VOL. 130 | NO. 253 | Wednesday, December 30, 2015
After a Year of Triumphs and Defeats, Haslam Looks Ahead
By Bill Dries
Eight days into 2015, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam formally set a special session of the Tennessee legislature for February on his Insure Tennessee plan, a Medicaid expansion Haslam negotiated with the Obama administration.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam saw his Insure Tennessee plan crushed in 2015 but by year’s end had a proposal to fundamentally change the way higher education works at state colleges and universities.
(AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
The proclamation done, Haslam came to Memphis the same day on other business, framing the upcoming year in ambitious terms.
“We wanted to focus solely on this issue because it is controversial,” Haslam said of Insure Tennessee and the need for a special session. “It is complex.
“I think it really does lay out a pathway,” he said. “I think it really does go a long way toward reforming the health care system. I think a lot of Republicans are saying we want our chance to do health care the way we want to. I would say this is the first step that we would take.”
Haslam was back in Memphis two weeks later as part of a state tour specifically to push the plan in advance of the session.
By then Shelby County commissioners, including several Republican commissioners, had passed a resolution supporting Insure Tennessee.
“I think it takes a lot to buck a member of your own party,” state Senate Democratic leader Lee Harris told Haslam at a health care forum in Frayser.
Harris’s words were prophetic, whether he meant them to be or not.
Insure Tennessee died quickly in a short special session in which it couldn’t make it past a Senate committee. There was no vote at all in the House.
And there was plenty of evidence tactical differences between the Republican leaders of the two chambers were the main culprit.
In his post mortem, state Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville said he worked for a month to set up a protocol in which the House would act first.
“And all of a sudden without notice they changed their mind,” Norris said in May after the regular legislative session ended. “I’d say it reflects a lack of leadership in the House. That may stem from fear of factionalism.
“The speaker of the House was really nowhere to be seen and that sort of fed the factionalism in the House of Representatives,” Norris said. “It really was a do-nothing moment in the special session, a do-nothing moment in history.”
Haslam has since said numerous times that he doesn’t think anything has changed in the legislature that would warrant him making another try.
By the summer Haslam was making the case for a better way to fund the state’s $6 billion backlog of road projects.
And again he heard encouraging words, particularly from business leaders who favor increasing the state’s 40-cent-a-gallon gas tax.
But Haslam gave the gas tax hike a wide berth and said he first wanted to establish the need before advocating a solution. And the need is a statewide list of 181 state road projects in 62 countries totaling $6.1 billion in a state where better fuel efficiency in automobiles has dropped gas tax revenues.
It could come up in Haslam’s 2016 state of the state address. But so far, Haslam hasn’t said what funding solution he favors or whether he will bring up a solution this year.
Norris said this month that the legislature won’t take up a gas tax hike in the 2016 session.
And he said the backlog isn’t the way to frame the issue.
“We need more time to articulate more clearly exactly how the funding works and how it’s going to be used,” Norris said. “A $6 million backlog doesn’t mean anything to real people.”
At year’s end, Haslam had another ambitious proposal ready to take to Capitol Hill when the legislature returns.
Haslam is proposing a change in the state’s Board of Regents, the statewide body that governs the University of Memphis and five other state universities and colleges as well as community colleges and Tennessee colleges of applied technology – or TCATS.
Haslam’s plan is to give the six universities and colleges their own boards and leave the Board of Regents with primary control over the community colleges and TCATS.
At the end of the first year of his second and final term of office, Haslam has had more political success in higher education than health insurance and infrastructure.
Just before Insure Tennessee bit the dust, President Barack Obama traveled to the state to tout Tennessee Promise, Haslam’s last-dollar scholarship program that guarantees Tennessee high school graduates two-free years of community college.
Tennessee Promise is part of a reordering of higher education in Tennessee that has also seen its share of criticism and opposition.
Haslam drew fire from Lt. Governor and Republican House speaker Ron Ramsey for even appearing on the same stage with Obama.
Meanwhile, Tennessee Promise drew fire from Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis for what Cohen says is a weakening of four-year colleges and universities using funds from the Tennessee Lottery that Cohen was instrumental in passing to fund four-year Hope scholarships.
As he stood by a busy Lamar Avenue near the state line in the second November tour to push the road project backlog, Haslam fielded a pointed question about his record and his legacy.
“We’ve fundamentally changed the civil service system,” he said. “We’ve passed tenure reform. We’ve passed tort reform. We have a budget that went from being in deficit to being in surplus. We’re the leading state in the country in education results.
“I think if you look at our list of accomplishments, it’s a pretty long one.”