Haslam Talks Amazon, Unemployment Checks, Business Recruitment

Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday he opposes a legislative effort to make Amazon.com collect sales taxes, he wants clarity on a bill to extend unemployment benefits and that assisting a potential expansion for Hemlock Semiconductor proves his intent to continue to attract big business to the state.

Haslam also said a bill that would require employers to participate in E-Verify, a federal program used to check whether workers are here legally, sends the right message on immigration.

The governor covered several topics in a session with reporters after he conducted an education roundtable in Springfield with Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, and Rep. Joshua Evans, R-Greenbrier, participated in the event at Krisle Elementary School that included several educators from Robertson County.

Haslam said he is discouraging a bill sponsored by Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, meant to force Internet giant Amazon to collect sales taxes on orders that would go through the company’s two proposed distribution centers in East Tennessee.

Amazon struck a deal with former Gov. Phil Bredesen just before he left office, including an agreement that sales taxes would not be collected. Haslam agreed to honor the previous administration’s commitment, but some lawmakers — noting the state’s heavy reliance on sales taxes — have threatened the deal legislatively.

“We’ve been out front saying that Governor Bredesen did call me back when they were negotiating, and I said I understand and I’ll go along with that,” Haslam said. “It would be disingenuous of us now to back-channel and encourage the Legislature to go ahead and pass (the bill) and say it was not my fault.”

Since the issue first arose, Amazon has suggested it might open even more distribution centers in Tennessee, which begs the question of whether Haslam would make the same arrangement at future sites.

“I really haven’t had that conversation with them (Amazon), and I don’t feel like that’s the conversation to have now,” Haslam said. “Let’s let this legislation get solved one way or another, then we’ll have that conversation.”

Haslam said he has not spoken with Amazon officials at all about any relocation plans.

The governor expressed concerns about legislation that would extend unemployment benefits for about 28,000 people in the state after state law was not adjusted to meet new federal standards. The change would mean up to 20 additional weeks of benefits for those who qualify.

Haslam said the issue was discussed in a staff meeting Tuesday morning but that he still wants details.

“There’s some disagreement about when people are triggered out of a program who would be covered by that,” Haslam said. “I asked for that to be cleared up today so we all know exactly what it’s costing us and who’s going to be covered.”

Democrats are calling for the extensions, with some Republican support. The issue involves long-term benefits that were allowed to lapse in April.

Hemlock Semiconductor, which produces polysilicon for solar panels, is reportedly considering a $3 billion expansion of its plant in Clarksville, and an official for the Haslam administration said this week it is seeking a $150 million bond issue to finance infrastructure improvements for the company, which is already involved in a $1 billion investment at the site.

Haslam on Tuesday was asked about the incentive, given his frequent reference to the state needing to hit some “singles and doubles” as opposed to “home runs” in job creation.

“Obviously, anytime somebody is talking about spending approximately $3 billion that’s really good news. You always concentrate on singles and doubles, but if one goes out of the park you’re going to take it,” Haslam said.

“We said we were going to focus primarily on in-state business. That doesn’t mean we’re going to turn down the opportunity for some big out-of-state business that might relocate here.”

Haslam cautioned, however, that Hemlock has not officially made the new commitment.

A bill that would call for $91,000 annually to go toward E-Verify, a Department of Homeland Security program that electronically tracks and verifies the citizenship of new hires, has Haslam’s backing.

“It’s telling our businesses, hey, if you hire we want to make certain you’re doing it legally, and we’re going to cover the costs in the budget to do that as a state,” he said.

Haslam has expressed some concern about immigration bills this year that he said could be detrimental to businesses looking to locate or expand in Tennessee.

“I don’t think this is a negative message to international businesses at all,” Haslam said of the E-Verify plan.

The education roundtable covered several familiar topics, with teachers expressing concern over a lack of parental involvement in children’s education, the focus on testing and issues affecting special education.

Haslam was asked about his proposals on charter schools, where he has called for lifting caps on the number of charters and recently announced a $40 million fund to create more charter schools in the state. He replied that the vast majority of students will continue to attend conventional schools.

“But I do think charters can in some situations provide a great alternative for some kids who haven’t been succeeding somewhere else,” he said.