Gov. Bill Haslam had a pretty good year when it comes to wins and losses in the General Assembly. The Tennessee legislature has — in past years — picked fights with the two-term governor.
WPLN’s Chas Sisk and Jason Moon Wilkins talk about how Haslam’s approach to passing legislation has evolved.
JMW: So what happened in between the failure of InsureTN and the passage this year of the IMPROVE Act? What allowed Haslam to get his signature piece of legislation through this time?
CS: Well, one big difference was the amount of legwork that Haslam put into the IMPROVE Act.
If you’ll recall, Haslam spent about six months laying the groundwork for InsureTN. He went around the state talking to lawmakers in their districts about expanding Medicaid. And a lot of what went on in those meetings was health care professionals talking about what would happen if Medicaid wasn’t expanded.
The approach to the IMPROVE Act was similar, but this time, he spent close to two years going around the state. And a lot of what he did during that time was listen to examples of projects that could be funded if his road-funding plan was approved. So the message was that lawmakers were being invited to help design the legislation, rather than being warned of the consequences if it failed.
Another difference was there was also a lot more buy-in for the IMPROVE Act from conservative radio. Not all of the hosts were on board, but there was at least enough support that listeners heard the pros.
There were all the tax cuts that went along with the IMPROVE Act’s gas tax increase.
And probably most important is the fact that the IMPROVE Act wasn’t tied to President Obama the way InsureTN was. It’s a very different political climate now.
JMW: So the IMPROVE act was obviously a big victory. Did the governor suffer any big losses in the legislature this year?
CS: This was a pretty successful year for the governor, in terms of his legislative package.
Where the governor did suffer some setbacks was on outsourcing. This year we saw a growing number of legislators questioning the idea of turning over operation of state parks and college campuses to private contractors. They did not go so far as to tie Governor Haslam’s hands on outsourcing by banning it, but their displeasure was disruptive to the process.
Governor Haslam has been pleased with how outsourcing has gone. He says one reason there’s been money for tax cuts and the like is the savings that have come from outsourcing. So for lawmakers to reject that is kind of surprising.
JMW: Beyond the battles of this year's session, what fights lie ahead for Haslam as he enters the final year or so of his time in office?
CS: Well, outsourcing. Governor Haslam says that what he’s done to reorganize state government will be his most important legacy. And I think that’s true, whether it succeeds or fails.
Another thing to keep an eye on — and I don’t think this is a fight, but it’s still important — is the rollout of Tennessee Reconnect. One of Haslam’s big priorities has been higher education. That’s what his Drive to 55 campaign is about. Getting 55 percent of Tennesseans to earn a college degree or certificate.
Over the next year, education officials are going to be writing the rules for Tennessee Reconnect, promoting it and trying to figure out how to get adults to enroll. That’s not the easiest thing, when you start to think about it.
With Tennessee Promise, which was targeted at high school students, you had a captive audience. Teachers and guidance counselors could stand over students and make sure they knew how to fill out all the forms — including the FAFSA, which is not an easy form to fill out — and transitioned straight from high school to community college.
Tennessee Reconnect is about convincing working adults that they really do have the time to go back to school and can afford it. It’ll be about informing them about all the deadlines they have to meet and about designing a program that’s flexible enough that they can balance work, family and school. I think that’s going to have to be a big focus of the governor in his final year.