NASHVILLE — He’s no NFL referee, but Gov. Bill Haslam may have thrown more “flags” in the Legislature this year than one of those striped-shirt guys has on a football field.
In politics, a “flag” puts lawmakers on notice that the administration or a department opposes their bill.
It’s usually a secretive process that erupts publicly only when a stung legislator starts yelping or a committee cites the flag when killing a bill.
Or you can just ask the governor. A public records request to Haslam’s office showed he has issued 73 flag letters as of Feb. 6, opposing bills for reasons from cost to philosophical differences.
“We write the flag letters as a courtesy to legislators and as another way to inform them of our positions,” Haslam spokesman David Smith said.
Haslam took office in January 2011 but didn’t issue formal flag letters before this year’s session.
This year, Republican Haslam is flagging bills sponsored by both parties, though Democrats, with 45, have gotten more flags than Republicans, with 28.
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, got a flag for trying to let slightly more-expensive computers qualify for the state’s annual sales tax holiday. Legislative analysts said the higher exemption would cost $41,900 annually.
On Feb. 6, Haslam’s director of legislation, Leslie Hafner, wrote to Berke that the governor would not support the legislation because of its fiscal impact.
“We recognize that your legislation may ultimately be amended to remove its fiscal impact. If this is the case, we will gladly revisit our position,” Halfner wrote.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga to remove the statute of limitations on prosecutions of sex crimes involving children came in with a price tag of about $493,100 a year. Floyd’s letter was virtually identical to Berke’s.
Haslam outlined his spending priorities, including an anti-crime package, in his budget proposal. Some lawmakers are trying to amend Haslam’s spending plan with their own.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said a flag isn’t necessarily a death knell for a bill. “It puts it on life support,” McNally said.
Of course, lawmakers can argue with legislative analysts or tweak costs in hopes of reprieve. Failing that, they can try to appeal to the administration.
“I would characterize the process as beg, cajole and change,” Berke said.
The administration also flagged a bill by House Government Operations Committee Chairman Jim Cobb, R-Spring City.
It would change the state’s Board of Nursing, by, among other things, reducing the number of consecutive terms a member may serve.
Last year, two of Cobb’s House GOP colleagues used political muscle to overturn the board’s suspensions of three nurses. That triggered a TBI investigation.
A prosecutor called the lawmakers’ tactics “heavy-handed” but found no grounds to press charges because they didn’t benefit personally. One lawmaker openly said he intervened because he was convinced the nurses had been railroaded.
House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, has seen five of his bills flagged this year.
“Well, almost all of them are flagged for philosophical differences, and that’s fine,” Naifeh said. “I don’t know exactly what that means other than, ‘I don’t agree with what he’s trying to do.’”
One flagged Naifeh bill would change the five-grade system for evaluating teachers for tenure purposes. Naifeh noted that while the administration has called teachers who earn a rating of 3 “rock solid,” that still doesn’t qualify them for tenure. Naifeh’s bill would do that.
House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, has a bill for the state to buy liability insurance for teachers. Educators’ organizations see it as an attack on them because they offer the insurance to members.
Haslam’s flag letter cited the cost, pegged at $5.6 million annually. House Education Subcommittee members cited the flag in refusing to let the bill come through their panel.
Gleeful Republicans, some of whom have seen their own bills killed by Sargent, cited House Speaker Beth Harwell’s directive that committees curb measures that spend money.
Sargent argued his committee should decide when finances dictate whether a bill lives or dies. He says the bill’s actual cost is more like $1.1 million and he intends to come back for another try.
“They [legislative analysts] are working on a corrected fiscal note,” he said.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...