Transcript: Haslam’s Take on Collective Bargaining Twists, Turns

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.

Press Releases

PET: ‘Collective Bargaining is Monopoly Bargaining’

Press Release from J. C. Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, March 16, 2011:

As a professional association, Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) believes it takes everyone working together to improve Tennessee public schools. But the teachers’ union only wants their voice heard and is only interested in an agenda that only benefits them. One of PET’s guiding tenets is that educators have the right to work in public schools without being forced to join any particular organization. They can join our organization, they can join the union, they can join one of the other organizations in the state or they can join nothing at all. Tennessee is a “right to work” state. This means by law, employees cannot be forced to join a professional organization as a term of employment.

A key difference between our organization and the teachers union is that PET is a democratically run association, relying on input from our members here in Tennessee. We are not reliant upon a Washington DC teacher union with an out of touch political and social agenda to determine our goals or objectives. That is another key reason that the exclusivity of teachers unions is intrinsically unfair, not only to our members—but to other teachers, taxpayers, parents and policymakers at every level.

Unions make collective bargaining look like a great service they perform for seemingly nothing. Teachers, however, must pay for these services with dues. Dues can total almost $600 per school year. Why do union leaders want exclusive representation in school districts? Because exclusive representation can lead to total control over all teachers in a district, even to determine who will teach and who will be fired. That is too much power to vest in any ONE organization that does not have to be accountable to taxpayers in this state. The better term for collective bargaining is monopoly bargaining.

Collective Bargaining is not going to work if it continues as a monopoly in education, and most people across the state realize this fact. We need to work together in a more collaborative fashion. We understand clearly that public education is dealing with more rapid change than ever before:

  • We are preparing students for jobs that have not yet been created…
  • We are preparing students to use technologies that have not yet been invented…
  • We are preparing students to solve problems that we don’t yet know will arise.

One organization cannot have all the answers. And the teachers’ union is proving that by clinging to an outdated and adversarial system they are failing to help teachers recapture our position as respected professionals on the issue of public education. They are making it clear that they do not understand the financial crisis in many local and state governments and confirming they cannot act for the common good.

Teachers who believe in freedom of association and freedom of choice say they are captive passengers because they are forced to accept representation they do not want. They believe if union officials consider it a burden to represent them, then they should only be allowed to represent their members, and nonmembers should be allowed to speak for themselves. We agree.

Let’s be clear- our organization is not anti-union, and politically we are non-partisan. However, we believe that new realities require new thinking, pragmatic solutions, and fresh ideas. Otherwise, we fear that the voices of teachers will not be heard, and the experiences of teachers not considered.

We also agree, with our union friends, that it is important that the legislature provide a basis for policy dialogue and opportunities for greater collaboration in defining and implementing educational goals, policies and practices. We argue it is time to incorporate trust, problem-solving, and cooperation into the bargaining procedures if it is to continue in the state. The difficult job of the legislature is to provide an effective and professional framework for teachers and school districts to collaborate more efficiently.

We suggest these key principles for collaboration:

  • Framework built on well-structured conceptual understanding of actual teacher needs, student needs, and societal expectations.
  • Coordination across different stakeholder perspectives
    • Systematic integration of insights from students, parents, teachers,principals, system-leaders and other key stakeholders.
  • Productive data-driven feedback, at appropriate levels to drive improvement at multiple levels including the state and local.

Collaboration Not Confrontation

Since teachers are highly educated, well-credentialed professionals with substantial independent, but critical responsibilities, the traditional union monopoly collective bargaining model may or may not work for all teachers across the state going forward. Teachers should debate and consider this model’s benefits and drawbacks as it applies to them today. That is another reason to be more inclusive in the future. It is projected by research that a true estimate of teacher union representation of classroom teachers is much closer to 55% to 60% of teachers statewide.

No matter the actual numbers, we believe that most educators agree that trust and respect for colleagues and stakeholders are the cornerstones in building a cooperative environment. Establishing trust may be difficult. As personal relationships develop and the adversarial aspect is eliminated, a sound foundation for mutual respect and trust can gradually take shape. Then the basis of a cooperative bargaining approach can be built.

Monopoly collective bargaining, on the other hand, is a process by which management and labor (school boards and educators) negotiate to reach an agreement on working conditions such as salaries, hours and benefits. We think some of these issues may actually need to be addressed at the state legislature. And we are willing to work with anyone here in the General Assembly to help teachers and school personnel achieve greater salaries and benefits. We believe that greater collaboration only benefits Tennessee teachers, and surely that should be our goal.

PET also believes that teachers and school boards should not be adversarial to the other, but to the extent possible, work together for the benefit of students, improve performance, attract future teachers, and retain and obtain benefits necessary to keep quality teachers in the classroom. The damage done in many communities by collective bargaining means that teachers must strive to enhance their image in the public’s mind, and be viewed by the public and policy makers as advocates for students. Teachers are the greatest advocates for children, but sadly that image has been lost.

We have known from the onset of this legislation that the teachers’ union would fight for monopoly collective bargaining. The reason the fight has been so bitter is because collective bargaining is where the Tennessee Education Association or their affiliate is granted exclusivity over teachers. By exclusivity it is generally described this way: 1) The Association shall have the exclusive right to post notices of Association activities and matters of Association concern on employee bulletin boards, in an area used exclusively by employees. No other organization seeking to represent employees or soliciting memberships shall be allowed the rights of access described in this article. 2) No other organization claiming to represent educators shall be granted the rights as described in any portion of Article IV. (i.e. use of facilities, faculty meetings, access to members, communications, and board meetings). We have worked hard to get this part of the collective bargaining provision stricken. It is inherently un-American that one organization be given exclusivity over all teachers in a school district to the point that other organizations are discriminated against.

We believe that teachers have a unique voice and should be heard on all matters relating to education, that teachers need to be aware of new political realities in the state, that a teachers’ association should strive to avoid being identified exclusively with any political party, that local classroom teachers need to be the driving force in defining a teacher’s role and responsibilities, that teachers should define a teacher’s association’s goals and objectives.

PET supports inclusive policies in which all employee organizations are allowed to consult with school boards on issues important to the organization’s members. As an educator organization, even if PET was the group designated to represent employees in districts, we believe it takes an entire community to educate Tennessee’s children. This includes parents, faculty, and even employee organizations that have different beliefs than our own. A policy built around inclusion would protect educators against being coerced to join an organization that might not represent their beliefs and being forced to pay exorbitant union dues.

In any negotiating process, lines of communication must be kept open between both parties and within each party. Negotiation, after all, is a process of interacting for the sake of reaching a satisfactory agreement. Members of each side must be informed of developments (or lack of them) at the bargaining table. Keeping such information flowing reduces the possibility of misunderstandings and can help speed up negotiations. When those negotiations are adversarial lines of communication are shut down. Being willing to alter demands, writing trust agreements and memoranda of understanding, and selecting respected, credible members on negotiating teams all contribute to the cooperative spirit that is at the root of collaborative bargaining.

Professional Educators of Tennessee believes that schools are not factories, classrooms are not assembly lines and children are not widgets. We have in the past spoken out against the negative baggage that goes with traditional, industrial-style monopoly collective bargaining. We oppose teacher strikes and work stoppages because they impact the children we teach. We oppose forced unionism and agency shop. Tennessee has more than one teacher group because PET has always defended the right of Tennessee teachers to join the organization that best meets their needs — or to join nothing at all. Your freedom to choose is an essential right.

There is great confidence by many teachers across the state that Tennessee lawmakers will ultimately study the issue and reach a fair and appropriate conclusion. Hopefully all legislators can reach universal agreement that whatever legislation ultimately comes out of Nashville on this matter. The principles we espouse will establish a peaceful, stable employer-employee relationship. We advocate the protection of the rights of ALL teachers to be members of the organization of their choice with equal access; protection of the right of the taxpayer through their elected representatives to control government policy and the cost of government; and, governmental services will be provided in the most efficient and orderly manner possible.

J. C. Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.

Education News

Both Sides in Clash Over Union Power Look to Haslam for Support

On a day when 3,000 or more unionized Tennessee teachers and their supporters marched on Legislative Plaza in the rain, Gov. Bill Haslam refused Saturday night to get into the fray over a bill to end collective bargaining between teachers’ unions and local school districts.

Haslam is for now sticking strictly to his own education agenda, which includes changing the state’s tenure system for teachers.

“We, from the very beginning, put the things forward that we thought could make the most difference in the classroom, and I’ve said that repeatedly, and I’ll continue to say that,” Haslam said at a Republican Party Reagan Day dinner in Rutherford County.

Haslam referred to “name-calling” on both sides of the collective bargaining issue, the most contentious of several GOP-sponsored legislative efforts in the General Assembly right now that have drawn union ire.

“Obviously, there is a lot of disagreement about the collective bargaining issues and name-calling on both sides, and we want to be on the side of the people who are solving problems. And we’re going to continue to do that — the things that we think will impact the classroom the most.”

It wasn’t clear, however, if the governor knew he’d himself been nicknamed “Mister Rogers” by one speaker at a much smaller tea party rally at the Capitol earlier in the day.

Raymond Baker, a former Republican political consultant, was critical of Haslam, whom he views as too soft to be counted on in a bare-knuckle political brawl with the powerful teachers’ union.

“Bill Haslam, where are you? Where are you?” Baker asked.

“Speaker (Beth) Harwell, where are you?” he added.

Baker then reeled off the names of other states’ GOP governors battling public employee unions or actively leading on issues important to conservative Republicans.

“Here’s the deal. Wisconsin got Scott Walker. Florida got Rick Scott. South Carolina got Nikki Haley. Arizona got Jan Brewer. We got Mister Rogers,” Baker said. “You cannot govern Tennessee like it’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

After his remarks to the tea party crowd, Baker said Haslam is prone to give in on the issue.

“He is completely non-confrontational. He is a compromiser,” Baker said. “He has met with the TEA and cut a compromise deal with them that will still allow for collective bargaining while claiming that it doesn’t. He simply doesn’t have the backbone to represent the taxpayers of Tennessee.”

Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, who sponsors SB113, the collective bargaining bill in the Senate, attended the tea party event and said Haslam has done nothing to force any sort of compromise on the issue.

“I think Gov. Haslam has a broad agenda, and reforming education is one of the biggest parts of his agenda as a new governor,” Johnson said. “I think he is going to work with us in the General Assembly.

“There has been no discussion whatsoever of any type of compromise. That discussion may happen at some point. We are talking frequently about his agenda and our agenda and how we can help each other. There have been no discussions about compromise or what the bill will ultimately end up looking like. I just know he is very supportive, and we’re very supportive of him.”

Tennessee’s issues, for the moment at least, are limited mostly to teachers, but Rep. Mike Turner, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, said the GOP will likely target other quarry if they’re successful now.

“If they get the teachers, they’re coming after the firefighters. If they get the firefighters, they’re coming after the police officers. If they get the police officers, they’re coming after the construction workers, service workers and everybody,” said Turner, a board officer for the Tennessee Fire Fighters Emergency Relief Fund

“I’ve been preaching for years that if you let the Republicans get in charge this is what you’re going to get, and this is what we’ve got.”

Turner publicly urged Haslam to “please stop this terrorism against our teachers.”

Haslam has steadfastly refused to pick sides over collective bargaining. He has said there will be “twists and turns” as the legislative process continues, but he has refused to voice his opinion on the legislation, hewing instead to his priorities of extending the probationary period on tenure and opening up the education system to more charter schools.

Increasingly, whether lawmakers institute a ban on collective bargaining appears to be coming down to the degree of Republican support in the House.

“I know we’ve got a number of Republican House members who support our position,” said Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for the TEA.

“A lot of people are asking, ‘Who are they?’ Obviously they don’t particularly want to say on the front end. But it’s a moving target, and we’re waiting to see what it’s going to look like. This is not just going to go down Democrat and Republican lines.”

Winters said he thinks it’s a good sign for the union that Haslam is avoiding taking a public position on the bills they oppose.

“I certainly don’t consider the governor a foe. I think the fact that he is not taking a position in support of these really divisive bills is very much to his credit,” Winters said. “He wants to get off to a good start. We want him to get off to a good start. And I think it’s very much to his credit that’s he’s staying out of this right now.

“I think it’s just unbelievable that this many teachers turned out on a stormy rainy day to show their concerns about what’s happening in this Capitol. I’m just ecstatic we had this kind of turnout.”

Turner told the crowd of teachers he had heard what was going on at the tea party event Saturday.

“They were bashing the man who could stop this tomorrow. They were talking about Gov. Bill Haslam like he was a Democrat. If he wants to join us, we’ll welcome him. We’ve got room for him,” Turner said.

“I hope he’s listening today. I hope he’s watching this. He’s from a position of wealth and privilege. I don’t know if he understands what it’s like to go through things we go through to raise our children and earn a living. But I do know this. He’s a good man. He’s reached out to us in the Legislature. He’s trying to do the right thing. But he has the power to stop this madness now.”

Several Democratic legislators took part in the teachers rally, which cast Republican efforts on education as nothing more than political payback after the GOP made historic gains in the last election.

Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, addressed the crowd and claimed Republicans are attempting to get revenge over issues surrounding union campaign contributions. The TEA typically gives much more money to Democrats than Republicans.

“I’ve only been here two years, but I can promise you it’s a much more partisan, much more toxic situation than it has been since I’ve been here,” Stewart said.

“This legislation that’s been brought up, in my honest opinion, is much more about revenge than it is about reform. It’s much more about payback than it is about progress. Unfortunately, folks, I have to tell you, I honestly believe it’s much more about the cash than it is about the kids.”

The Tea Party event speakers included longtime activist Ben Cunningham, former Republican state representative Susan Lynn and former congressional Republican candidate Lou Ann Zelenik. Johnson also addressed the crowd.

Tammy Kilmarx, president of Tennessee Tea Party, said before the event that her group is the one trying to protect teachers.

“We are trying to show support to our legislators that are trying to stand for what the taxpayers elected them for,” she said. “We’re here to represent the taxpayers of Tennessee, because they are the ones that are having to pay for the unions to do what they do.

“The big union bosses make a ton of cash. I think most of the teachers don’t even understand where their dues are going.”

Press Releases

MTSU Poll: Tennesseans Don’t Like Teacher Tenure; Split on Eliminating Collective Bargaining; Favor Wine in Grocery Stores

Press Release from the Middle Tennessee State University Survey Group, March 2, 2011:

Obama would lose to a Republican opponent, but his low approval rating has stabilized

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Tennesseans take a dim view of teacher tenure but show no consensus on whether to do away with collective bargaining power for teacher unions, the latest MTSU Poll finds.

Fifty-four percent of state residents choose the statement, “Tenure makes it hard to get rid of bad teachers” as most representative of their viewpoint, while 29 percent choose the alternative statement, “Tenure protects good teachers from being fired without just cause” as most indicative of what they think. Sixteen percent say they don’t know, and the rest decline to answer.

Meanwhile, 37 percent of Tennesseans favor “eliminating the ability of teacher unions in Tennessee to negotiate with local boards of education about teacher salaries, benefits and other employment issues.” But a statistically equivalent 41 percent oppose such a move, and a substantial 22 percent are undecided.

“Compared to public opinion about teacher tenure, public opinion about collective bargaining for teacher unions seem to be still taking shape in Tennessee,” said Dr. Ken Blake, director of the MTSU Poll. “The people most likely to have any opinion at all on the collective bargaining issue are also, based on other measures in the poll, the ones most likely to be politically active and politically knowledgeable. They probably are creating a framework for the debate and soon will start contending with each other for the support of those who are undecided.”

Conducted Feb. 14 – 26, 2011 by Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Mass Communication, the telephone poll of 589 Tennessee adults chosen at random from across the state has an error margin of plus or minus four percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. Full results are available on the poll’s website,

The poll also finds President Obama currently trailing whoever the Republican 2012 presidential nominee might be. Thirty-one percent of Tennesseans say they would vote for Obama if the election were held today, but a 48 percent plurality say they would vote instead for “his Republican opponent.” 14 percent say that they don’t know who they would vote for at this time, and 6 percent volunteer that they would vote for neither candidate.

The downward slide in Obama’s approval rating among Tennesseans seems to have leveled off, though, according to Dr. Jason Reineke, associate director of the MTSU Poll.

“The president’s approval rating stands at 39 percent in Tennessee, a possible uptick from his 35 percent approval rating in our Fall 2010 poll,” Reineke said. “But, of course, he’s still down quite a bit compared to his 53 percent approval rating in the Spring 2009 MTSU Poll.”

In other findings, three in four Tennesseans considers illegal immigration a “somewhat” or “very” serious problem, and a 42 percent plurality describe as “about right” the new Arizona immigration law’s requirement that police making a stop, detention, or arrest must attempt to determine the person’s immigration status if police suspect the person is not lawfully present in the country. Another 25 percent say such a law “doesn’t go far enough,” and 28 percent say it “goes too far.”

Additionally, 55 percent characterize as “about right” the Arizona law’s requirement that people produce documents proving their immigration status if asked by police. Twenty-three percent say that aspect of the law doesn’t go far enough, and 17 percent say it goes too far.

Meanwhile, closing the Tennessee’s projected budget gap could prove politically difficult for state lawmakers.

A 52-percent majority of state residents think dealing with the budget gap will require either cutting important services (16 percent), raising state taxes (6 percent) or both (30 percent). Despite these attitudes, though, Tennesseans show little support for cuts to any of five of the state’s largest general fund budget categories. Only 25 percent of state residents favor cuts to TennCare, 14 percent favor cuts to K-12 education, 24 percent favor cuts to higher education, and 17 percent favor cuts to children’s services. Cuts to a fifth major budget category, prisons and correctional facilities, drew the most support (44 percent), but the figure is still well below a majority.

Asked about gun regulation, Tennesseans divide essentially evenly on whether laws governing the sale of guns should be kept at their current levels (43 percent) or made more strict (41 percent). Similarly, 45 percent of Tennesseans say they would support a nationwide law banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips, defined in the poll question as those that hold more than 10 bullets. But a statistically equivalent 42 percent say they would oppose such a law.

In still other poll findings:

  • Sixty-nine percent of Tennesseans favor letting food stores sell wine.
  • A 50 percent plurality think Congress should repeal the health care law.
  • Support remains high for the religious rights of Muslims.
  • Tennesseans think neither President Obama nor Congressional Republicans are doing enough to cooperate with each other.
  • More Tennesseans approve than disapprove of new governor, legislature, but many are undecided.

For over a decade, the Survey Group at MTSU has been providing independent, non-partisan and unbiased public opinion data regarding major social, political, and ethical issues affecting Tennessee. The poll began in 1998 as a measure of public opinion in the 39 counties comprising Middle Tennessee and began measuring public opinion statewide in 2001. Learn more and view the full report at

Featured News

Likelihood of TN Quorum Strike Small, But Not Impossible

The kind of walkout staged by Democratic state lawmakers to deprive the Wisconsin Legislature of a budget quorum is technically a possibility here. However, minority party leaders in both chambers say it’s not part of any plans they currently have.

“It is a legitimate parliamentary procedure, but it is one that is not very productive,” said Jim Kyle, the top-ranking Democrat in the Senate.

Senate Democrats in Wisconsin fled the state Capitol last week, sending their 14 members across state lines, out of the reach of local law enforcement sent by the Senate speaker to escort them back to the Capitol.

The move was part of a plan to delay a vote on legislation that would strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights and increase the amounts employees must contribute to their pension and health care costs by 8 percent. A similar situation is unfolding in Indiana.

Republicans here in Tennessee are pushing legislation as well to strip down the influence unionized public employees, namely teachers, wield in the state.

But Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, downplayed the likelihood of a walkout. “I can’t imagine us being in a situation to do something like that,” he said.

A walkout is “completely off the table” right now, Fitzhugh continued, adding that he doesn’t think it’s likely in the future, either, and his caucus would rather try to work out any disagreements with Republicans face-to-face.

Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney said members of his party are talking about staying engaged in the legislative process and working “to fix some of these issues,” not running away from them.

Gov. Bill Haslam so far has steered clear of offering his opinion on eliminating teachers’ ability to collectively bargain. But he said today he doubts the Volunteer State will see the same type of drama going on in Wisconsin regardless of what union-related issues the Legislature takes up.

“I think we’ll have a very different discussion in Tennessee.” he said. “Our pension plan is very different from theirs. Our budget situation is very different from theirs. I don’t think you’ll see anything like that here.”

Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be a first for Tennessee.

In 1866, opponents of the 14th Amendment refused to show up for the ratification vote.

“To overcome this difficulty, amendment supporters had two Tennessee legislators forcibly seized and held in an anteroom as the vote proceeded. In vain did the speaker attempt to proclaim the two men absent (they refused to answer the roll); the vote in favor of the amendment went ahead anyway,” wrote one historian.

Longtime Capitol watchers say there were rumors of a walkout during contentious political battles over a proposed state income tax in 2000.

Because Republicans so thoroughly defeated Democrats across the state in last year’s election — voters sent only 13 senators and 34 representatives with a D after their name to Capitol Hill — GOP lawmakers have enough muscle to approve just about any legislation they want.

That leaves only three real parliamentary options for the minority party, said Russell Humphrey, the chief Senate clerk.

“One is the option provided to be heard, voice their concerns in a reasonable manner whether it be in committee or on the floor,” Humphrey said. “Two is to try to effectuate delay, which they can do through a couple different rules.

“And the third is to absent themselves, to leave. Aside from those three opportunities, that’s the only opportunity the minority group has to effectuate any kind of change on legislation.”

According to the Tennessee Constitution, both chambers need a minimum of two-thirds of the legislative body present to conduct business.

In the House, where Republicans number 64, the threshold is 66 members.

In the Senate, where there are 20 GOP members, the threshold is 22.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said a Democratic walkout would be “a disaster.”

“Let me assure you the Republicans were in a minority for 140 years, that never happened. Let’s hope that (with) the Democrats in the minority — and just because they’re being outvoted on an issue — that they don’t decide to shirk their responsibility to the voters and the citizens of the state of Tennessee and leave the state,” he said.

Both the lieutenant governor and the House speaker have the power to send out the sergeant at arms or state troopers to arrest lawmakers and drag them back to the Capitol building.

In Wisconsin’s case, lawmakers crossed over state lines, out of reach of state law enforcement. The Speaker sent two state troopers to the Democratic leader’s home to convey the “seriousness” of the situation, according to local reports, but they have yet to come back to the Capitol.

As the battle brews in Wisconsin, Fitzhugh said he is adamant Democrats can make change without a high-profile legislative boycott.

“I don’t think we’d ever do anything like that,” he said.