With two legislative sessions under his belt, we have learned that when you elect Bill Haslam, you elect a coterie of advisors. In Knoxville he listened to Bill Lyons and Larry Martin, and got sound advice more often than not. Pilot Oil’s corporate interests had limited overlap with the city’s powers, so greed’s tentacles barely tickled Haslam.
At the state level, they have gotten a grip. In Nashville he listens to different advice and operates with less disclosure.
While Haslam is to be commended for making Amazon collect sales taxes, his overall stance toward corporate interests has been supplication. He has weakened Tennessee’s already laggard regulatory agencies and launched an attack on transparency. At least he is ashamed enough to want to hide the financial interests he and his cronies operate from.
Haslam has expanded the governor’s power to write “FastTrack” checks with limited disclosure, so financial ties among developers, contractors, local politicians, and administration officials get obscured. Last year he trimmed the FastTrack budget from $98 million to $26 million, a cut worth bragging about, but this year he added a retroactive $50 million and bumped the fund up to $30 million—plus whatever amount he adds next year, I suppose.
But erosions in accountability and enforcement do not tell the full story. Bill Haslam can be a passionate regulator when his financial interests allow it. Right now the state website urges Tennesseans to “only use licensed home contractors.” “Always ask for their Tennessee license ID number and verify their status online at verify.tn.gov. Ask for a written contract and proof of insurance.” Good advice. Too bad citizens can’t verify enforcement of water pollution permits in nearby rivers and creeks so easily.
Haslam’s policy is that assurances like bonds, permits, and written contracts are a must for small contractors, but too onerous for a gubernatorial staff with diversified and substantial investments. Men with a portfolio as big as Bill’s own a little piece of everything through mutual funds, hedge funds, venture capital funds, and other investment devices, and what they own is constantly shifting. Tracing the financial roots of Haslam’s untold millions is a complex, if not impossible, task.
Given all the money Tennessee spends building roads and schools and business parks, it is a virtual certainty Haslam and/or his staff will have conflicts of interest with state contracts and payments. If Haslam had to avoid and disclose financial conflicts of interest, the governor’s office would creep to a halt. Exempting himself and his staff from disclosure is the only way the state can function, so he is keeping secrets for our benefit!
Haslam criticized the press for dwelling too much on kook legislation, and it is true that not enough attention was paid to big problems the Legislature ignored, like out-of-control medical costs and foreclosures. His criticism of the press taught us a new lesson about Bill: He is not the leader of his party.
Wealthy barons like Haslam and Corker, not just 1-percenters but the 0.05 percent, have power in Tennessee, but Lt. Governor Ramsey rules. Ron might be a 1-percenter in good years, but he is slumming compared to Bill and Bob. Ramsey’s power comes from his ties to church politics. The evangelical vote is too critical to Republican success for Ramsey to be trifled with.
Haslam cannot ask his party to bottle up its kook contingent, so the press gets the blame. Even his whimper of protest in leaving the dishonest Agenda 21 declaration unsigned was tempered by the blank assurance, “The governor doesn’t support Agenda 21.”
Bill Haslam is a reasonable man, but party politics and crony calculations can make reason a secondary concern. Increasingly, Republicans are abandoning reason. Perhaps Haslam should govern as if the seat Lamar Alexander is warming will be ready for him in 2014—if he can lead Tennessee past its kooks to wisdom next year.
Meanwhile, reasonable citizens must get to the polls to outvote and vote out fools.