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VOL. 128 | NO. 22 | Friday, February 1, 2013

Charting the Course

Haslam maps out path for third year in office

By Bill Dries

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Going into his third year as Tennessee governor, Bill Haslam has redrawn some political lines as he has worked toward an ambitious restructuring of state government and the way it works.

Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly. The Republican has redrawn some political lines as he works toward a restructuring of state government.

(Photo: AP Photo/Donn Jones)

And they don’t necessarily follow partisan lines.

The first two years of his Republican administration saw aggressive moves to change state employee seniority rights and “bumping” rules that allow the movement of those employees among parts of state government. And Haslam spearheaded changes to the tenure process for teachers.

In his State of the State address Monday, Jan. 28, and a set of appearances across the state that have followed, Haslam underlined a more aggressive approach to a phrase echoing around statehouses across the nation for decades.

“Our philosophy is that if the federal government decides to quit funding a program, then unless there is an exceptional reason, we will not continue to fund that program with state dollars,” Haslam said to the joint House-Senate session in Nashville.

Whether to expand Medicaid could be an early test of the philosophy that has emerged through the first two years of Haslam’s four-year term.

“Unfunded mandates” have been a complaint of governors and legislators – Democrats and Republicans – for decades.

The costs of TennCare, Tennessee’s version of Medicaid, are $350 million more this year than last year. Haslam has not included a Medicaid expansion in his budget proposal to date. But he also has made no decision on the expansion, which the federal government would pay entirely for the first three years and then 90 percent of it in the three following years. He has until April.

“I am hesitant to commit additional dollars to Medicaid when it’s already eating up so much of our budget,” Haslam said. “And we have to remember what the state went through seven years ago when it made the difficult decision to cut a lot of people from the TennCare rolls.”

The TennCare cuts by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen were among the most controversial acts of his eight-year record as governor, prompting criticism within his own party.

In Haslam’s case, he works with super majorities of fellow Republicans in both chambers of the Legislature where opposition to President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act is pervasive.

But Haslam said the decision on the Medicaid expansion isn’t that simple.

“There are hospitals across this state, many of them in rural communities, that are going to struggle if not close under the health care law without expansion,” Haslam said. “And that’s not something to take lightly.”

Haslam began 2013 by balancing a fast-moving education reform agenda that now includes school vouchers with some perspective on how many parents will seek the alternatives to conventional public schools.

He said it again in the State of the State address and the next day at the University of Memphis where he began what is the customary post-address tour across the state.

The vast majority of public school students in the state will remain in those conventional public schools. That’s even with no cap on the number of charter schools the state can have, the state-run Achievement School District, the possibility of the state authorizing charter schools in a comprehensive charter schools bill to come and the schools voucher legislation that is on the way.

State House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh said Tennessee’s public schools are “among the best value in the nation.”

“For the past two years, public education has been under attack in Tennessee,” he added, calling the voucher proposal “a radical unfunded mandate … designed to rip millions of dollars from public education.”

Fitzhugh predicted the vouchers will mean local tax increases to fund local school districts and “leave thousands of students behind in failing schools.”

Haslam responded by saying his budget proposal includes more funding for conventional public schools.

As the first of the new standards in the current wave of reforms were enacted in 2010, Bredesen’s last year as governor, the legislation that made them possible and raised the cap on the number of charter schools as well as the use of student achievement data for part of the evaluation of teacher performance was passed with Democratic majorities in both chambers.

As Democratic lawmakers change their outlook on the reforms that have followed, Haslam acknowledged this week that he wants to ensure there isn’t a split among Republicans that Democrats can exploit.

“The bigger the family is, obviously the more opinions you have even within the family,” he said when asked about competing priorities among Republicans. “I’ve actually been really encouraged so far this session about the tone of the discussion and the inclusion. … Does that mean everybody will agree? No. Does that mean I will like everything that is proposed? No. But I have been impressed by the tone so far.”

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