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Gabbing with the Guv

Following the swearing in of Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman on Tuesday, Gov. Bill Haslam fielded questions from reporters on a range of issues.

Among them were his views on the Legislature’s work in general this year, whether Tennessee should amend the state constitution to better accommodate the Tennessee Plan, the importance of prioritizing political goals, and his expectation that Bill Hagerty, commissioner of economic and community development, will stay on the job rather than leave for a presidential campaign by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Hagerty, a Vanderbilt University graduate and founder of Hagerty Peterson & Company merchant bank and private equity firm, served as national finance chairman for the Romney for President campaign in 2007-08. Romney’s Free and Strong America leadership PAC has been taking donations and writing checks. Romney currently leads a poll of potential Republican candidates in the key New Hampshire primary for 2012. The poll results were released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling.

Hagerty has a key role in the Haslam administration, given Haslam’s emphasis on jobs. With Romney looking like a presidential candidate, Haslam was asked Tuesday if he expected to hold onto his economic commissioner.

“Yes, I think we will. When Bill came, we talked about that, that he had obviously been very engaged with Gov. Romney’s last campaign,” Haslam said. “I said, ‘I need you to come and stay for a decent period of time,’ and he understands that. I don’t think there will be an issue. I think he’s committed to staying with us through that period.”

Haslam was asked to assess how the legislative session has gone thus far.

“This is obviously my first one, so it’s hard for me to be able to judge the ebb and flow of how things go,” he said. “But obviously I was really pleased that the tenure bill passed. We look forward to having our charter (schools) initiative addressed as well. Obviously, the budget is a key thing for us. Overall, we’re pleased with how the session is going.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has said he is interested in having language in the state constitution changed regarding the election of judges. The state currently operates under the Tennessee Plan, where judges face yes/no retention elections. Critics say the system defies the state constitution, which calls for the popular election of judges. The argument is that the retention elections are not true elections.

Haslam has said he favors the current system but seemed open to the idea of changing the constitution to put it in line with the Tennessee Plan.

“As I understand, what Ron is saying really is something that I have said as well. We need to make the constitution conform to what we’re doing,” Haslam said. “What I’ve heard Ron say is, ‘I’m not for electing judges, but I think the constitution should be clear and match what we do, so let’s bring that up and make sure the language matches what we’re doing.’ And I’m fine with that.”

The Legislature has seen a proposal, SB0620, die that would have established a nullification committee to review all federal laws for their constitutionality and have the the Legislature vote on the laws found by the committee to be unconstitutional. Another failed proposal is the “birther bill,” SB1043, which would have required candidates for president file sworn affidavits with information proving their residency — an attempt to address criticism in some quarters over how President Barack Obama has handled questions about his place of birth.

Haslam has shown no interest in such bills.

“Again, those are issues that we haven’t spent any time on because I don’t think they’re important things for the state to be addressing,” Haslam said. “Legislators can bring up what they want, and they will. I think the fact that neither of those went very far says most of the Legislature agrees that we have some other things we need to be worrying about.

“Ultimately, I think the big issues become the big issues, and they’re the ones that take most of the Legislature’s time debating.”

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