Hitting on themes favorable to Tennessee’s Republican leadership, the state’s chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business has unveiled a 2012 legislative agenda aimed at trimming regulations and tightening the laws around unemployment and workers’ compensation benefits.
The group also expressed support for cuts in the state’s inheritance tax, a policy pushed by the governor in his legislative package, and said they are evaluating proposals around tort reform — following a year in which the Legislature enacted limits on noneconomic and punitive damages in civil cases.
The agenda would seem to be landing on soft ground, given that a business-friendly legislature arrives politically unchanged this session. Last year, a Republican task force charged with identifying ways to make Tennessee more attractive to businesses made several similar, albeit general, recommendations, including workers’ comp modifications and the reduction or elimination of business regulations.
NFIB State Director Jim Brown echoed calls from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey for tighter work search requirements for Tennesseans receiving unemployment benefits. Citing a survey sent to NFIB members, Brown said there is broad support for adopting a law similar to one in Florida, which requires beneficiaries to list five employers to which they’ve applied or to report weekly to a one-stop career center.
Ramsey has said that “it’s too easy just to click a mouse and say you’re just looking for a job.”
Brown says the federation has heard stories of employers being turned down by applicants who want to use up their remaining unemployment benefits.
“We heard this everywhere we went: Employers will offer someone a job, and the response is, ‘Will the job be available in five weeks?’” he said. The NFIB partnered with Ramsey last year on his Red Tape Road Trips, during which the lieutenant governor met with business owners to discuss their interactions with the state government.
Details on how such issues will play out in legislation were few, as legislators this week were still trying to get out from under the redistricting process.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Mike Turner, of Old Hickory, said he hadn’t yet seen the NFIB’s agenda. Shown the list by a reporter, he said, “It looks like they’re piling on working families.”
After noting the small number of Tennesseans affected by cuts in the state’s estate tax, he added, “They’re talking about the 1 percent again.”
The estate tax provision in the law carries an exemption for estates up to $1 million, and Haslam has proposed lifting that to $1.25 million.
On the issue of worker’s comp, the federation says it has found “the time to adjudicate claims is lengthy and delays return to work and payment of claims.”
It’s an issue of interest to Rep. Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville, who owns the Big G Express trucking company. But after years of meeting with other business owners and representatives from the insurance industry, and experience with injured workers in his own business, Marsh said he’s learned that it’s a complicated issue.
“I’ve met with these guys the last two years, and we haven’t come up with anything,” he said. “I’m finding out the more I dig into it, that it’s not so simple.”
One difficult hurdle, he said, is how to root out fraud when it comes to workers’ comp claims, an occurrence which Marsh characterized as not uncommon but tough to legislate against. Another is the debate between leaving workers’ comp cases in the courts or moving to an administrative system, which would require a commission to hear cases. Marsh said it would be a challenge to create a commission that could be objective.
Haslam has so far not signaled that he is taking up workers’ comp this session. His legislative package centered on cutting estate and sales taxes, restructuring certain state boards and expanding a business grant program, as well as proposals aimed at injecting merit as more of a factor in hiring and promotion decisions in local schools and state government.
The NFIB is also targeting what it believes are unnecessary procedures around professional licensing by looking at other states’ requirements. In Tennessee, there are 111 professions that require licensing, which Brown said is more than any other southern state except for Arkansas.
As an example of requirements the group will be looking to repeal or oppose this session, Brown cited a failed plan, which had lingered around the Hill for several years, that would have required a state license for interior designers.