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VOL. 133 | NO. 136 | Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Late Entry, Different Strategy Set Tone In Harwell’s Run for Gubernatorial Nomination

By Bill Dries

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Her campaign got a later start than her rivals seeking for Republican nomination for Tennessee governor.

House Speaker Beth Harwell has also conducted a basic campaign built around her experience in government.

“I’m amused when people running for governor tell you what they are going to do because they are not going to do anything unless the Tennessee General Assembly allows them to do it,” Harwell said in an interview last week while campaigning in Memphis. “That’s what makes government different than the private sector.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, participates in a gubernatorial candidate forum on health care Friday, Jan. 19, in Nashville. She talked last week while campaigning in Memphis about about her different race for governor in the August statewide Republican primary. (AP File Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Meanwhile, Harwell’s rivals in the Aug. 2 statewide primary -- Randy Boyd, former state economic and community development commissioner; U.S. Rep. Diane Black and Franklin businessman Bill Lee -- are emphasizing their nongovernment backgrounds while touting their closeness to President Donald Trump politically.

“We are running our own campaign, and I feel very good about where we are,” Harwell said of her TV ads that emphasize her role as speaker of the House. “Certainly, I have stayed on message, which is I’m concerned about state issues and talking about state issues.”

That’s not to say she is critical of Trump.

“Obviously President Trump is big news. He kind of sucks the air out of a room,” Harwell said when asked directly about Trump’s impact on state races. “But I think Tennesseans like to manage themselves, and I think they will make their own decisions regardless of what’s happening at the national level.”

Harwell, an educator who lives in Nashville, describes herself as a “Ronald Reagan Republican.” She was state Republican Party chairman for four years starting in 2001, already a veteran state legislator by that point who had served as House Republican caucus whip.

She’s traveled to the White House twice since Trump became president and expressed hope that Trump will follow through on moving more domestic issues to states for key decisions.

Among those is Harwell’s vision to cover the cost of expanding TennCare, the state’s version of Medicaid, through a new waiver from the federal government of the basic existing TennCare program.

“I think the next governor would serve our state well to go back to Washington D.C. and ask for a waiver of the entire TennCare program,” she said. “We could only get what we could from the federal government to run TennCare the way we wanted to. We actually kept TennCare to about a third of the state’s budget. And we really should never let it go over that because it takes away from other good things that we need to do like education and transportation.”

Under Harwell’s idea, the state would use about half of a federal block grant to fund TennCare “to redesign our TennCare program to help us save more money in our TennCare program.”

“And by saving money, I think we could actually expand the number of people that are covered,” Harwell said. “I’m not opposed to it. But I think we have to put it in a package of total savings for the state.”

It was under Harwell’s leadership as House speaker that the proposal by outgoing governor Bill Haslam to expand Medicaid in a plan already given tentative approval by federal health care officials in the Obama administration was defeated without ever coming to the floor of the House or Senate for a vote. Some Senate Republicans faulted Harwell’s leadership of the House for the abrupt end of the 2015 special session to consider Haslam’s proposal.

As speaker, Harwell is awaiting a report from the state comptroller’s office on the state’s contract with Measurement Inc., the second testing company in as many years hired to deliver an online state student achievement test and the second to encounter problems in the online testing.

“When I talk to teachers, they are not opposed to accountability at all,” Harwell said. “They just want that accountability system to be credible, to be fair and be useful. And we have failed on those three things. We just have.”

The comptroller’s report will determine if the state can seek its money back from Measurement Inc. in a “claw back” provision.

Harwell said between benchmark testing by local school systems to see where students are, the two required state tests and federal requirements, she believes there is too much testing and should be better coordination.

“But I understand why teachers would want benchmarks throughout the year to see how they are progressing and whether they are going to be ready for that final test,” she said. “And it might mean that going forward as a state we don’t put so much emphasis on that one test. That we give teachers an opportunity to test throughout the year and be graded according to that. I think that might be a way to go forward.”

Harwell said the state-run Achievement School District for the state’s lowest performing schools in terms of student achievement needs further review. That’s even with recent Every Student Succeeds Act – or ESSA -- changes at the federal level that now block an ASD takeover of such a school without giving a local school district a chance to turnaround the school.

“I think the intentions were the best. … I don’t think the ASD has been successful the way it could have been,” she said. “But then you are taking the worst performing schools and lumping them all together. That’s a very, very difficult undertaking. I don’t think it’s met our goals and I think it’s time to re-evaluate it.”

Harwell’s television ads put a heavy emphasis on her role in delivering eight balanced state budgets as speaker – a requirement under the Tennessee Constitution.

“It’s the most critical thing we do in state budget,” Harwell said of the legislature’s deliberations that lead to a balanced budget as required by law.

“My number one priority would be to keep our financial house in order,” she said. “We don’t ever want to be like other states. We don’t ever want to be like Washington, D.C. with trillions of dollars worth of debt.”

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