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Tennessee: Haslam, legislature enact conservative agenda

By Hastings Wyman
Southern Political Report

May 18, 2011

In 2010 Tennessee Republicans won a perfect trifecta – control of the governorship, the state senate (20R-13D) and the state house (64R-34D-1Ind) – for the first time since 1869 in the midst of Reconstruction. Thus, the home of Andrew Jackson and Al Gore moved firmly into the hands of the Grand Old Party, producing a marked turn to the right in state government and the policies it pursues.

Seizing on this opportunity, Gov. Bill Haslam (R), who was elected by 65 percent to 33 percent last year, has put forward a number of key conservative and pro-business initiatives that would have never been enacted if the Democrats controlled even one of the three levers of government. Although the legislature is still in session, a number of Haslam’s proposals, as well as measures originating with GOPers in the legislature, have already passed, or are about to pass.

The biggest one is Haslam’s tort reform measure, which puts caps on non-economic and punitive damages in civil lawsuits. The bill, which is vehemently opposed by the plaintiff’s bar, has made it through both legislative chambers, though it must go back to the House to accommodate several Senate amendments. The legislation “would not have passed previously,” says a longtime observer of Tennessee government and politics, when Democrats controlled either legislative body or the governorship.

Foes of tort reform hired former US Sen. Fred Thompson, a popular Tennessee Republican, to lobby the legislature in opposition to the bill. While several changes in the legislation may be traced to his efforts, overall he made little difference. “I love Fred,” said State Senate Speaker/Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R), “and I’m glad he’s taking the trial lawyers’ money, but that’s not going to change a single vote.” The bill was strongly supported by business and the governor is highly regarded in business circles. “Haslem has been an excellent governor,” says a Nashville lobbyist; “He has a good grasp on what he’s doing.”

Several of the governor’s proposals make major changes in the state’s education policies. One of the most important was a bill to do away with the current tenure-in-three-years system for the state’s teachers, replacing it with a system which allows evaluation of performance over a number of years, making it easier to get rid of teachers deemed incompetent. The proposal passed both chambers in March and has been signed by the governor. Terming it “a sweeping reform,” the longtime observer says that while it has been “under the radar nationally, it is a BIG deal,” adding, again, that it would have never passed under the Democrats.

Another bill would bar collective bargaining between teachers’ unions and school boards. Haslem didn’t initiate it, but endorsed it during its consideration. The bill has passed the Senate and should pass the House any day now. This proposal, says the Nashville observer, “has riled up the Democratic base,” which includes unions and the Tennessee Education Association. Supporting the measure are the Tennessee School Boards Association and the Tennessee County Commissioners Association.

A poll taken in mid-February by Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) showed that 54% believed the current tenure system “made it hard to get rid of bad teachers” to 29% who believed tenure “protects good teachers from being fired.” However, 41% opposed eliminating collective bargaining between school boards and teachers’ unions to 37% who favored the elimination proposal. (In general, Tennesseans are a pretty conservative bunch; 31% said they would vote for President Obama’s reelection to 48% who said they would vote for “his Republican opponent.”)

Another measure pushed by Haslam would remove some of the current restrictions on charter schools. The bill is expected to pass this week and will be signed by the governor.

While the GOP controls all three of the centers of state legislative power, they do not always sing from the same hymn book. The governor, while certainly conservative, is probably best described as center/right, not hard/right, and he has not initiated most of the more controversial measures that are being considered. Indeed, one Democratic insider says the governor “is about like Bredesen,” the pragmatic Democrat who held the office prior to Haslam. House Speaker Beth Harwell (R), the first woman to serve as speaker of the house, was an early backer of Haslam for governor and is his ally in most legislative matters. Senate Speaker/Lt. Gov. Ramsey (R), who came in third in last year’s GOP primary for governor, is allied more strongly with the harder-right social conservatives. Indeed, the senate, where Ramsey is top dog, passed the anti-collective bargaining measure over the governor’s objections to its early consideration.

These differences occasionally result in strains within the GOP side. Business, for example, has been generally pleased with the new alignment in state government, but has actively opposed several measures pushed by some Republican legislators, including restrictive immigration bills and proposals to allow guns in the workplace. “This is one of the best years ever for business,” says the lobbyist, “but it’s been a helluva ride getting there.”

A number of other bills, not initially proposed by Haslem, focus on social issues and are popular with many GOP legislators. One proposal, which passed both chambers and was signed by the governor, forbids local governments from imposing anti-discrimination laws on business that are not already part of state law. The measure was aimed at one of Nashville’s recently enacted gay rights ordinance, which barred firms contracting with the city from discriminating against gay employees.

Another bill, which is still pending, is known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It would ban any discussion of homosexuality in middle or elementary schools. It is given little chance of passing. And reminiscent of the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial in Dayton, Tennessee, a measure passed the House – but not the Senate – which would allow teachers to discuss scientific challenges to evolution.

“This is how it has always been,” says SPR’s Nashville observer about this and several other controversial proposals. “They pass one house but not the other.” But in this new environment, not everyone’s quite so sure that will continue. 





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