Former Gov. Phil Bredesen remains zip-lippped about what’s in the state’s deal with Amazon.com, although he has plenty to say about what he’s been doing since leaving office, which is traveling the country making speeches, mostly about health care.
“I’m not retired. I’m not vegetating,” Bredesen said. “I’m very active and trying to figure out how I can best use the next few years.”
Bredesen was at a campaign event Saturday in support of Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, who is running for re-election.
Nashville is still home base for Bredesen, but since leaving office in January he has traveled to various locations, from Chicago to Florida to the West Coast, to speak. He has primarily talked about health care, including one joint appearance with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, but he has also spoken on the state’s experience recruiting international businesses like Volkswagen and Wacker Chemie.
One domestic business recruitment with Bredesen’s brand on it, however, remains a point of controversy in the state. Amazon is building two large distribution centers in and near Chattanooga. The Internet sales giant is making a $139 billion investment, offering 1,400 jobs and comes in with the agreement that it will operate without collecting sales taxes as a retail outlet would.
A couple of key lawmakers have cried foul, presenting legislation to force Amazon to collect the tax, but that effort has met resistance and even a threat from Amazon that it might pull out if forced to collect. Lawmakers have even asked the state’s attorney general to weigh in on their effort. The bill has been deferred to 2012.
Among lawmakers’ questions have been to what degree the agreement with Amazon has even been in writing.
“I’m just not commenting on stuff that’s going on like that right now,” Bredesen said. “We had an understanding with Amazon, and it was really Matt Kisber (former commissioner of Economic and Community Development) who did all the detail work on the thing.
“I think it was the right decision. I think the current governor thinks it was the right decision to get them here. I think they will be an important piece of the economy.”
The Bredesen administration made the deal after Bill Haslam was elected governor in November but before Bredesen left office. The most widely reported explanation for the arrangement has been that Bredesen told Haslam the state could either grant Amazon the ability to avoid collecting the tax or see the company go a few miles down the road and build its facility in Georgia. The same issue has played out in other states. Bredesen wanted the jobs in Tennessee, and Haslam has publicly said the state will honor the commitment.
“Part of what appealed to me about Amazon was I worked real hard to get some of the knowledge-based jobs that require a college education, where you’ve got good salaries and so on,” Bredesen said. “A lot of the Amazon jobs are a little different from that. They’re working in a warehouse. We need those jobs, too.
“There are a lot of people in this state who just need a job with a good company with good benefits, and they’re not going to go back to college to do it.”
When asked last week where the attorney general is on the Amazon issue, Sharon Curtis-Flair, spokeswoman for Attorney General Robert Cooper, said, “We’re working on it,” but she offered no elaboration on a potential opinion or when it might come.
Bredesen said getting a well-respected company like Amazon to build in Tennessee at a time when jobs are hard to come by seemed like the right deal to make. He was asked about the precedent, however, of setting up that arrangement, since Amazon is already making overtures of building even more distribution centers in Nashville or Knoxville.
“I think the governor has got to figure that out,” Bredesen said. “But in the scheme of things, if an Amazon were to be located here, ultimately these tax issues are going to be solved by the Congress.”
Haslam has also said no single state should have to work out the issue of collecting sales taxes on online sales. The issue is complex. Amazon is based in Seattle. Company officials point to the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution and say the existence of a “fulfillment center,” as Amazon is building, does not create substantial presence, known as nexus, to qualify as a point of sale.
“The two facilities happened on my watch, I think we made the right decision, I think the governor has backed that up, and how he treats the next two or three is up to Gov. Haslam,” Bredesen said.
As for the former governor’s travels, they’re the kind of speaking engagements one would normally expect after the publication last year of Bredesen’s book, Fresh Medicine — How to Fix Reform and Build a Sustainable Health Care System.
“I had a lot of requests to do that after the book came out in the fall, and you really can’t do it as a sitting governor,” Bredesen said. “You can’t take off and go to California for a few days and give speeches.”
He said the topic in such settings is beginning to move more toward the future of the health care system, rather than just reaction to the health care reform law. Bredesen’s book is due for a paperback version this fall.
“I’m up to my eyebrows in health care,” Bredesen said.
The event with Jeb Bush was a health care discussion held by the venture capital group Health Evolution Partners, where they had a “D” and “R” program, with Bredesen the “D” as a Democrat and Bush the “R” as a Republican.
Bredesen said he has put the notion of trying to serve at the federal level on health care policy on the shelf, adding that when it came up it was probably given more attention than it deserved. He also said Saturday he has no intention of running for the Senate. Bredesen was at one time considered a candidate to be President Barack Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services, which ultimately went to Kathleen Sebelius, a former governor of Kansas.
So for now, Bredesen is doing the speech-making tour and deciding what’s next. Bredesen was mayor of Nashville for two terms from 1991-99 and governor for two terms from 2003-2011.
“When I left the mayor’s office, after I left on Saturday, on Monday morning I was setting up my desk in a new office,” he said. “I’ve said this time, don’t do that, when you’ve got one more good career in you. Get a little space. Get some of these speeches done you wanted to do. Do a little writing, and let things gel a little bit.”
Bredesen said former first lady Andrea Conte now “enjoys being out of the line of fire,” and she’s doing a lot of the same things as her husband is.
“She’s been out and active and around doing different things, giving talks to different groups. She is spending serious time in the garden, and we’re having a great time right now,” said former governor Bredesen.