Last week, Gov. Bill Haslam announced that he would not sign a controversial science education bill, allowing it to pass into law without his endorsement. Although effectively insignificant, it was an unprecedented move for the governor, who has signed every other piece of legislation to hit his desk since he took office in 2010.
In explaining his decision, and in the week leading up to it, the governor said he doesn’t believe the bill, which ensures teachers will be permitted to teach the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of scientific theories like climate change and evolution, changes anything about the state’s scientific standards or its curriculum.
Haslam also said the bill didn’t meet the threshold for good legislation, which he said “should bring clarity and not confusion.”
But it was another point, which he has made repeatedly as of late, that stood out. Citing the wide ratio by which the measure passed — three to one in both chambers — and the relative ease of overriding a veto in Tennessee, he signaled an inclination to defer to the legislature, even if he thinks they’re adding more confusion than clarity to a situation.
“One of the things you have to consider in my deal,” he told reporters the day before announcing his decision, “is it just takes one vote to override a veto and so if something passes overwhelmingly, you do have to take that into consideration in terms of the will of the legislature. In the end, if I felt like a bill was bad for Tennessee, then I would veto it. If I felt like maybe it wasn’t bad for Tennessee, but just added confusion to a situation, maybe I just wouldn’t sign it.”
Tennessee is one of only six states where legislators can override a veto with a simple majority vote, as opposed to the more common two-thirds or three-fifths majority. Given the vote count in both chambers, it’s true legislators would have had no problem overriding a veto, had the governor sent the bill back to them.
But Haslam’s seeming hesitation to cross the legislature is not new.
He cited Tennessee’s relatively weak veto on the campaign trail in 2010, in defense of a reluctant promise he had made to the Tennessee Firearms Association that he would sign legislation allowing gun owners to carry their weapons without a permit, if the legislature passed it. Although he said he didn’t believe that was likely, the statement drew a response from then Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who withheld his signature from 32 bills and issued eight vetoes over his two terms.
“Just because the legislature does something stupid doesn’t mean the governor has to fall in line with that,” Bredesen told reporters at the time.
The only other time observers speculated that a Haslam veto was a real possibility was last year, when a bill that nullified a Nashville nondiscrimination ordinance landed on his desk. Despite a statewide furor and a long list of companies with Tennessee connections that expressed varying degrees of opposition to the bill, he signed it. Afterward, he repeatedly reminded reporters that “it passed with 70 percent majorities in both houses.”
Throughout Haslam’s second legislative session, his administration has shown a preference for dealing with potential friction with the legislature before it is within sight of his desk, and usually not in public. The late “guns-in-parking-lots” legislation was killed by Republican leadership, with Haslam offering only a few public comments about “concerns” with the bill.
Haslam staffers are quick to point out that vetoes, from any executive, are rare. Still, they say, as the governor has, that he would use that power, despite its relative weaknesses here, if he felt a bill was bad for the state.
“It is always going to be the governor’s style to focus on collaboration to get to the right answer, not just his own answer,” Haslam spokesman Dave Smith told The City Paper. “He is always going to work to make a difference and focus on those things that are substantive and meaningful.”
“Through this approach, he’s succeeding in making significant reforms during his first two years in office. And while the legislative process plays an important role in his work, the governor believes his ultimate responsibility is to run state government in the most customer-focused, efficient and effective way possible.”
Of course, the lack of public exhortations from the governor are also due, in large part, to the fact that his party holds an overwhelming majority in the legislature. A public squabble would be unsightly for them both. But the leeway provided by the arrangement has perhaps allowed for some of the more off-the-wall measures to advance farther than he might like, and there are those who would like to see a more assertive Haslam.
“He’s a very popular governor, and I would hope that he exerts himself a little more,” said House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh. “I think sometimes, frankly, the Senate seems to be running the show around here now, and I’ve told him, he’s the governor and he can certainly lead.”
But while Haslam’s decision on the so-called “Monkey Bill” is mostly a semantic gesture, Fitzhugh recognized the political line the governor walked, as well.
“I thought this was a perfect bill that he could veto, because it absolutely did nothing and it was bad for the public image of our state,” he said. “But having said that, I do applaud him for at least recognizing that and not signing it. I think that was a smart move, by the governor. It didn’t alienate his majority, like a veto would have, but it did indicate that he at least recognizes what, to me, is the obvious, that the bill did nothing and took us backwards.”
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, who carries the governor’s legislation in the upper chamber, said the governor is “finding his footing” in his second year and has a much better understanding of how things work on the Hill than during his first. He said that includes the relationship between the separate branches.
“I think he is appropriately deferential to the legislature,” Norris said. “I think he appreciates the differences between the three branches of government and respects the sort of checks and balances that are inherent and important in that system. You know, had you seen him get out his veto pen, I think that kicks it up to a whole different level.”