published Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Governor Bill Haslam's legislative agenda hits snags

Republican Governor Bill Haslam is pictured in this file photo.
Republican Governor Bill Haslam is pictured in this file photo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

HASLAM'S LEGISLATIVE AGENDA CHALLENGES


• He delayed action on a plan to lift the cap on average classroom size amid concerns from parents and others.

• His effort to scrap most civil service protections for state workers is being revised.

• His attempt to overhaul some state boards and commissions is meeting bipartisan resistance from lawmakers.

• His plan to require more detailed information from businesses seeking state grants but keeping the names of actual business owners from public view is drawing fire.

• His anti-crime package is criticized by counties because of its cost and by medical professionals because of inadequacies in a state database.

NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam likes to compare 2011, his first year in office, to a football game — his team was in the locker room trying on shoulder pads while the other team, the General Assembly, was on the field awaiting kickoff.

When the legislature convened its 2012 session in January, Haslam and his team of commissioners were suited up and ready to run with a full-blown legislative agenda.

Haslam’s more-aggressive agenda includes proposals on education and civil service reform, a crime package and reworking rules for economic incentive grants. The new rules would allow private companies getting taxpayer assistance to locate in Tennessee to keep their ownership secret from the public.

It’s a good thing they’re wearing shoulder pads and helmets. Because even though he’s a Republican and the state House and Senate are GOP-controlled, Haslam and his team are running into their fair share of blocks, tackles and head-butts as they try to move bills.

Take Haslam’s plan to do away with state mandates on average class size. The bill kept caps on individual class sizes but let school systems choose to increase average class sizes for individual grades.

Haslam reasoned that school systems could adopt the plan and use any savings to offer merit pay to teachers.

The bill ran into trouble with teachers, superintendents, school boards and many Republican lawmakers, not to mention minority Democrats. Parents, too, weren’t shy about letting lawmakers know they disliked the proposal.

Last month, Haslam pulled the measure for the year. The problem was salesmanship, not the proposal itself, he said.

“When the reason to do something takes you four minutes to explain, but the reason not to do something — you can say ‘large classes bad, small class sizes good’ — takes five seconds, it's a difficult process,” Haslam told reporters.

Welcome to the legislative process

He’s still fighting on other fronts to advance his agenda, and legislative leaders and lobbyists say he could prevail on many with some judicious compromises.

Bumps and scrapes in the legislature are to be expected, they say, especially for a relatively new governor. Even veteran governors such as Democrat Phil Bredesen and Republican Lamar Alexander saw their top priorities quashed or whittled down from time to time.

Haslam spokesman David Smith said that “in proposing substantive and meaningful legislation, it is not surprising that there is a lot of debate and discussion as part of the legislative process.”

Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said Haslam is encountering the normal checks and balances provided by the legislature.

Lawmakers respect the executive branch and the agendas that governors put forth, Watson said.

But, he added, “To think that just because he’s a Republican governor and we’re a Republican legislature, that we’re not going to do our duty as representatives of the citizens — it would be a false assumption.”

Works in progress

A number of Haslam initiatives remain works in progress.

The governor says state government could be more effective and efficient if it were easier to hire, fire, promote, demote and lay off the estimated 34,000 state workers. He proposes to do away with most civil service protection so that performance rather than seniority would rule the day.

The Tennessee State Employees Association agrees a number of areas are broken and need fixing. But the group and Democratic lawmakers say the bill threatens to inject old-style politics into personnel decisions.

The bill has stalled in the House State and Local Government Committee. Lawmakers have raised a number of objections, including ending hiring preferences for veterans. Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, called that “almost an insult to veterans.”

The administration has retooled the bill, reinstating hiring preferences for veterans when other things are equal, and requiring that seniority at least be considered during layoffs.

The revamped bill passed the Senate State and Local Government Committee last week on a party-line vote. It’s up for a vote in the matching House committee this week.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said “a lot” of Republicans “don’t like” the bill, but he thinks it will pass out of committee. Getting it through the full House may be another question, he said.

“He’s so far been able to ride herd on his people and get them in there,” Turner said. “But there’s some diminishing returns if you keep asking people over and over to vote against something they don’t feel that is right.”

cost of crime

Haslam’s crime package has faced challenges from local governments and health care providers.

County leaders say a provision that lengthens jail sentences for repeat domestic abusers will cost local taxpayers $8.4 million annually.

David Connor, executive director of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association, said the group supports efforts to battle domestic violence.

“But our concern is ... the state’s only paying 10 percent and we’re paying 90 percent,” Connor said.

Haslam spokesman Smith said police and prosecutors say that domestic violence is a serious issue, comprising more than half of all reported crimes in the state. And, he noted, “The rate of women killed by men in Tennessee is the fifth highest in the nation.”

Still, Smith added, “We are looking at possible options to relieve the financial burden on locals.”

A provision to curb prescription drug abuse by requiring medical providers to check a state database before writing or filling prescriptions for powerful painkillers triggered a reaction from pharmacists, doctors, dentists, hospitals and others.

Tennessee Pharmacists Association Executive Director Bateena Black said the database can’t handle huge increases in prescription checks. She said top administration officials are listening to concerns.

incentive secrecy

Haslam wants to revamp taxpayer-funded incentives for new or expanding companies, moving away from tax incentives and toward direct cash grants.

Economic Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty wants companies to provide more information about their business processes, financial statements, budgets, cash-flow reports and corporate structure and ownership with a promise that all the information would be sealed from public view.

But the bill was driven off the Senate floor when Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, objected to keeping company ownership secret.

Herron raised the specter of corruption, with the possibility that lawmakers’ relatives or administration officials could be involved in companies getting publicly funded incentives.

Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey recently told reporters, “I think if you ask for the incentives, the citizens have a right to know who you are.”

Administration officials said they don’t get the information now. If it’s made public, companies won’t come to Tennessee, they said.

Last week, Ramsey told reporters he is looking for a compromise, but insisted he’s not backpedaling.

“This is all up in the air right now is the bottom line,” Ramsey said.

about Andy Sher...

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, ...

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