Governor Bill Haslam's veto this week of HB 1191/SB 1248, christened the "ag gag" bill by its opponents, is yet another indication that Haslam may be getting more comfortable in the role of chief executive and more able to act independently of the General Assembly and the key Republican figures there.
Haslam's progress toward self-assertion has been an uneven one. His long vacillation this year on the issue of extending Medicaid benefits and accepting additional federal funding under the Affordable Care Act was seen in many quarters as evidence of irresoluteness or even of kowtowing to the legislature, a majority of whose members were opposed to any vestige of what they call "Obamacare."
Haslam finally had to say something and said no — though he made a show of keeping his options open to working something out with Washington down the line.
But he gained both credibility and traction in the last month of the session when two state senators — Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) — pushed for a greater expansion of educational vouchers than Haslam had proposed in a fairly modest pilot program and discovered, to their surprise, that the bluff they were calling had been no bluff.
Rather than relent to legislature pressure, Haslam called for the voucher issue to be yanked off the calendar altogether. Basically, it was a case of his way or the highway, and he made it stick.
In his veto message on "ag gag," Haslam sounded characteristically diffident. He struck a sympathetic note toward those agricultural entrepreneurs who had sought the bill, which would have required anyone with photographic or other evidence of animal cruelty to turn over whatever they had to "law enforcement" within 24 hours of obtaining it.
As critics of the bill charged, this could clearly be seen as a disingenuous means of discouraging or suppressing altogether any whistle-blowing or sustained journalistic investigation of improper farm practices. And while there was a diverse chorus of reaction to the measure, the bill had serious backing from influential agri-business interests.
So it was that Haslam's veto message paid homage to the "vital role in our state's economy" played by agriculture, and the governor said soothingly of the bill's proponents, "I understand their concerns about large-scale attacks on their livelihoods."
And the governor made a point of saying his veto was not based "on policy grounds" but on a wish that the legislature might want to "reconsider" the measure:
"First, the attorney general says the law is constitutionally suspect. Second, it appears to repeal parts of Tennessee's Shield Law without saying so. If that is the case, it should say so. Third, there are concerns from some district attorneys that the act actually makes it more difficult to prosecute animal cruelty cases, which would be an unintended consequence."
It was a hedged way of saying no to the farm interests, but it was still a veto.
State senator Jim Kyle (D-Memphis) claimed the outcome as a victory for his side. Or as he put it, "The governor's hesitancy to act earlier was no match against the voice of the people of our state and nation." And Kyle made the most of Haslam's cautious rhetoric:
"While we revel in this win for democracy, we need to be ready to fight this issue again next year. In his decision, Governor Haslam stated that he encouraged the General Assembly to reconsider this issue."