NASHVILLE — Preston Bronaugh’s opinion of the Tennessee legislature turns on a single issue: its treatment of teachers.
“Teachers should be more valued than that. It’s just a travesty,” the Jefferson Street resident said last week. “What kind of incentive do they have to be teachers, coming out of school, if you’re going to put it to them like that?”
Support for the General Assembly has plummeted 20 percentage points since January, according to a Vanderbilt University poll, and the cause appears to be controversial votes such as the Republican-led fight to remake Tennessee’s laws on teachers unions.
Five months ago, state lawmakers were viewed favorably by nearly two-thirds of Tennesseans. Now not even half say they approve of the job the GOP-controlled legislature is doing.
The decline demonstrates the honeymoon period that began when Republicans swept into office last November has ended.
“That was before governing had taken place,” said John Geer, a Vanderbilt political science professor who helped conduct the poll. “It says they’ve made tough decisions, and once you do that, your popularity is going to drop.”
While difficult to isolate which issues have caused Tennesseans to sour on the legislature, the session-long debate over taking away teachers’ ability to negotiate union contracts appears to have contributed to the legislature’s slide.
A majority of respondents to the Vanderbilt poll said they oppose the law. The issue also came up frequently in interviews conducted last week with Middle Tennesseans.
“I’m not displeased by the governor,” said Bronaugh. “I just believe that some of the things that Republicans are voicing overall are counterproductive.”
Drops across the board
The legislature registered an approval rating of 45.8 percent in Vanderbilt’s poll of 700 Tennesseans. In January, 65.6 percent said they approved of the legislature.
Support fell equally among Republicans, Democrats and independents. All three groups approved of the legislature in January, but now only Republicans say lawmakers are doing a good job.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said Republicans bear sole responsibility for the drop in popularity.
“If there is unhappiness with the legislature, then it is unhappiness with a Republican legislature who spent this term beating up on teachers and did nothing about our rising unemployment,” he said. “I believe the Republican legislature is squandering goodwill and complicating life for our governor.”
But House Speaker Beth Harwell said she remained proud of the legislature’s record this session.
“I think the general public will always have a healthy cynicism toward government,” she said. “It [a decline in popularity] is not consistent with what I’m hearing from the public.”
Gov. Bill Haslam’s approval rating rose slightly to 56.3 percent. The Republican governor kept a fairly low profile during the fight over teachers unions and other controversial issues.
But Haslam’s disapproval rate rose as well, climbing to 21 percent from 15 percent in January.
“My husband voted for the first time for a Republican [in November],” said Susan Oakley, a clerk at the Eye Spec’s glasses shop in Hermitage. “He will never vote for a Republican again. He is hot. He’s been teaching over 20 years, and he’s not happy.”
Fred Stevenhagen, a Franklin developer, said there was a place for unions “in the ’20s and ’30s, when the sweatshops were around.”
“But I think it has decreased, and I think what we have to do is not forget about the unions, but temper our positions with the unions so that the benefit of the unions is for all Tennesseans, not just the unions.”