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Interview: Haslam reflects on 1st year

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Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Governor Bill Haslam took on teachers and lawyers to win battles to toughen tenure and cap lawsuit damages since his January inauguration, but he didn't have as much success uprooting Occupy protesters.

Haslam said he isn't worried that the standoff with Occupy Nashville has tarnished his freshman year in office.

"Not one bit," the Republican governor told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

He pointed to the removal of protesters in other cities from New York to Los Angeles as vindicating his view that the protesters presented sanitation and security problems.

Since state troopers raided the encampment on the plaza across the street from the Capitol on Oct. 28 and 29 and made 55 arrests, the state has had to back down. Haslam ordered the charges dropped when Nashville courts refused to jail the protesters, and the state isn't fighting a federal court order that found the raids had violated the First Amendment rights of the protesters.

Occupy Nashville has reoccupied the plaza, the number of tents has almost doubled to about 60, portable toilets have been installed and troopers walk a patrol. The protesters, who are now among the larger remaining groups nationwide, say they plan to stay through the winter.

In his interview with the AP, Haslam downplayed the judge's ruling as a failure, saying he was doing what was in the best interest of the protesters and citizens.

"We're responsible for safety," he said. "That's our No. 1 job as a state. I think as this played out around the country; we're not in a unique situation. I think a lot of people tried to make this an ideological situation."

As in other cities, the Nashville arrests rounded up journalists, a reporter for the Nashville Scene and a Middle Tennessee State University journalism student photographing the protest for a class project.

Haslam said he supports a suggestion from the Society of Professional Journalists for local law enforcement and government leaders to talk with members of the media to clarify what the grounds rules are for coverage.

"There should be some discussions between law enforcement and media about what is appropriate expectations, and guidelines," he said. "It's a little bit like being a football coach and watching the tape of the game afterward. You can always learn something about how you do things better."

Haslam plans to apply a similar principle in dealing with lawmakers this session. He said when he came into office he was pretty much playing catch up, but now he's had a chance to become knowledgeable on most of the issues and plans to have a say in the decision-making process.

"I think what you'll see is we've had the chance to do our homework better," he said. "And ... because of that, and because you've been around the track one time, I think it's a little bit easier to be engaged in more things than we were last year."

One main focus next year, Haslam said, will be the implementation of education reforms that were put in place this year. He said last month that a goal to improve Tennessee students' proficiency scores by 20% over the next five years would provide evidence that the state's education overhaul is working.

State education officials said Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program scores currently show 40% of third-graders rank as proficient in reading, while just 29% of seventh-graders achieve proficient scores in math.

One issue facing the governor that he remains undecided on is creating school vouchers for children in failing schools, which he has said will likely be "1 of the most contentious issues" in the legislative session that begins in January.

"We are in a period of a lot of educational change in Tennessee," he said. "And so sometimes it's not just a question of what's the right thing to do, but what's the right time to do it."

The governor said he does favor a proposal that would cut some students' lottery scholarships in half.

Members of a bipartisan Lottery Stabilization Task Force voted unanimously last month to reduce by 50% the lottery scholarship awards for students who do not meet both the standardized testing and high school grade requirements.

Right now, students must either earn a 3.0 GPA or score a 21 on their ACT to qualify for a scholarship worth $4,000 for each of the four years.

Under the proposal, students attending community colleges wouldn't be affected.

Haslam said the measure would help protect the state's reserves.

"I didn't like it when people were saying we ... have plenty of money, let's use that till it's gone," he said. "I didn't agree with that approach at all."

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis believes the state's more than $300 million in lottery reserves should be used because "it's the people of Tennessee's money."

He's proposing legislation that would prevent lottery scholarship reductions until the reserve fund drops to $100 million.

"This is the time for us to be looking at ways to allow our citizens to access higher education opportunities," Kyle said. "

"There's no need to deny someone an opportunity to go to college on the pretense we might not be able to afford it."

Overall, Haslam said he believes his biggest success his first year was taking a state budget with "fairly sizeable cuts" and getting lawmakers to pass it unanimously.

He's hoping for the same with next year's budget. He said he wants to save money, but also see where some might be redirected for the greatest benefit.

Haslam, 53, is in his second political job after being mayor of Knoxville but his approach to government reflects his earlier career as a retail executive with Saks Fifth Avenue and the family owned Pilot chain of truck stops.

As the state's top executive, he said, he's concerned about providing good service for those doing business with state government.

"I'd much rather save a million dollars on energy and cost, and make sure we're giving the counseling support for hospice patients," he said. "At the end of the day, I think that's what my job is about."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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