With his first legislative session behind him, Gov. Bill Haslam has been sitting down with the state’s political reporters over lunch to talk about whatever’s on their minds. The City Paper took the time to discuss two Nashville issues — the legislature’s overturning of the city’s anti-gay bias ordinance and the defunding of Planned Parenthood.
On neither issue was Haslam the driving force. Conservative Christians were. But the governor acquiesced and eventually played a key role in both matters.
Haslam signed the state law invalidating Nashville’s ordinance, which would have required companies doing business with the city to adopt nondiscrimination policies. The governor acted even though the state’s major corporations and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry came out against the state law.
And Haslam pressured health departments in Nashville and Memphis to deny more than $1 million in federal money to Planned Parenthood after the legislature failed to do so in a confusing set of circumstances. (One state budget amendment defunded the nonprofit while another negated the first measure.)
That money goes for health exams, cancer screenings and family planning for low-income women — not for abortions, which are illegal to perform with federal funds. With Planned Parenthood out of the picture, the health departments now will try to perform those services themselves.
Here are excerpts of The City Paper interview with Haslam:
The City Paper: One of your top aides says you agonized over whether to sign the ban on gay nondiscrimination laws. Did you?
Haslam: What he said was that, of the things we had to decide, it was the hardest. That’s fair.
Did you think about vetoing it?
Yes, we thought about a lot of things there, mainly because there are conflicting principles. I really do think local governments should be able to decide most things for themselves. I really do think that. And it bugged me as a mayor [in Knoxville] when [state legislators in] Nashville told us stuff to do. The flip side is, I honestly believe that businesses have plenty of regulation coming down on them from government. If you asked most Tennesseans, including most people in this restaurant, they’d say there are plenty of regulations. So you had two pretty conflicting philosophies wrapped up in one thing. In the end, it passed by 70 percent in both houses, so I signed it.
What about gay rights? You have said you think businesses should adopt nondiscrimination policies that include gay people.
I think this. I’ve said a hundred times, I think the people who hire the best team are going to win. If you take any part of the population and say I’m not going to hire those people willfully, I don’t think that’s a really smart business plan. I think businesses should have diverse hiring practices. That’s really different, though, than having city governments tell businesses what their HR practices should be. Businesses are going to go out and hire the best people they can.
But what about the issue of gay rights?
During the campaign, I was real clear. I’m not in favor of gay marriage. Gay rights is a broad topic. How are you going to define it? I ran making myself clear about one key piece of what some people would define as gay rights.
OK, you’re against gay marriage. Would you be against the legislature passing
an anti-discrimination law that protects gay people?
What you’re asking is, why wouldn’t I add gays as a protected class? I just feel like there’s enough regulation coming down.
So you would be against adding gay people to that state law?
Probably would. That issue hasn’t come to me. But sitting here today, I probably would be.
When you say you favor businesses adopting nondiscrimination policies, that’s because you think it’s smart business? To you, it’s not a matter of conscience that people shouldn’t discriminate against gay people just because they happen to be gay?
Again, it depends. How are you defining discrimination? You could say I’m discriminating already because I’m saying I’m not for gay marriage. Is that discriminating?
Is it? OK, then I’m drawing a line there. But I’m not going to draw a line when it comes to hiring practices that I’m involved in.
Why do you take these positions? Do you think the gay lifestyle is a choice?
Oh, I’m not going to go into all that discussion.
In my role as governor, I just don’t think that’s a topic that we need to get into. I’ve told you what we decided to do on a key issue, and I’ve told you what my own hiring practices are.
Does it ever occur to you that some people might think now that in 40 years, you might look like a segregationist looks to us now? Are you on the wrong side of history here?
There are certain things that you believe regardless of where societal thought goes.
Do you have some religious objection to advancement of rights for gay people?
Again, it depends on what you mean by advancement of rights. I’ve already said I’m not in favor of gay marriage.
As far as the business regulation argument against the Metro ordinance, the businesses said they were for the ordinance, right?
They did literally after I signed it. They were for it before they were against it.
If they switched positions earlier would it have made a difference?
No, probably not.
Let’s get real here. Business regulation, that’s not what this is about.
You’re trying to make the point that I have some deep, inbred hostility toward gays. If that’s where you’re going, the answer is no.
This is not a business issue. It’s a conservative Christian issue.
I disagree. It is a business issue in the sense that businesses keep having regulations put on them. Let’s say I’m a Muslim subcontractor who wants to work on the convention center, and I feel very strong that regulation shouldn’t be placed on me. Is that a Christian conservative issue?
The Family Action Council was the main impetus behind that bill. In fact, they were the only ones behind the bill.
I can’t go back to what Glen Casada was thinking. I can’t go there. But that wasn’t the hand I was dealt.
Let me ask you generally about social conservative issues. A trend is developing. You are saying one thing and doing another. You do what the social conservatives want you to do, but you say things that will please everyone else.
On this gay issue, you said, ‘I’m for businesses adopting nondiscrimination polices.’ But you signed the bill.
I don’t think that’s saying one thing and doing another. If I’m running a business, I’m going to go out and hire the best people I can, period. On the other hand, I don’t know that I necessarily want
the local city council telling me my HR practices. I don’t think that’s saying one thing and doing another at all.
Another example is this Planned Parenthood issue. I don’t know who you’ve been talking to but everyone agrees that the health departments in Nashville and Memphis [the two places in Tennessee where Planned Parenthood spends federal family-planning funds] can’t provide these same services to as many women. You say your main priority is providing these services to these women, but you are pressuring these health departments to defund Planned Parenthood.
Why do we have 93 out of 95 health departments doing it [providing these services themselves]? They can. They just have to ramp up and do it. I don’t know why they can’t do it, but Planned Parenthood can.
There’s a funding gap. Planned Parenthood is using their donations to make it up. Health departments can’t do that.
Knox County does it. Hamilton County does it.
Why do you care whether Planned Parenthood gets that money or not?
Here’s what happened. The legislature clearly intended for that money to go to Planned Parenthood. They could have gone through this whole thing and come back next year and it becomes a topic again. Or we find a solution that works. The dollars go to the same place they go in every other county and the problem is solved.