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Memo to Haslam: It might be time to channel your inner Ned or Phil

Hank Hayes • Updated Feb 3, 2017 at 1:14 PM

There is a perception that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is too much of a Mr. Nice Guy.

He might be the kindest governor I’ve ever met. I believe he genuinely cares about people and loves his state.

Haslam, a Republican, has rejected the notion that his easygoing governing style doesn’t get results.

There is a strong argument that he is correct.

In his seventh State of the State address to lawmakers last Monday, Haslam described how that style has worked: More Tennesseans have a job today than ever in the state’s history; since its launch in 2014, more than 33,000 students have enrolled in college as a result of the Tennessee Promise scholarship program; and state government’s financial solvency features a AAA credit rating.

But he doesn’t have a track record of exerting his will and playing hardball with fellow Republican lawmakers who hold supermajorities in both the House and Senate.

Let’s look at what happened during the start of his second term.

After being re-elected in a landslide in 2014, Haslam worked hard to negotiate a Medicaid expansion plan with the federal government, but that came to a crashing halt just days into a special 2015 legislative session. Lawmakers rejected his signature proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans.

Now Haslam may be looking at a repeat scenario with the pushback his proposed seven-cent gas tax hike and transportation funding reform measure are getting.

On Wednesday, state Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, presented an alternative plan to instead dedicate 0.25 percent of the state’s total sales taxes collections to transportation projects.

There has been no gas tax increase since the administration of the late Gov. Ned McWherter, a Democrat, who was a fiscal conservative but also a physically imposing man.

If McWherter would have pitched a gas tax increase today, I believe he would have called every lawmaker into his office one by one and said: “Look, if you don’t support this, your district won’t get any road dollars.”

Former Gov. Phil Bredesen, another Democrat, described McWherter as one of his mentors. Bredesen was good at crafting what I’ll call the “Do This Or The End Of The World Will Happen” memo sent to lawmakers when he felt strongly about something.

Bredesen also wasn’t afraid about making cold executive decisions. He often engaged in long and wasted negotiations with advocates of TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program. Those advocates were good at taking the state to court and squandering millions of dollars in legal fees, Bredesen told the Associated Press when he left office in 2010.

At one point in 2005, Bredesen disenrolled 170,000 adults from TennCare in what some critics called the biggest cut to public health insurance in the nation’s history.

Every governing style is different, but my point is there is precedent plus scenarios for playing political hardball.

So instead of telling his transportation funding reform plan’s opponents, “Show me the math on your plan,” maybe Haslam should be channeling his inner Ned McWherter or Phil Bredesen.

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