Gov. Bill Haslam reiterated his support Tuesday for legislation he signed that overturned an anti-discrimination law passed by Nashville’s Metro Council — even though the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry has reportedly backtracked on the bill.
“I don’t really like the state government telling local governments what to do, but I don’t really feel like local governments should tell businesses what to do either,” Haslam said Tuesday in Chattanooga, where he attended the grand opening of a new Volkswagen plant.
“In this case, we were going beyond what the federal requirements were, and I don’t think many Tennesseans feel like we don’t have enough mandates on businesses from the federal government.”
Haslam signed the bill, HB600/SB632, on Monday. The new law will prohibit local governments from imposing anti-discrimination practices that vary from laws already on the books. The Metro Council in Davidson County passed an ordinance that said contractors with the city had to follow Metro policies against discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgendered people.
After Haslam signed the bill, word trickled out from the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce — which had supported the legislation during this year’s session — that it was withdrawing its support.
The Chamber’s decision was especially unusual since it came after the bill had already been signed into law.
A statement reportedly from the Chamber’s executive committee circulated to members on Monday saying the issue had turned into a debate on diversity and that the Chamber was now opposing the legislation.
Haslam did not reverse course, however.
“We are not in favor of discrimination. I want to be real clear about that,” Haslam said. “We are in favor of businesses deciding within federal laws what their policy should be. We just don’t think local governments should set HR policies for businesses.”
Haslam was asked if there had been a lot of discussion in the administration on the bill.
“I wouldn’t say we had an extraordinary amount of discussion. There are a few bills that pass 98-0 and they don’t take a whole lot of discussion. Almost everything else, we do at least talk through, and this one had the concurrence of 70 percent of the legislature,” Haslam said.
The House passed the bill 70-26. The Senate approved it 20-8 with one member present and not voting.
Haslam noted that the Chamber had supported the bill during the legislative process.
“Only yesterday (Monday), they said they had changed their mind,” Haslam said.
“The Tennessee Chamber supports a standard regulatory environment at the state level as opposed to potentially conflicting local regulations covering employment practices. That principle was the only interest the Chamber had in this bill. Because HB600/SB632 has turned into a debate on diversity and inclusiveness — principles we support — we are now officially opposing this legislation in its present form.”
Some large corporations in the state have been distancing themselves from the Chamber’s earlier support of the bill. Companies were issuing statements, either by news release, on a blog or on their Facebook pages.
FedEx, headquartered in Memphis, said it “does not tolerate discrimination of any kind” and said, “While FedEx is a member of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, we do not support every position proposed by the Chamber.”
Nissan issued a statement saying, “Nissan opposes HB600/SB632. While we believe in a standard state regulatory environment, we share public concerns about this bill’s impact on diversity and inclusiveness. Nissan is committed to providing a diverse and inclusive environment for all stakeholders.”
Whirlpool said, “Whirlpool Corporation opposes this legislation, which runs counter to our core values of diversity and inclusion. We are reaching out to the governor’s office and the Chamber to inform them of our position.”
Caterpillar said it has a longstanding commitment to diversity and said, “We did not lobby against Nashville’s non-discrimination ordinance and have not actively lobbied for the state law.”