Republican Gov. Bill Haslam made what to some may have been a startling declaration recently at an economic development meeting.
Responding to a reporter who asked the former Knoxville mayor for an update as to the contents of his job-creation initiative, the recently sworn-in governor replied that the public ought not anticipate a comprehensive, all-encompassing bill or administration-backed piece of legislation aimed at easing unemployment, because there likely isn’t going to be one.
That may come as a surprise to Tennesseans who thought Haslam’s main focus as governor was going to be on putting people back to work. The issue was central to Haslam’s election campaign, in which he pledged to make Tennessee the No. 1 state in the Southeast in job-creation.
On the other hand, the governor’s approach isn’t entirely inconsistent with what he has been saying all along the last two years — that the actual creation of private-sector job opportunities is not something the government can simply will into reality.
“I don’t think we’re going to solve Tennessee’s employment issues with legislation. I just don’t,” Haslam told a group of journalists at a Tennessee Press Association meeting Thursday.
Haslam does intend to introduce job-related legislation, but it will mostly involve limited issues such as tort reform and an idea he has mentioned twice about drawing more captive insurance business to the state. But a big detailed jobs plan? Not likely.
“It will not be a huge, thick jobs package, because I don’t think that’s how jobs are created,” said Haslam.
The plan, instead, seems to be geared toward job recruitment and lifting regulations that might impede job growth. One of the first acts Haslam took as governor was to announce a 45-day freeze on new regulations and rules, part of what he calls a top-to-bottom review of state government.
“To attract and retain high quality jobs, Tennessee must maintain a business-friendly environment,” Haslam said in a formal statement on the subject. “State government should do everything it can to create the best possible environment for job growth.”
Haslam might have a right-hand man in the General Assembly on that count in Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who insists the while the focus has to indeed be “jobs, jobs and jobs,” the real solution is to streamline innovation-snuffing government red tape and enterprise-smothering bureaucratic rigmarole.
Ramsey, who has businesses in auctioning and real estate, has repeatedly said that as a businessman the only thing he wants state government to do is get out of the way and let him create jobs — the message being that that’s the way most people in business feel.
But if all that looks like a united front — with Republicans in charge of the Legislature and the governor’s office — there is a theory on Capitol Hill that the GOP is not nearly as unified as it might appear. There is a sense that the Republicans are divided into two groups — one focused on jobs, education and the budget, the other focused on social and ideological issues such as illegal immigration and having judges stand for election.
Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, says you can categorize the Republicans as either conservative or “very, very” conservative. And he says he believes the “very, very” conservatives will prevail, mostly because even the regular conservatives want to be perceived as “very, very” conservative.
That would indicate more attention on matters like immigration. Kyle noted the Legislature has already seen Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, delay an English-only driver’s license test bill as Haslam voiced concern about such issues getting in the way of job recruitment. The watch is on for potential ongoing clashes between groups inside the Republican caucus.
Ramsey is on board with Haslam about regulation, too, though. In fact, Ramsey has registered a Web site name and is serious about launching tnredtape.com, where horror stories about state regulation will be exposed. He said he came up with what “red tape” stands for — Ridiculous Employee Decisions That Affect People Everyday.
Ramsey said he hears a lot of stories.
“They’re the truth,” he said. “Somebody has tried to get a permit or a license, and they call in and nothing has happened in a month. And I make a phone call, and the next day they get a license, just because somebody called it to somebody’s attention.”
Ramsey met Wednesday with Robert Martineau, Haslam’s new commissioner of Environment and Conservation, about how to get permitting processes running more efficiently. Ramsey says the state needs to give clearer messages to people who are trying to do the right thing.
“If I’m a businessman, just tell me what I have to do,” he said.
He said the system will call for a taxpayer to take a series of steps to get a permit. According to Ramsey, the person is told to do A, B and C, but then find out you also have to do D, E and F. And then it becomes a matter of G and H.
“All I ask is, tell me A-through-H to begin with,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey says hubbub over social issues like immigration is overblown, saying it is the media, not the Legislature, devoting extraordinary amounts of time to such legislation.
The state got encouraging revenue figures for January, which reflect Christmas sales, showing tax collections $38.2 million more than the state budgeted. It marked six months of positive growth in the fiscal year — more signs of an economic recovery, but not nearly enough to prevent substantial cuts in the state budget.
Recent economic news has been mixed. Electrolux announced in December it will locate a manufacturing center in Memphis. Haslam has an economic development announcement on his public schedule for Memphis on Monday, with The Commercial Appeal reporting Mitsubishi is ready to build a $200 million manufacturing plant there. But Goodyear just announced it is closing a plant in Union City, which will eliminate 1,900 jobs.
Mark Emkes, commissioner of finance for Haslam, said he sees positive signs overall about the economy.
Emkes, former head of Bridgestone Americas, noted that car sales have been up, that Ford is hiring, General Motors is bringing some workers back and Volkswagen is opening its new plant in Chattanooga. He said car sales drive up other businesses, like steel, tires and repairs in auto shops.
“The trend seems to be very positive,” Emkes said.