Gov. Haslam Has Shaken Up the Structure of State Government

Democratic leader Mike Turner said last week that Gov. Bill Haslam is now the most powerful (Tennessee) governor ever. Hyperbole? Or is there an element of truth in it?

Turner was referring to a Haslam administration bill that guts civil service and allows the governor discretion when it comes to layoffs and hiring. In other words, you don't have to lay off young workers in an economic downturn if there is an unproductive longtime employee on the state payroll.

Call it the deadwood elimination bill.

This sort of effort led public employee unions in Wisconsin to launch a recall of the governor. The difference here is that Haslam's team negotiated with the state employees to come up with a system that satisfied both groups.

This comes after Haslam already extended the time to award a teacher tenure, another issue that has put teacher unions in the streets in other states.

Haslam is the most powerful governor because he is the first Republican governor in a hundred years to have a majority Republican House and Senate. Some of the long list of legislation that has reached Haslam's desk got there as a result of conservative Republican legislators who pushed bills through that have been buried in committee during decades of Democratic control of the Legislature.

Haslam, worried about the recession and budget deficits, was slow to support a repeal of the estate tax and proposed that it be phased in with a vote this year, the next, and so forth. But legislators did agree to phase it in, in one bill. No further votes are needed and the reductions will proceed over the coming years. The Legislature also passed a Haslam proposal to reduce the sales tax on food this year and next. It is derided as measly, but the sales tax on food, all told, will reduce the state take from 7 to 5 percent.

Haslam has also begun reforming and reducing the size of various boards and commissions. He has moved to take control of their agendas. Over the years there has grown up a separate category of government with unelected people with very little oversight. One suspects Haslam will continue these reforms in years to come—there are still a lot of them around.

The Legislature has also abolished the Court of Professional Responsibility and reconstituted it out of the purview of judges. The members will be appointed by Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, and House Speaker Beth Harwell. And some of the members will be non-lawyers. Judges should get more independent oversight in the future.

So judges, boards and commissions, teachers and state employees—groups long sheltered from fret by the Democratic majority—are facing needed reforms.

Mayor Bill Haslam was not a reform-minded, shake-up-local-government chief executive. He didn't get involved too deeply in changing the structure of Knoxville government. He famously mentioned going out the door that the city pension system is a mess the next mayor will have to deal with.

But in Nashville, Haslam has worked with Ramsey and Harwell to make some fairly revolutionary changes. And he has managed to do it without plunging poll numbers, recall efforts, and street demonstrations. His style is Gov. Mitch Daniels (Indiana) rather than Gov. Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and Gov. John Kasich (Ohio). Walker and Kasich are lightning rods for protest.

In Tennessee, all is calm. I think there are two reasons. Firstly, the Tennessee state employees and teachers are in no way militant labor unions. But I think more importantly, Haslam listens to people, he's reasonable, and he's open to compromise. When he's done, people usually are satisfied with the outcome. Given the size of the Republican majorities in the state House and Senate, Haslam and the conservative legislators could ram through whatever they please. But that isn't Haslam's style.

Looking at the reforms, the tax cuts, and all the important legislation during Haslam's first two years, it is an impressive resume. If Haslam were in his second term, Mitt Romney could do worse looking around for a VP candidate.