Gov. Bill Haslam offered some of the first glimpses Tuesday of what is happening in his budget process, while reiterating his two-pronged agenda of a jobs plan and education reform to a group of small business leaders in downtown Nashville.
Haslam got full-throated support of his plans from the hierarchy of Republican leadership in the Legislature, as Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, the majority leader, all spoke to the group and backed Haslam’s proposals.
Haslam said Transportation Commissioner John Schroer has found $5 million in overhead that can be put into “building roads and fixing bridges, the sort of things the money is supposed to go to.”
He said Greg Gonzales, commissioner of Financial Institutions and a holdover from the administration of Gov. Phil Bredesen, has found ways to do without some assistant commissioners and refund money in banks’ fees.
Haslam hammered home his mission of looking at administrative costs, regulations and direct services and keeping as much focus as possible on the services.
“As much as possible, I don’t want to touch the part that’s direct service, whether it’s building roads or helping families that have issues around mental health or children’s services,” Haslam said. “We’re slowly making some headway.”
Haslam is expected to present a budget proposal March 14.
Haslam was back home after a three-day conference in Washington of the National Governors Association, and he used the gathering of the National Federation of Independent Business and the Home Builders Association of Tennessee to reinforce his intentions of keeping regulations from bogging down business. He also highlighted efforts at reforming education and making job recruitment his priority as governor.
Haslam even offered some insight on the job recruitment, noting that some employers can be a bit greedy.
“We are already out talking to several good prospects,” Haslam said.
“We have a lot of interest in Tennessee. I was amazed at the deal pipeline. I’m also amazed at what people want, quite frankly.”
Haslam told reporters he “easily could” weigh in on the issue of taking away collective bargaining from the teachers union in the state, an issue he has heretofore not voiced a position on, leaving it to legislative sponsors Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, to lead.
Haslam said there could be a “few more twists and turns” on the collective bargaining legislation, and it “depends on how that plays out” as to how much he would get involved.
Haslam’s emphasis on education reform has thus far focused primarily on his desire to change the teacher tenure process, extending the probationary period involved from three years to five years.
Ramsey noted that in his 18 years in the Legislature there have been two “sacred cows” in K-12 education that you just couldn’t talk about.
“They are tenure and collective bargaining. Guess what we’re talking about this year. Tenure and collective bargaining,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey recalled how he met with Haslam a few days after the election in November and talked about education reform.
“He started talking about how we need some kind of tenure reform in the state of Tennessee. I wanted to walk across the room and hug him,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey said his objection to the current system on collective bargaining is that teachers who are not represented by the Tennessee Educators Association are left out of the process and that the current system creates an adversarial relationship from the start.
Haslam, making a point about streamlining government, said he learned in Washington that about 80 federal agencies and commissions are involved in food safety. While Tennessee does not have that many agencies overlapping, he said he believes many state agencies and commissions do overlap. He described how he asked the reason for a fee in the state and was told it was to cover an additional cost to the government.
“Well, that’s not right,” Haslam said flatly. “We want to have government be there to serve you, to do our proper regulatory role, but we’re not here to have a fee that justifies our existence as we grow and put that burden back on you.”
Haslam said as he looked around the room he noted a difference in the business people and some Cabinet members in Washington.
“Not many of those Cabinet secretaries had ever really had capital at risk in a business,” Haslam said. “If you’ve never had capital at risk, you don’t understand the burden of regulations.”
During the Washington conference, President Barack Obama told governors he did not think it did anyone any good when public employees are denigrated, a reference to the clash in some states over benefits for state workers. Given Tennessee’s current scrap between the Legislature and the TEA, which is more subdued than the friction in other states, Haslam was asked after the event if he felt state employees were being denigrated by moves on tenure and collective bargaining.
“I’ve made that point about teachers. This is not at all about pointing fingers at teachers. If it is, it is the wrong discussion, and it shouldn’t be about denigrating state employees,” Haslam said.
“Believe me, I have incredible appreciation for state employees. It does have to be, though, about looking at what the overall equitable answer is for taxpayers, for employees, and for providing services. You have to look at all those.”
Jim Brown, state director for the NFIB in Tennessee, expressed his approval of what Haslam and the legislative leaders who addressed the group are trying to accomplish, noting that a tort reform bill Haslam is pushing is important.
Brown also said he has been impressed so far in what he has seen in Haslam’s administrative leaders and said they are trying to reduce the amount of red tape businesses face.
“What we’re seeing from them is they are looking at existing rules and regulations that have frustrated small businesses and home builders,” Brown said.
“The process should not take long. It’s costly. It discourages investment. It discourages growth and discourages adding jobs. He’s saying let’s look at everything in a full top-to-bottom review. That’s not a sexy press release, but it’s important.”