When Bill Haslam, then the mayor of Knoxville, was kind enough (like most of the other gubernatorial candidates) to drop by our offices during the 2010 campaign and discuss governance with our editorial staff, we were impressed —
as much by his generous, evenhanded demeanor as by specific policy points. He was a likable fellow, made even more so by the contrast with his GOP opponents, Zach Wamp and Ron Ramsey.
As far as policy points, we got what we pretty much had expected from Haslam — talk of well-intentioned initiatives and reforms that corresponded with Republican Party "lean-government" bromides and, up to a point, with common sense. We were not overly dismayed when he was ultimately elected.
Monday night's State of the State address was on a par with our initial impressions. The governor moved deftly from effective (if somewhat shopworn) slogans like "We Must Do More with Less" to program propositions that reflected them. And he was all about (again) evenhandedness. His bestowing of the second consecutive pay raise for state workers, for example, was balanced with his proposals for restructuring government and especially its hiring practices (for better or for worse, weakening current civil-service requirements).
In keeping with the moderate image that no contemporary Republican will own up to having (they're all "conservatives") but which Tennesseans at large no doubt appreciate, Haslam made a point of announcing spending increases for TennCare and the Basic Education Program — two initiatives of the Democratic governor Ned McWherter a generation ago. This was even as his full agenda would shrink the total state budget by almost 3 percent — an economy which allowed him to put some $50 million back into the state's reserve or "rainy day" fund.
Somewhat surprisingly, Haslam did not dwell much upon his various reforms in public education — including an emphasis on charter schools and other still controversial innovations that, by Tennessee standards, are more than somewhat heterodox. As if by compensation, he devoted a good deal of time to a series of higher-education expenditures. And we appreciated his implicit acknowledgment that outright grants may be more effective in recruiting new industry than tax breaks.
It's hard to imagine anyone actively disliking Bill Haslam.
It is also not so difficult to see Haslam as willing to play second banana to state government figures who are technically his subordinates. Last year, on point after point (collective bargaining for teachers being the best example), the governor was made to abandon his more moderate posture in favor of hard-line alternatives insisted on by Lieutenant Governor Ramsey, who emerged as the real power in state government.
Even more ominously, other legislative figures — yes, state senator Mark Norris and state representative Curry Todd, we're talking to you — are wantonly disregarding the would-be education governor's request two weeks ago that no controversial legislation affecting the Shelby County school-merger process be introduced. There are now no fewer than three such bills actively being pursued, with more being threatened.
The governor is in danger of coming off as a pleasant but irrelevant figure — a Mr. Vanilla, if you will — and that could produce a bitter aftertaste in these parts.