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VOL. 38 | NO. 11 | Friday, March 14, 2014

With no Democrats to irritate, legislators turn on Haslam

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While the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly is taking away powers from local governments, they are also trying to take away some executive powers from the governor. Not even Gov. Haslam is safe from the power grab.

While I may disagree with Haslam, I believe the voters of Tennessee elected him to lead this state. Being elected as governor comes with great responsibility, and voters are well aware of this fact heading into the voting booth.

The executive branch currently has the power, and the requirement, to appoint more than 3,500 people to different boards and commissions. These boards and commissions set some very important policy.

The governor decides who to place on committees. These committees can set policy for K-12 education, decide which textbooks the state will use, and even decide who will be granted parole.

Beyond appointment powers the governor can, for example, lay off workers during a budget shortfall or expand TennCare – all without legislative oversight.

Some in the supermajority don’t like it, and they have made it a point to take away some of those powers and give them to themselves.

House Bill 1748, sponsored by Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough), would have required the governor to get approval from the General Assembly to lay off employees – if such a decision is made when the General Assembly is not in session or the layoffs were not detailed in the adopted budget.

The bill met resistance from the Haslam administration during its first hearing.

“Constitutionally, we are called to manage state government,” said Leslie Hafner, director of legislation for Haslam, adding the administration placed a red flag on this legislation to show they opposed it. “When you allow us to manage government, we do it responsibly, we do it humanely.”

The message from Haslam is clear: Let me do what I was elected to do – govern.

But not all members of the GOP are on board with the power grab.

The legislation was withdrawn when the bill reached full committee. Sometimes having the governor against the bill is enough to kill it. But not always.

A bill is now making its way through the Senate that would revamp the textbook commission. The bill, proposed by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville) and Representative Glen Casada (R-Franklin), would take away some of the appointment powers of the governor. The governor currently appoints nine members of the commission, while the Commissioner of Education serves as the 10th member.

The proposal would give three appointments to the governor, speaker of the Senate and speaker of the House. It was introduced after a Williamson County parent (Laurie Cardoza-Moore, known for opposing the Islamic Center in Murfreesboro) found one single question in a textbook that she says was anti-Semitic. Because one parent did not like one question, the supermajority decided that they needed to change the textbook commission.

The administration is against this bill because of the appointment split between the speakers.

“The governor believes that the nature of the governor’s office provides a unique statewide perspective for making governor appointments,” says Luke Ashley, a legislative coordinator for the governor, during a hearing on the bill.

“I would also like to say when citizens start calling their senators and representatives and complaining about the process and transparency, complaining about the types of textbooks being approved,” Bell said after Ashley had spoken.

“It’s us that they call. That’s why I feel that it’s important that this legislative body has a stronger voice on this commission.”

Conversely, senators and representatives only see their district, while Haslam sees the state as a whole.

The bill has now passed out of Senate committees and is waiting to be taken in front of the Senate for a vote. Haslam has his own rebuttal.

“You know, legislators feel like ‘gosh, we’re the ones who are out there close to the people and hearing things,’” Haslam was quoted as saying to a group of reporters. “I would argue, heck, I’m all over the state talking to people everywhere. And I have a really good feel for how to do that.”

Again, Haslam is sending a clear message: I can do my job.

Another way to get through to the supermajority is bring up the subject of taxes.

“If you want us to control the cost of state government and not have taxes go up, you can’t keep taking tools out of your hands,” Haslam told the Knoxville News Sentinel editorial board, referring to Hill’s bill to limit layoffs.

But it’s not only appointment and layoff powers. It’s also the power to decide if Tennessee will expand TennCare under the Affordable Care Act. Even though Haslam has said he would go to the General Assembly for approval, the General Assembly just passed a bill by Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Rep. Jeremy Durham (R-Franklin) to require the governor to go through the legislature.

Glad we spent all that time debating a bill that wasn’t needed. That’s good government.

It sometimes seems like the supermajority doesn’t trust Haslam enough to allow him to make his own decisions. I wonder if they think he is too moderate for their liking, that he will secretly expand TennCare without them.

Or, maybe he will secretly appointment a historian to the Textbook Commission – one who believes that history is just that, history. And that all history should be told, even the bad.

It might be as simple as needing an adversary. There aren’t enough Democrats to fight, so the only other choice is the governor.

I’m glad Haslam is talking about his positions against some of these bills. Earlier in his administration, you couldn’t tell if he was for or against an idea. But if these bills are passed before the session ends, a veto won’t do any good.

To override a veto, the House and Senate only need a simple majority, the same margin needed to a pass a bill. This makes it really easy for legislation that the governor does not like to be passed anyway.

A clear example of this came in 2010 when Bredesen vetoed the guns-in-bars only to have the General Assembly override it.

As a person who believes in the powers of the executive branch, I wish the supermajority would trust the governor enough to work towards expanding his veto power. But we all know that won’t happen.

Instead of bringing the popcorn to watch the fights between Democrats and Republicans, we can now expect to see more in-house fighting.

It’s our only choice until the Democrats can stage a comeback.

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