Gov. Bill Haslam sat down with reporters last week for a status update on his legislative agenda for this year. In the face of heavy opposition, Haslam is retreating on his proposal to lift the state cap on average school class sizes — an idea he touted as a way to give school districts the flexibility to pay good teachers more. But the governor is pressing ahead with his bill to overhaul civil service laws to give the executive branch broader authority to fire state workers. Ditto for his legislation to keep secret the names of the owners of companies that win state economic development grants. Haslam also talked about his duties as Tennessee chairman of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and what he wants to do about the Occupy Nashville encampment.
Haslam: We’ve been working on the bill that we’ve called local flexibility that others have referred to as the class size bill. As a mayor, I believe in letting locals decide as much as they can. We argue that to the federal government all the time, and folks argue that to us. In financially challenging times both for local governments and for us, I think there’s a need to find ways to pay people more, particularly in hard-to-teach subjects and in hard-to-teach places. That is a struggle for us. It’s going to continue to be a struggle for us as a state, to make certain we have great teachers who are willing to stay teaching instead of moving outside the profession or going to be in administration or something else that will pay them more. So we brought forward this bill. It’s no secret it’s met with mixed reviews at best. We have made the decision that, for this year, not to push that forward through the committee and legislative process. We still quite frankly are firmly committed to the idea. But we have gotten feedback from across the spectrum, whether it be school board or superintendents or teachers or legislators that we don’t think you’ve gotten this exactly right. Our commitment is to get to the right answer, not just to our answer. … We will pursue it with some adjustments next year.
What do you think went wrong?
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. Those who were opposed to this figured out that’s a pretty good argument. Hey, the governor’s trying to increase class sizes across the board, and he’s trying to have fewer teachers. Obviously that’s not our intention at all. Our intention is to find a way to pay some good teachers and some teachers in hard-to-teach subjects more or to give the locals flexibility to do that.
You can’t even find a way to give good teachers more money. Does this suggest to you that maybe the state has a revenue problem or there’s something wrong with the tax system?
No, not at all. If you look this year, we’re proposing a 2-percent pay increase. That hasn’t been done in a while. If you look at how we’ve funded education, the upward curve that Tennessee’s had that on over the last several years compared to other places … we’re one of the only states that hasn’t cut K-12 funding. Look at the other states. When the stimulus money ran out, their answer was to cut K-12 funding.
The Tennessee State Employees Association says efforts to reach a compromise have failed on your civil service bill. Any thoughts of reconsidering that or are you adamant and pushing ahead?
With TSEA, we’ve had five different meetings with them. We were a little surprised when they said they’d voted not to support it. But we’re going to keep those conversations going. My job is to get the very best service for the very lowest cost, and when every one of our commissioners says that’s the most important thing we can do to provide that kind of service for Tennesseans, I think it’s real incumbent on us to make that happen.
You are now chairman of the Romney campaign in Tennessee. What are you going to do to help him?
We’re trying to put the organization in place. We’re trying to make sure folks are organized to do what you do in every campaign. The national campaign obviously is going to make the decisions about advertising. We’re trying to do the things we can to make certain we have grassroots and get out the vote and those things that matter.
There was a recent poll showing Santorum doing pretty well. Any concerns about Romney carrying this state?
Obviously, one thing this campaign has shown is that it’s a pretty volatile Republican electorate right now. You’ve seen several different people come up and be the challenger. The one consistent on that is that Romney has been the person they’ve been challenging. I decided to support Gov. Romney because I honestly think he’d be the best president. He has the right experience, and he has the ability to take on the biggest issue we have in the country, which is the deficit. We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing, which is spending a lot more than we’ve been bringing in.
With the Occupy Nashville law, will you have the authority to remove the tents?
We’ll have discussions with the attorney general and others about what the state’s rights are at that point in time.
Do you feel like you should go back to the federal judge to ask her what she thinks about this new statute?
I don’t know you can just go to judges and ask for opinions. I’m not a lawyer. We’ll talk to the attorney general. I don’t think we can just say, “OK, judge what do you think now?”
Governor, can we talk about the economic incentive confidentiality bill? These companies want their ownerships to be kept confidential, but if they are asking for taxpayer money, why should they be?
They might be a smaller, privately owned company. As long as they don’t intersect with anybody in the public sphere, I’m not sure why we need to know that.
It’s taxpayer money. Taxpayers want to know what their money’s being spent on.
They’ll know exactly what it’s being spent on.
It’s the connections people have. You would have no way of knowing whose crony is getting the money because you wouldn’t know who owns the company.
We would know. … I think [the Department of Economic and Community Development’s] feelings are that in a very competitive world where we’re competing with other states, that would put us at a disadvantage.