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VOL. 129 | NO. 53 | Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Haslam Agenda Hits Hard Times in Tennessee Legislature

ERIK SCHELZIG | Associated Press

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NASHVILLE (AP) – Gov. Bill Haslam's agenda is falling on hard times with fellow Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly.

A House vote last week to delay school curriculum and assessment standards was the latest defiance of the governor's wishes. The GOP supermajority in the Legislature this session has also:

– Ignored Haslam's concerns over a bill to strip local governments of the power to impose blanket gun bans in local parks, playgrounds and ballparks.

– Pushed the governor's anti-meth proposal to the brink of failure because of a disagreement about how many cold and allergy medicines used to make the illegal drug should be allowed to be bought without a prescription.

– Required House Speaker Beth Harwell to directly intervene to rescue Haslam's proposal to create a limited school voucher program.

– Shown little urgency in enacting the governor's signature proposal to offer free community college tuition to all high school graduates.

With as little as a month remaining in this year's legislative session, time is running out for the Haslam administration to right the ship.

Yet Haslam, who has yet to draw a serious opponent to his re-election bid this year, insists that the scrutiny by fellow Republicans in the General Assembly isn't anything out of the ordinary.

"The way the system works is you have folks elected from all parts of the state, they come with their agendas, and they're going to push those," Haslam told The Associated Press after a recent event in Franklin. "Our job is to say why what we're doing is the right thing."

But the governor's public and direct appeals had little impact as the House prepared to vote Thursday on a bill that ultimately included the delay in an implementation of the Common Core standards for state schools.

Haslam in a speech two days earlier to the Nashville Chamber of Commerce had stressed that the state has shown vast improvement in national tests, and argued that "it's critical in Tennessee not to back up."

"Turning around right now in Tennessee education is exactly the wrong thing to do," Haslam told reporters after the speech. "I can't imagine a situation, where you have proven results, like we have ... and we're saying, OK even though this seems to be really working, let's go in another direction.

"That just doesn't seem like a wise choice for the state."

Nevertheless, that's what House members did, citing pressure from their constituents about an issue that tea party groups have characterized as the nationalization of education standards.

Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, told colleagues in a GOP caucus meeting before the vote that he had never seen his constituents so riled up about an issue.

"This whole issue has got such attention that probably is not all accurate, but it's a compromising position for me politically – and I think for a lot of pope in this room – if we don't take some action," he said.

The Common Core measure now heads back to the Senate, where sponsor Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, said he will seek to have his colleagues agree. But the Haslam administration will be lobbying heavily for the upper chamber to turn back the Common Core delays.

Tuesday could decide the fate of Haslam's anti-meth proposal. The House Criminal Justice had pushed Haslam's bill to its last meeting after advancing a bill with lesser restrictions. But the companion measure failed in the Senate, meaning there's likely to be no action on meth precursors this year unless Haslam's bill gains traction.

Haslam's school voucher measure has been the subject of several delays as lawmakers seek to hammer out a compromise that will avoid the fate of last year's bill, which the governor torpedoed for fear of losing control of the final version.

Several fellow Republicans want a more expansive voucher program than Haslam's measure targeting children from low-income families attending failing schools.

Despite his difficulties in the legislative realm, Haslam appears unlikely to face a serious challenge for re-election as the candidate filing deadline looms early next month. And the governor insists that an independent-minded Republican Legislature won't usher in lame-duck status for his 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."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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