Republicans focused heavily on job creation in last year’s election, and Democrats in the Legislature held a press conference Thursday to ask where, after all this time, the GOP jobs plan is.
Republican leaders responded by saying their plan is already out there for everyone to see.
Significant, fundamental differences in philosophies have emerged from the two sides on how to address what they agree is the state’s top priority. Democrats attempted to make their point about a lack of attention to jobs by Republicans by stacking GOP bills that are unrelated to jobs on a table at their press conference in the Capitol.
Democrats say the Legislature, where Republicans control both the House and Senate, is 40 days into the current session yet there is no Republican legislative beef behind job creation.
“It looks like at the start, instead of working together to put Tennesseans back to work, the majority party has lost its job focus,” said Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, Democratic leader in the House.
“Instead of creating jobs, they’re creating ways to make it harder to vote. Instead of helping Tennesseans find employment, they’re telling you you’re on your own. The focus on jobs is lost.”
Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said the stack of Republican bills that don’t pertain to job creation tells the story. Democrats have complained that Republicans are too focused on issues like immigration and electing judges and have taken their eyes off the ball.
“What I hope we will see happen in the next few weeks is that the majority will again come forward and say we’ve got to work together for jobs,” Finney said. “I’m not convinced today that that is the priority by looking at this stack of legislation.”
Gov. Bill Haslam, who has said he will have no big legislative package on jobs, has offered tort reform legislation but has said the major goal should be to create a business climate that attracts employment.
“I don’t know how to keep saying the same thing over again, but that’s what we’re going to focus on,” Haslam said Thursday.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey sounded almost exasperated that people don’t seem to get the point.
“I guess that’s a typical Democrat response, to say that government creates jobs,” Ramsey said.
“Government does not create jobs. Businesses create jobs.
“It’s amazing that a lot of people think you actually pass a bill and create jobs. I think if you look at the stimulus package on the federal side, they spent $1.4 trillion, and we’re looking around asking, ‘Where are all those jobs?'”
Democrats point to bills they have ready that would give tax credits to small businesses and put an emphasis on using Tennessee contractors as a way to boost employment in the state. Democrats say they would like to work with Republicans on such measures.
The Democrats also point out that the state has a recent track record on legislation for jobs in the creation of megasites in each of the state’s three grand divisions — two of which now have huge tenants, with Volkswagen in Chattanooga and Hemlock Semiconductor in Montgomery County. In making their point about working together, Democrats are pointing to the spirit of bipartisanship that existed in 2010 in the special session that dealt with education reform. They want to see the same approach on jobs, the Democrats say.
House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville, said Haslam has made his plans clear.
“First and foremost, he’s going to take regulations off businesses, freezing the regulations for 45 days. What I hear from small businesses in my district is that that’s the No. 1 thing. ‘Just get out of our lives, get out of our business and let us make a profit,'” Harwell said.
“The second, of course, is tort reform. We know from states like Texas and Mississippi that when you do that, jobs are created. Businesses want predictability. The governor has come out with a wonderful piece of legislation.”
Harwell said it’s not the role of government to create jobs but to create an environment conducive to attracting them.
“I’m very pleased with where we are,” she said of the legislative process.
Rep. Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, the House Republican leader, spelled out the distinctions between the two parties on the issue.
“The difference between Democrats and Republicans is Democrats want to have a government answer for everything,” McCormick said. “And we don’t.
“What we want to do is keep the government out of the way of honest business people so they can create jobs. Some of the ways we can do that is through tort reform, where we don’t have trial lawyers crawling all over honest business people. Another way we can do that is by keeping taxes low and opposing an income tax.”
When asked how many jobs tort reform could produce, Republicans offered no figures.
“I don’t know how many jobs can be created by tort reform, but if we can create a better atmosphere in Tennessee, we will create jobs,” McCormick said.
Mark Cate, special assistant to the governor, reiterated the governor’s approach to explain what is playing out.
“I think it’s just a fundamental difference in philosophies,” Cate said. “The governor believes you cannot legislate jobs.
“In fact, as the governor has said over and over, what our job is is to make sure there are the appropriate rules and regulations and legislation in place to keep businesses accountable, but at the same time we’ve got to make sure they have the flexibility to do the things they need to do to create jobs.”
The Democrats have been marginalized in the Legislature with the newfound strength of the Republican majority, which is 20-13 in the Senate and 64-34-1 in the House. The press conference Thursday was an attempt by Democrats to recapture some of their reputation of looking out for the workforce. What has changed is the volume of that voice with the new Republican stronghold.
But Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, the Democratic Caucus chairman in the House, emphasized the teamwork factor. He hopes some of the Democratic offerings will be too hard for Republicans to resist.
“They can either help us, or they can try to block what we’re doing for political reasons,” Turner said. “But they’re going to have a hard time voting against some of these bills we’ve got up here. It does not make political sense to do that.”