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Where Are the Jobs? Fair Question, says Haslam

Gov. Bill Haslam’s ability to deliver on jobs could define his tenure. Haslam said Tuesday he spends significant time on the issue — but don’t look for the type of “jobs package” Democrats have suggested.

Lamenting the way Republicans have steered the legislative process, House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, last week issued an all-caps press release fairly screaming the question many in his party have been asking: “WHAT HAPPENED TO THE JOBS PACKAGE??????

But a more pointed question may be: Where are the jobs? Not legislation. Jobs.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday he feels pressure to produce on jobs but that it doesn’t come from Democrats. It comes more from within himself, he said.

Haslam and his backers in the Legislature have never promised bills to directly produce jobs, saying that government can’t play that role. With reforms to boost education and deter frivolous lawsuits they would be in position to attract the jobs the state desperately needs, they say. Haslam also called for a 45-day freeze on regulations that he said could be stunting progress.

Haslam is only two months into his term as governor. Since he talked so much about jobs in his campaign, and given recent unemployment figures announced by the state, the watch will be on for when and how many jobs Haslam can create.

The issue could define his time as governor.

Unemployment in Tennessee in February stood at 9.6 percent, up 0.2 percentage points from January, the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development announced this month. The national rate was 8.9 percent, 0.1 percentage points lower than January. The state said employment has risen by 35,000 workers since last February for a year-over-year increase of 1.4 percent. But the unemployment picture remains a serious issue for the state.

The question was put to Haslam Tuesday: When is it appropriate to ask where the jobs are?

“That’s always a fair question,” said Haslam, who toured Stratford High School in Nashville and moderated a meeting to commemorate the first anniversary of the state’s winning of Race to the Top federal funds for education.

“The Democrats have to play the role they’re going to play. But that is always the question, so I spend a significant amount of my time addressing those things, both short-term, out recruiting businesses and having folks to dinner and all those things that are part of that — and the long-term piece of that, which is the education reforms we’re working on.”

But Tennesseans may be wondering about the time frame. They may want to know how many jobs and how soon they will arrive. Haslam was asked if he feels any pressure on the issue.

“I don’t feel any political pressure to do it, but I feel pressure in the sense of there’s too many families in Tennessee that don’t have jobs,” he said. “And like I’ve said, I spent two years traveling the state, and you see up close and personal the impact of the recession.

“So there should always be pressure on our leaders to go deliver in that most critical area.”

Haslam has asked for $97 million in supplemental appropriations and bonds for appliance maker Electrolux and its planned $190 million plant in Memphis, following up on a deal struck by his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. He has said that Internet giant Amazon and its new distribution center in Hamilton County should not have to collect sales taxes, in a state that relies heavily on the sales tax.

In his State of the State address, Haslam announced a proposal for $7 million in state funding for the Port of Cates Landing on the Mississippi River, which was followed by the announcement of a grant of $13 million for the port in federal funds.

Haslam has said he is impressed by the pipeline of potential job creators open to the state. He has even said he is surprised at what some businesses want. But he has done little to elaborate on either point.

The nature of attracting businesses — especially the large industrial catches — is that they tend to operate on a hush-hush basis. Governors usually afford those businesses the secret deliberations they seek on striking a deal. So if Haslam is working diligently on attracting businesses, it might not always be visible to the public, until a deal is done or has fallen through.

But if, after a considerable amount of time, Haslam has little to show in job recruitment — especially if he gets the legislative grease he seeks like education and tort reforms — his term may be judged on a lack of job creation. If his reforms are approved and the state sees unemployment fall, Haslam has the potential to receive high marks.

Haslam revised his controversial tort-reform bill just days ago, exempting catastrophic cases from the original caps in his proposal.

The original bill, HB2008, would put a $750,000 cap on non-economic damages and punitive damages at $500,000 or two times compensatory damages, whichever is greater. But a proposed amendment would increase the amount of non-economic damages to $1.25 million in cases of spinal cord injury resulting in certain types of paralysis; amputation of two hands, two feet or one of each; substantial burns; or the death of a parent whose children are minors.

The Associated Press first reported the new language. The Tennessee Association for Justice, which lobbies for the state’s trial lawyers, has opposed Haslam’s bill, most notably by hiring former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson to do its lobbying on the issue.

Haslam was asked Tuesday why he made the changes in the tort reform legislation and if he did so to appease critics.

“We didn’t do it to placate critics at all,” he said. “That bill, like all others, is really important to us, and we want to make sure to get it right.

“We’ve had ongoing conversations, with the thought once we finally come forward with a bill it will be the one not that we’re putting up to negotiate, but we’re putting the one up that we think is the right one. We think the final form that it’s in now is a great bill for Tennessee.”

Tennessee landed the Race to the Top funds on March 29, 2010. The state won $501 million and was one of only two states, the other Delaware, as first-round winners. The state made several education reforms in order to make the application successful, and the process continues, with the process of teacher evaluations one of the sticking points in moving forward.

But Haslam was upbeat about the Race to the Top subject in general.

“I think we’re about where you would have thought we would be after a year,” he said. “But we still have a lot of work to do. The key piece is finishing the teacher evaluation model, getting it implemented and out into the schools. A lot of the key things that tie all this together are in motion, but it’s critical that we get them right and get them right quickly.”

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