NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam began the year by dismissing what he called misguided predictions that the new Republican supermajority in state government would devolve into infighting.
Haslam went so far as to announce in his annual State of the State address in January that that narrative “makes caricatures out of us and sells all of us short.” But GOP relations soon turned turbulent, and by the end of the session key legislative proposals had gone off the rails.
Haslam had to torpedo his own limited school voucher bill for fear it would be hijacked by fellow Republicans seeking a more expansive program, and the leaders of the state House and Senate were no longer on speaking terms after their respective chambers killed off each other’s bills on campaign finance, judicial redistricting and charter schools.
A usually celebratory post-session press conference by the governor wasn’t attended by either speaker, and the GOP caucus later announced they were severing joint fundraising efforts.
Republicans have tried to brush off the end-of-session turmoil as a temporary anomaly, but the fracas has illuminated rifts within the party that mirror the divisions the GOP faces on a national level. They include trying to marry the sometimes competing interests of rural and suburban lawmakers, business interests with tea party activists and social issues with fiscal priorities.
Vanderbilt University political science professor John Geer said the tension between the factions has been more vocal because Republicans don’t have a strong opposition. New members of the Legislature also don’t want to wait for a long time to see their agenda passed into law, he said.
“Certainly people in the tea party who want to change the course of government think they’ve got to be very dogged about their views,” he said. “Otherwise they’ll just end up part of the system.”
The governor’s popularity remains high in Tennessee despite the intraparty squabbles and a recent FBI raid of the Pilot Flying J truck stop chain owned by the Haslam family and run by his brother, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.
The governor said the late-session fireworks shouldn’t detract from the overall accomplishments during the year.
“A lot of folks were kind of disappointed in the way it ended, but if you go back and look at the balance of the session, it was a very productive work session,” he said.
Haslam noted that most of his agenda was adopted, highlighted by changes to the way workers’ compensation claims are processed in the state — a move condemned by labor groups and Democratic lawmakers, but an issue with little resonance around the state.
One of the most memorable moments for the injured workers bill came in an awkward exchange during a January forum in which Haslam appeared alongside former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who urged the governor to pursue transformative ideas in education issues like school vouchers. Bush warned that if bills are tailored not to offend the entrenched interests in the legislative hallways, the major issues will be taken off the table and “you’re going to be worried about tweaking the workers’ comp bill.”
Haslam laughed off that unintended slight about one of his key legislative priorities. But when the dust settled, Haslam’s own school voucher bill was dead, and the workers’ comp bill that few people paid attention to was left as his chief legislative achievement for the year.
Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former two-term Tennessee governor when Democrats held wide majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, said Haslam has a clear advantage in dealing with fellow Republicans — even if the results have sometimes lacked excitement.
“He’s tackled some very unsexy civil service issues with the state government to make it work better,” Alexander said “He never could have done that without a Republican Legislature.”
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who ran against Haslam in the 2010 Republican primary for governor, said many lawmakers were surprised about how quickly relations deteriorated at the end of the session, but argued that the bad feelings would be fleeting.
“Just like an argument with your family or an argument with your spouse, the next day you look back and say, ‘What was that all about?’” he said. “But it did get caught up in the last day? No doubt about that.”
Democrats have criticized the governor for largely declining to exert stronger influence over fellow Republicans in the Statehouse. But Haslam can only do so much to bring lawmakers into line, given that a simple majority vote is all that’s needed to override a veto.
But Alexander said the governor’s management style is to his advantage in the long run.
“Because it’s hard not to like Bill Haslam, whether you’re a competitor within his own party or an adversary from another party,” the senator said. “He lets other people take the credit, he doesn’t try to impose himself on people, and yet he provides good leadership.”