The culture war may rage around him, but Gov. Bill Haslam seems determined to ignore it — at least publicly — and stick to his trademark tone of moderation as he enters his sophomore year in office.
The Republican-dominated legislature is about to debate bills dealing with abortion, the Ten Commandments, sex education and transgender people in public restrooms — among other volatile topics — and state lawmakers are whipping up a storm of liberal outrage in the process of defending their proposals.
Chattanooga Rep. Richard Floyd threatened to “stomp a mudhole” in any transgender person who offended his family, and Knoxville Sen. Stacey Campfield postulated on a national radio show that AIDS originated from “one guy screwing a monkey … then having sex with men.”
Not surprisingly, the governor studiously avoided talking about any of that in last week’s State of the State speech. Instead, he challenged Tennesseans to “believe in better” as he detailed parts of his proposed $31 billion state budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year.
Democratic leaders were left fumbling for angles of attack. They mainly repeated their accusation that the governor is failing to place enough emphasis on job creation, saying only one of the 55 administration bills is aimed at improving the economy. That one deals with fast-tracking grants to businesses, an idea they say was ripped off from Haslam’s predecessor, Democrat Phil Bredesen.
“ ‘Believe in Better’ seems to me to be nothing more than a campaign slogan and wishful thinking,” state Democratic Party chairman Chip Forrester said. “The single issue facing Tennesseans and our country is job creation, and there’s been a paucity of discussion about job creation.”
The problem for Democrats is that the economy is rebounding, whether or not it’s Haslam’s doing. Since he took office a year ago, Tennessee’s unemployment rate has fallen closer to the national average, and state consumer confidence is up. Tax collections have increased each of the last 21 months to the point where state budget planners project revenues will reach pre-recession levels in the coming year for the first time.
With cash in his pocket, the governor is flummoxing Democrats by pushing tax cuts and ordering up the largest state construction program since the recession hit. A $126 million science building for Middle Tennessee State University is at the top of the list.
The legislature is certain to adopt Haslam’s budget after tweaking it a little. The two tax cuts — reducing the sales tax on groceries from 5.5 percent to 5.3 percent, and raising the inheritance tax exemption from $1 million to $1.25 million — might win unanimous approval.
“We support a gradual elimination of the sales tax on food,” said Senate Democratic Caucus chairman Lowe Finney, D-Jackson. “We applaud the governor for bringing this issue forward.”
Among other broadly popular measures, the budget also gives 2.5 percent pay raises to state employees and restores more than $100 million in cuts to services previously adopted by the legislature, including money for school nurses, alcohol and drug abuse treatment and diabetes prevention.
Even budget cuts — 1,100 jobs are eliminated — failed to draw much opposition from Democrats, who can’t afford to be seen as big-government spendthrifts. The best they can do is claim their cooperation is one reason the state’s finances are in relatively good shape.
“Is the current state of our state good enough?” Haslam asked lawmakers. “I think we can believe in better. We can believe in better for how state government serves Tennesseans. We can believe in better when it comes to the education of our children. We can believe in better when we talk about a stronger, healthier economy for our state.”