Gov. Bill Haslam and his Republican majority are doing a delicate dance in the opening weeks of the legislature, trying to appear focused on jobs while also pleasing the fiery social conservatives in their base of support.
Exhibit A is the issue of illegal immigration. Republican hardliners are demanding a crackdown. But already Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, has been forced to shelve one bill in part because of business concerns that it might hurt Tennessee’s fragile economy by sending a message of inhospitality to foreign companies looking to locate in the United States.
Haslam and Senate leaders had been trying to mold several measures to make them palatable to business. They planned to lump them all into one omnibus bill and push it through the legislature as quickly as possible.
Why the haste? According to Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey in a moment of unguarded candor, it was so the issue didn’t dominate the news media and make it seem as if the legislature had stopped concentrating on how to improve the economy.
Legislative leaders were chagrined last session — the first of the new Republican majority — when the media played up the debate over expansion of gun rights in Tennessee. Guns in bars, guns in parks, loaded weapons in pickup trucks — for a while, it seemed that every day brought a new gun bill. Some media went so far as to dub it “the year of the gun.” This year, Ramsey hoped to manipulate the media.
“I’ve got to be right up front with y’all,” Ramsey told a Tennessee Press Association conference this month. “Last year, there were two or three Second Amendment bills that passed the state legislature. And the press, by your nature, started concentrating on those even though they took up a very small amount of our time.
“I am as pro-business as they come. I want us to concentrate on pro-business issues. I want to do some changes on the immigration law, but I don’t want that to look like that’s the focus of what we’re working on.”
But by the middle of last week, their strategy had fallen apart. Not only were his fellow Republicans not with Ramsey’s low-key approach, they threw a press conference to trumpet their immigration bills. Businesses are giving no indication they are ready to go along with some of the tougher measures, virtually assuring a fight and more media attention.
A key element in the package would follow Arizona in giving this state’s law officers the authority to enforce immigration law. Bradley Jackson, lobbyist for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said business leaders think that could do serious damage to tourism, especially if Tennessee becomes one of the first states to imitate Arizona. That could generate national publicity and put Tennessee in the bull’s-eye. Arizona reportedly suffered $100 million in losses after enacting its law.
“We’ve asked them to consider a Tennessee solution to Tennessee’s immigration problem,” Jackson said. “Are we the second in the nation to look at an Arizona law or are we going to be the 32nd, because I think it matters a whole lot in messaging. What are our sister states doing? We don’t want to be an outlier.
“We cannot do something that puts us at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to recruiting jobs and retaining our existing companies or even sending a message that Tennessee somehow is not a friendly place to do business.”
In addition, social conservatives are demanding action on more than just immigration. Bills are filed dealing with abortion, guns and gays, just to name a few issues.
A nasty fightlies ahead on the state’s method of selecting judges, with social conservatives demanding popular elections because of outrage over what they see as liberal abortion and death penalty rulings.
Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, has filed an “Obama Birther” bill requiring presidential candidates to file birth certificates with the state to win a place on the Tennessee ballot. Numerous bills trumpet states’ rights, the right wing’s latest cause célèbre. Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, wants to set up a legislative committee to make faux decisions on the constitutionality of various federal laws.
Even if legislative leaders manage to tamp down publicity over immigration, how will they stifle coverage of all these other bills?
Haslam and the Republicans also have to convince the public that what they have in mind for the economy is the correct prescription.
For weeks after the last elections, legislative leaders touted a Haslam “jobs package” of legislation — only to hear the governor pooh-pooh the whole idea in a speech this month.
“I don’t think we’re going to solve Tennessee’s employment issues with legislation,” he said. “I just don’t.”
Ramsey echoed that sentiment: “Here’s the deal,” he said when asked what the legislature would do to help the economy. “I’ve said this over and over and over when I was running for governor. I’m a small businessman myself, and you know what I want out of state government? Absolutely nothing. I want the government to get out of the way, and I’ll create the jobs.”
Both Haslam and Ramsey cite burdensome business regulations as the economy’s No. 1 problem and vow to rid the state of certain rules. As one of his first official acts, the governor froze new regulations for 45 days, including one aimed at preventing leaky fuel storage tanks that would affect his family’s Pilot Corp. gas stations.
Ramsey said he’s already talked to the new commissioner of the Department of Environment and Conservation about unnecessary regulations. He said he’s thinking of setting up a website, tnredtape.com, to give business people a way to blow off steam.
“TDEC is notorious for years for saying, ‘OK, if we’re going to give you this permit, you have to do A, B and C.’ … And You do A, B and C and they say, ‘OK we forgot about D, E and F.’ Then you do D, E and F and they say, ‘Well we forgot about G and H.’ ”
But one of the GOP’s immigration bills would require Tennessee businesses to use the federal E-Verify system of checking the citizenship status of workers. The chamber’s Jackson calls that “a government mandate” and “an additional burden on business.”
Also, neither Haslam nor Ramsey has named any of the regulations they would repeal, and Democrats are challenging the Republicans to name them.
“I have not seen the onerous regulations we’re talking about. I look forward to hearing about those,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis.
Goodyear’s Union City plant closed this month in West Tennessee, throwing 1,900 people out of work, Kyle pointed out.
“The question is, what is this Republican leadership going to do to help those 1,900 families find work, find a job, find a life? We need to be focusing on that” instead of social conservative issues, he said.
“There’s a tremendous conflict” in-state Republican Party between social conservatives and more orthodox business conservatives, Kyle said.
“I think the social conservatives are going to win out. If they do prevail, it is to the long-term detriment of Tennesseans. Ultimately, Tennesseans will realize that this last election was not about jobs, but it was about directing lifestyle choices from a centralized government, and eventually Tennesseans will rebel and say that the Republicans are not on their side.”