On the heels of a summit meeting in Memphis Tuesday on issues of post-secondary education, Governor Bill Haslam pronounced himself impressed with the breadth of recommendations for what the state could do to coordinate academic policies with economic progress.
“There are a lot of challenges in higher education, and from the state standpoint that’s what you’re going to see a focus on,” the governor said, after the meeting on the campus of UT Health Sciences. The bottom line concern, as Haslam put it, was that of “investing dollars in the place that the marketplace needs,” and he got advice on that from a wide range of local business and educational leaders.
“I’ve heard everything from we need more liberal arts to we need more welders.” There was a good deal of emphasis on improving IT education, and Haslam said, “We could fill another 50,000 jobs in Tennessee with the right kind of training.”
On political matters, the governor said it was premature to draw conclusions from last week’s election, which, on the state level, resulted in the defeat of several established Republican and Democratic office-holders and in the triumph in key GOP primary races of Tea Party candidates.
“It’s a little early to say here’s what we learned from that election or here’s the trend. A lot of those state rep races turned on local issues, like taxes, or school boards, or something like that. We can’t quite say there’s a tea party shift, or here’s what the General Assembly will look like. And there’s still the general election to come.”
Haslam seemed to indicate that one explanation for the election results was the simple logistics of legislative apportionment. “Our districts are becoming more and more Republican districts or Democratic districts. To take a seat means you need to take it in the primary. Democrats run to the left of their incumbents, and Republicans run to the right of theirs. It’s that way in Congress as well.”
Haslam acknowledged that the National Rifle Association had been a major factor in the election, particularly in the defeat of the GOP’s House caucus chair, Debra Maggart of Hendersonville, by Tea Party challenger Courtney Rogers. “Anybody’d be naïve to say that investing $100,000 in a race doesn’t make a difference.”
The governor said the outcome of that race had generated a variety of responses from surviving members of the legislature toward NRA-supported objectives — like the controversial “parking-lot” bill allowing weapons in parked cars on business lots. Maggart had been a prominent opponent of that legislation, which was also opposed by business interests. The bill was tabled in the 2012 session but is sure to return in the next session.
“I’ve heard from elected representatives and senators across the spectrum, from ‘that just makes me mad’ to okay, we need to work something out tomorrow.’….Does that guarantee it’ll be talked about next year? Yes.”
Addressing speculation that election losses of some of her key allies might endanger the reelection of Nashville representative Beth Harwell as House Speaker, Haslam put himself squarely in Harwell’s corner.
“Beth has been an incredibly good speaker for Tennessee, and a good partner for me. In that order.” He said that, as Speaker, Harwell had been instrumental in achieving “pretty strong conservative accomplishments” in budget and tax reduction, in tort reform, and in reforms of educational tenure, court laws, and civil service.
On this week’s statement from State Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin), a conservative considered by many a possible contender for the Speakership, that he would not seek the position, Haslam said, “Glen has been a good partner for Beth, and, frankly, I’d have been surprised if he did run.”
Among the attendees at the governor’s post-secondary summit were:
Christine Richards, Executive vice president of FedEx
Ray Pohlman, vice president of governmental relations for Autozone
Tommy Carls, vice president for development at Medtronics
Mary Anna Quinn, senior vice president for human resources at St. Jude
Larry Gibson, Plant Manager at Unilever
Dr. Steve Schwab, Chancellor of UT Health Sciences Center
Dr. Shirley Raines, president of the University of Memphis
Dr. Nate Essex, president of Southwest State Community College
Roland Raynor, director of Memphis Technology Center
William Ray, director of Covington Technology Center
Billy Orgel, chair of the Unified School Board
John Aitken, superintendent of Shelby County Schools