NASHVILLE — This was supposed to be an easy year for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, with a relatively light legislative agenda and no major opponent yet in sight in his bid for re-election.
But last week, during a chaotic floor session in the GOP-dominated House, an oddball coalition of hard-right Republicans, tea partiers and Democrats hijacked an education bill to ram through a two-year delay in Common Core education standards and new student tests for two years on an 88-11 vote.
Haslam adamantly opposes such a delay and, before last week, House and Senate leaders had kept the attempt bottled up in committees.
The final outcome of the House action is uncertain. The Senate-passed version dealt only with the teaching of American history and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the powerful Senate speaker, has said problems with Common Core can be addressed with restrictions on student data mining, reforming the state Textbook Commission and blocking federal "intrusion into curriculum."
Regardless, the revolt on the House floor shows legislative Republicans are increasingly ready to assert their independence and status as co-equal to the governor.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said Haslam, elected in 2010, is the first Republican governor since shortly after the Civil War to have a GOP-controlled Legislature.
"You have a new governor and we had a 'supermajority' with our new governor and we had an extended honeymoon period," said McCormick, who carries the governor's package of bills and often speaks for the administration on the House floor.
After nearly four years, McCormick said, "I think it's kind of swinging back in the other direction where [many Republicans] ... want to feel like there's a balance, and a lot of them feel like the balance has been toward the governor."
Last week's rebellion "was a good example of that," McCormick said.
"They were going in a completely different direction from the Legislature on this. Today, the message was 'you need to carry us along with you and persuade people rather than just assume we're going to approve everything the governor does.'"
Conservatives have been targeting Common Core for months, arguing it amounts to nationalization of education policy.
Many teachers, meanwhile, are unhappy about the tests and general pace of educational changes brought by Haslam and Republican lawmakers.
At the same time, minority Democrats have been frustrated and angry over being shut out of virtually everything by GOP domination.
Other wildfires, minus Democratic help, also have erupted. Haslam has refused so far to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law to cover an estimated 180,000 low-income Tennesseans. He's acknowledged that's largely because of Republican legislative opposition.
Last year, two Republicans introduced a bill blocking any Medicaid expansion. Haslam opposed it and Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, backed him. Haslam said he would consult lawmakers about any expansion plan.
This year, lawmakers forced Haslam to agreed to a legislative check-off of any expansion. Minority Democrats, who support expansion, taunted Republicans, saying GOP lawmakers had "handcuffed" their own governor.
Other examples of GOP restiveness include:
• A House bill requiring the Legislature to sign off if the governor plans any mass layoffs. The sponsor, Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, said he and colleagues had been blindsided by layoffs in their districts.
Haslam criticized the bill as "taking tools out of our hands" that are needed to manage costs.
State Human Services Commissioner Rebecca Hunter headed off a change in law at with a pledge to tell lawmakers in advance of layoffs affecting their districts.
Hill claimed "100 percent victory" on his goal, saying, "when someone offers you an olive branch, you don't set it on fire."
• Earlier this month, Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, sidetracked Haslam's bill restricting use of cold medications used to make methamphetamine, saying it was too restrictive. He moved his own less-restrictive bill through the Criminal Justice Subcommittee he chairs and left Haslam's to gather dust.
"There's enormous spirit in the House to cooperate with the governor, and I think we'll be doing that," Shipley told reporters. "That's why we didn't kill the bill."
The Senate is moving Haslam's bill and some similar measures, but it's an open question whether anything will pass.
• Last week, the Senate Education Committee passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville. It bars the State Board of Education from tying public teachers' value-added test scores, which measure a teacher's impact on student educational gains, to renewal of teaching licenses.
That was in response to last year's blowup in which Board of Education members OK'd a plan by Haslam and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman to do just that, but then postponed the move following an uproar by teachers.
The House version of the bill passed out of its own education committee despite administration opposition.
• Harwell recently had to break a tie vote in the House Education Subcommittee to bring Haslam's limited school voucher bill out. Many Republicans want a more expansive bill, and last year the governor yanked his bill for fear it would be hijacked.
• Also in the House Education Subcommittee last week, Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, of Franklin, passed a version of his bill changing appointments to the state's Textbook Commission, which social conservatives began complaining about last year.
The governor now appoints the nine commission members, but Casada wanted a split: three each for both speakers and the governor. An amendment gave Haslam five appointments and each speaker two. Casada said he hopes to change that in committee.
"I trust him," Casada said when asked about diminishing the governor's power. "Those of us [legislators] who are closer to the people need to have the 3-3-3 combination."
That's because legislators are "just more responsive and available" than a governor could be, he said.
Asked whether there's a Republican-backed attempt to either defy Haslam or curb his power, Casada said, "I contend it's an ongoing genesis."
"If you look at the history of Tennessee, 50 years ago the governor basically appointed the speakers," he said. "And from that point you've seen a slow movement away from a strong executive to a strong Legislature. And this is just part of that evolution."
Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University professor, said Tennessee is set up to have a weak governor for several reasons.
"The No. 1 reason is you can override the governor's veto by a simple majority," Oppenheimer said.
Other Republican governors such as Don Sundquist, Lamar Alexander and Winfield Dunn faced similar issues. But they were dealing with majority Democrats, not supermajorities of fellow Republicans.
But a moderate-to-conservative such as Haslam is going to have problems dealing with "independent actors" such as the tea party and other hard-right conservatives, he said.
Haslam "has got to try to bargain and that's not always an easy thing to put together," Oppenheimer said.
Effective governors do have tools they can use such as appointments, projects and helping with problems, he said.
Still, he said, "I don't know that that sways people who are of a total ideological bent."
The filing deadline for state office is in April and so far Haslam has no serious challenger. Last week he told The Associated Press that increasingly independent-minded lawmakers won't turn him into a become a lame duck in a second term.
"I've never bought the lame-duck deal because the reality is you're the governor as long as you're governor," he said. "You don't have any less power one week going out of office as you do one week going into office."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.
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, ...