece of state government that happens on Capitol Hill is just that, a piece of it,” he said. “We’ve got prisoners to deal with. We build roads and all that stuff.
“That’s where our customers get served,” he said.
Tom Humphrey may be reached at 615-242-7782.