Haslam: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

The governor wants the rhetoric toned down on both sides of the battle over the future of teachers’ unions in Tennessee.

Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday one of his goals is to reduce the amount of partisan rhetoric that can impede progress in the state.

“None of us want Nashville to become what Washington has become, a place that is so partisan you can’t solve problems,” Haslam said.

Haslam made the remarks in an address to the Outlook TN meeting of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Nashville. He picked up on the same theme when answering questions from the media following the speech.

Capitol Hill has become the scene of intense rallies and counter-rallies in the last several days, primarily over proposed bills on education and especially on a legislative effort that would end collective bargaining rights for teachers.

Haslam has stirred reaction himself with a legislative package that includes making it harder for teachers to earn tenure, but those proposals have escaped some of the harshest rhetoric as the lines have been drawn on collective bargaining. Teachers staged a rally Saturday that drew thousands of people, and a tea party rally at the Capitol supported legislation targeting the teachers union.

Haslam wants to tone it down.

“We’re having those conversations with Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “We really don’t want to get to where Washington is, where good people don’t want to go there anymore to serve.

“If you ask me what my concern is of the last two or three weeks, it would be that. There has been more of a partisan divide, which I don’t think is healthy for solving problems.”

The most contentious debate in recent days has involved Democrats criticizing Republicans over the anti-collective bargaining measure, while much of the disgruntlement among Republicans has been the divide within their own ranks. The more conservative members of the GOP are concerned that some in their party will be weak on the collective bargaining issue.

On Saturday Haslam was referred to as “Mister Rogers,” after the milquetoast television personality, at a tea party rally. Democratic Rep. Mike Turner of Nashville, the caucus chair, called on Haslam to end the “terrorism” against teachers.

Haslam referred to the tone of the last few weeks and said, “I want to kind of get past all that.”

“I think the vast majority of Tennesseans want us to fix things. That’s why they sent us here,” Haslam said. “I’m going to try to solve problems and fix things. I think that’s why Tennesseans elected me to be governor.”

But he noted that Tennessee is not alone. Fights over public employee benefits and collective bargaining, in particular for teachers, have erupted in Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and Florida.

“Some of what’s happening on education is a reflection of what’s happening nationally,” Haslam said. “I think it has kind of exacerbated things.”

Haslam used most of his address to the Chamber of Commerce as a preview of his budget presentation and State of the State address scheduled for Monday. He said he wished he had had more time to work on the budget. Haslam was sworn in on Jan. 15, and he is preparing to offer a budget that will be roughly $30 billion in size.

“People ask, ‘How do you like being governor?’ I say, ‘I love it.’ It’s just that the start date is wrong,” Haslam said.

He said having to establish a budget only six or seven weeks after being sworn in is difficult. He also noted the difficulty when the legislature proposes 2,200 bills and he is expected to have an opinion on all of them. Then there are the 23 commissioners in his own administration that need his attention.

“There’s a lot to learn,” he said.

Haslam emphasized the three themes he has driven home all along — jobs, education and the budget, adding that an education plan ultimately is a jobs plan. While his views on education and tort reform are widely known, many people will be eager to see where Haslam will make cuts in the budget, which he said would be the subject of more specificity on Monday.

“The budget obviously comes really quick,” he said. “No matter how much work you do before you come into office, it’s a little different once you’re there. Once you have the departments, you can actually reach down in and ask questions you can’t ask when you’re out of office.

“The budget is so critical to what we do as a state. While you want to get it there for the Legislature to discuss, you obviously want to get it right. Every day, I learn a little bit more.”

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