The scope of change Gov. Bill Haslam is bringing to state government and the state's education system is really breathtaking if you think about it.
Many people, including a lot of people in his own party, view him as a moderate. He was seen as the least conservative of his two opponents in the Republican primary where he defeated Zach Wamp and Ron Ramsey. He is often contrasted with some out-there Republican legislators as being a moderate. He also has a personality that is not abrasive, he doesn't get in anybody's face, and he doesn't beat his chest about what he is doing.
—He has privatized a lot of the state's rolling stock with a controversial deal with Enterprise Car Rentals.
—He is leasing buildings to replace state office buildings and will be consolidating state offices. He has given a contract to a business (Jones Lang LaSalle) in which he was once an investor—a multi-million dollar contract to mange the transition, rather than do it in-house. He has privatized the management and maintenance of the buildings in the future, rather than use a Public Building Authority.
—In education he has abolished teacher collective bargaining, and he has made test scores part of teacher evaluations. He has made it harder to get tenure. He has authorized local school boards to abolish long-standing pay incentives, like raises for post-graduate degrees, and will let them instead come up with new incentives. He is pushing charter schools. He will likely pass a voucher plan next session.
—He has revised the state employee pension plan.
—His administration is considering leasing a state wildlife area to an energy company to explore for oil and coal. (The head of the energy company is on his family's Pilot Flying J board.)
In what universe is Bill Haslam a moderate?
I suppose on the surface if you contrast him with some of the legislators who push a social agenda—like most any bill sponsored by state Sen. Stacey Campfield—he may come off as a moderate. But if you look at the things he has done (or proposes doing) he is fundamentally changing state government and the state's education system.
Set aside whether you think the things he has done are good or bad. Certainly there is room for reform in education and in the functions of state government. My point is that people tend to overlook just what a revolutionary figure Haslam has become in his time as governor.
He has been helped, of course, by having a solid majority of Republicans in control of the Legislature. That's something no other Republican governor has had in the modern era. He also has the solid support of the state's business establishment and the luxury of knowing there isn't any likely political figure out there who can raise the money to give him a serious challenge when he runs for re-election.
The sweeping changes that Haslam has brought, and the ones still to come, would likely have been more controversial had the Democrats retained control of the Legislature. One also wonders what the reaction to some of these sweeping changes would have been had they been proposed by a Gov. Wamp or Ramsey.
Some of the privatization moves have been controversial. One wonders if he is as naive as he seems. Is there another political figure locally or in state government who would not have foreseen his relationships with Jones Lang LaSalle, Tom Ingram, and the energy company coming under fire for conflicts of interest? What is he paying Ingram for, if not to warn him about these perceptions?
Or is he secure enough in his position that he just doesn't care?
If the FBI investigation of Pilot Flying J had never happened, Haslam would still be up to his ears in questions about his business dealings. What effect the Pilot investigation will have on his political career is yet to be determined.
We also are not sure what other proposals for privatization or education reform he will pursue for the rest of his first term.
But I think given the scope of change in a Haslam administration, moderation is not a word that fits.