Gov. Bill Haslam sat down Friday morning to talk policy and politics with Capitol Hill reporters from various Tennessee news organizations. Video was verboten, but below is a rush transcript of his give-and-take with journalists regarding hotly debated collective bargaining legislation.
At the moment, Senate Republicans favor an outright ban of collective bargaining for teachers, a privilege public school educators have enjoyed in Tennessee since 1978. House Republicans this week announced they want to make it easier to de-certify unions in local school districts, and take some aspects of teacher pay off the negotiation table. But they don’t presently advocate a statewide repeal of mandatory union collective bargaining for locally elected school officials. The governor has said he supports the House GOP version.
Reporter: On this collective bargaining bill, people who are for that say that they’re for it because it would allow more merit pay, better pay for better teachers. The TEA says that they have not stood in the way of this merit pay, they haven’t tried to stop it in any place. In fact, they named places in this state where it is allowed.
Gov. Haslam: What you heard out of this whole discussion from us is, let’s look at the things that we think directly do impact. If that’s fine and TEA is OK with merit pay, let’s let that be a part of the policy statewide of education in Tennessee. I do think it’s real important. Merit pay, I think becomes increasingly important, not just to recognize great teachers but also being able to pay people more for harder to teach subjects and in harder to teach places. One of the things that I want to make certain we have in education in Tennessee is the freedom to do all three of those.
Reporter: Do you dispute that then? Do you think the TEA is an obstacle?
Haslam: One of the interesting things about being in my position is everybody says, well — and I hear everything from former legislators to governors, to other folks who say, well gosh, 10 years ago this happened or 15 years ago this happened… If TEA says that they’re not opposed to merit pay at all, that’s great. We’d love to have their help in seeing that instituted statewide.
Reporter: Well, then why change the law?
Haslam: Again, what you’re hearing from us is, let’s put those things in specifically that we think should happen. So I think having merit pay in there is important. Having the ability for superintendents to decide in the case of layoffs, who gets laid off first? Is it strictly by seniority or is merit a part of that evaluation piece? Those are the important things I want to have a discussion about.
Reporter: Isn’t it a little disingenuous to talk about merit pay when there is no money. Where’s the money for all this?
Haslam: First a couple things. The economy will start to come back and I think we will start to see some flexibility. So the question is when you do that, do we just give “X” percent pay raises across the board, or can we and should we be more strategic in that? Obviously, there haven’t been raises of any kind for state employees, but even out in a lot of the districts, they haven’t seen any raises. But that day will come. And when that comes, I think the more ability you have to be strategic about how you do it, the better.
Reporter: What’s your read on this letter that Lt. Gov. Ramsey put out yesterday where’s he’s calling on conservatives to rally behind the original version of the bill?
Haslam: We put forward those things regarding education that we thought were really important. So we led with tenure and charter schools for a real reason. We think that’s an important thing to do. That being said, in the current debate… there’s certain things that I think are really important when it comes to what should be on the table in negotiations and what shouldn’t. If we have the ability to have merit pay, if we have the ability to have superintendents decide what happens in hiring and laying off decisions, that kind of flexibility is what’s really, really important to me. Everybody in this field says, Who’s on the right on this, who’s in the middle and who’s on the left? And I’m always going to be about, What are the changes we want to see happening practically? I mean, forget all the kinda, “Who is in which camp?” What are the things that’ll really make a difference? And those things that I just talked about I think really make a difference.
Reporter: So is this a stick to get people to agree to the compromise that you’re behind?
Haslam: You‘re asking me if there’s some ultimate grand strategy that’s playing out with kind of good cop-bad cop? No, I don’t think there’s — that’s not going on that I know of. I can tell you I’m not part of that. We obviously have all had lots of conversations among Republicans, among Republicans and Democrats about this. And obviously, as you all see this week, there’s still a lot to be played out in this.
Reporter: The TEA has been supportive of parental involvement and your wife is supporting that. Was that kind of part of the reason for doing that, maybe?
Haslam: No, I’m way too smart to tell her what she should focus on. She actually kind of said from the very beginning, “Hey, I’ve been given a platform that I should use.” And she kind of spent six, seven weeks talking about all the things that might be possible there. Now, I did say I think that is something that everybody talks about and every body’s interested in and having another voice added to that argument would be good. But it wasn’t part of, “Oh I know, this will make the TEA like us better.”
Reporter: Do you believe the Senate version of the collective bargaining bill would cause harm to education by going beyond what you have suggested in endorsing the House version?
Haslam: No, I don’t know that I’d say it would cause harm to education. But, again for us it’s a case of, when you start (the year off) like this you’re going to decide what are you’re going to take on. And then, obviously other things get added. You can’t just say, “We’re only going to talk about these three things all year.” You’d like to say that, but you can’t. And so as the discussion happens, my style and strategy is to weigh all that that’s said and then push it, join in on all those things that we think really matter.
Reporter: But it’s certainly been a distraction with all the protests in committee rooms and on the plaza and everything else and now your own lieutenant governor is standing up against you, you can’t be pleased with the political landscape that you’re now suddenly facing.
Haslam: But I don’t know that any of that’s a huge surprise. That’s how it works. And I’ve also been very vocal in saying I’d like to see a lot less partisanship and a lot more problem solving. But I’m not naive enough to think everybody’s just going to come up and push for only the things that I’d like to see happen.
Reporter: Does Ramsey need to be reminded who won the primary?
Haslam: (Laughs.) I think everybody thinks there’s this big, you know, there must be something going on here between the speaker and the lieutenant governor and the governor. Truth is, we meet every week for lunch. We actually didn’t meet yesterday because Ron and I were both out of town. But there is a good relationship there — and I know folks don’t think that, and that there’s all this message-sending back and forth — but there really is. I’ll say this, I don’t know what the percentage is, but way north of 90 percent of the time, we’re all on the same page.
Reporter: But at the same time, here you’ve got Senate Republicans marching off in directions pushing immigration bills I think are harsher than you would like to see regarding immigration and other areas and such. This appears to be Ron Ramsey’s agenda but I don’t see you there anywhere. Who’s in control here?
Haslam: (Laughs.) Obviously, I think the role of the governor is like a play and we’re accomplishing the things that we set out to do and we’re going to stay focused on those things. Again, this is all a part of a process and the legislative process is half over. I don’t know. You all tell me the percentage of the way done we are. And I think there’s still a lot to be played out.
Reporter: There’s a bill advancing for electing school superintendents, local option. Is that something that you support?
Haslam: I have been well on the record of not being in favor of that, and for very specific reasons. I think when you have an elected superintendent or an elected school board it becomes a question of “Well, who’s really in charge here.” I actually think that with an appointed superintendent you can actually react faster. The school board…can make (the) decision tomorrow (to dismiss the superintendent) if they think that’s in the best interest of children. If (the superintendent) is elected, you might be waiting a while. And the third thing is, being a candidate, having run for mayor and run for governor, I know what it’s like. I don’t know that we want our school superintendent spending their time out campaigning. So I am definitely (not) in favor of electing.”
Reporter: What is your philosophy on public sector unions? You’ve said in the past you’ve fought against firefighters and police officers having public sector unions. Can you outline what your philosophy is and how the teachers unions fit into that?
Haslam: That’s not something that I am going to be pushing — to say public sector unions are going to be a priority for me to set up. In that case (of firefighters and police) I thought that was negative for cities, that (unionization and collective bargaining) would have hurt cities in terms of their abilities to meet their budgets. Nor is it, though, going to be my agenda to say I am going to go out trying to destroy any public sector union; That’s just not going to be my priority. I am going to say those places where I think the things that they are doing that are not helping us do what we need to do in Tennessee. I’ll work against those.
Reporter: Do you think the TEA and teachers’ unions are good for education?
Haslam: I think they can be, and at times they have been. Again, that sort of comes down to perspective — there are certain things that TEA has helped with and been in favor of that I think have been beneficial to the state, and other things that I don’t think have been beneficial at all.
Reporter: Truthfully, governor, isn’t it true that there is not a high rate of public sector unionism in Tennessee? Not much collective bargaining other than teachers? Some people have tried to compare Tennessee to Wisconsin.
Haslam: It’s not the same. I don’t think it’s that big of a factor to us in Tennessee, so that is why I haven’t spent that much time on it. The situation’s not the same (in Tennessee) as it is in Wisconsin. Everything from pension liabilities to the role that public sector unions play. And so, I tend to address and spend time on those things that I think matter, that are a big deal to us.
Reporter: Is this effort to go after the public unions by primarily Senate Republicans and some House Republicans political in nature?
Haslam: I don’t think so. I know there are people who say they are just trying to pay back TEA because TEA has always supported Democrats. I actually don’t think that is what it is. I think it’s more philosophical in nature, to be honest with you. Have they been helpful for education? It is hard for me to speak to everyone else’s motives, but if you ask me my opinion, I honestly don’t think it is just, “Let’s pay them back because they supported the other guys.”
Reporter: If the Senate version of the bill ultimately passes in the Legislature, will you sign it?
Haslam: I don’t know yet. We’ll have to wait and see. I still think there’s a lot to be worked out, obviously. The House (version) has just come out of subcommittee. (The Senate version) hasn’t gone to the Senate floor yet. There’s quite a bit of discussion about what will happen there. So I think there’s still a lot to be seen.
This transcript was edited for clarity and brevity.