Democratic legislators launched a statewide “jobs tour” in Memphis on Monday, and they heard a lot of the same topics of concern from businesses that Republicans are hearing — like regulations and job training.
And for good measure, there was a firm opinion voiced about Amazon.com.
House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley and Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis led a discussion that included representatives from a variety of businesses at a Holiday Inn adjacent to the University of Memphis. The group talked while eating breakfast, and there was a hefty helping of complaints about federal regulations, more so than about state regulations.
While Democrats are conducting their own tour, they said they want the effort to create more jobs in the state to be bipartisan. The business leaders, in a gathering of about 20 people, repeatedly asked for state lawmakers to be liaisons to their federal colleagues about the regulatory environment, specifically citing the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
While Republicans do not have a jobs tour, per se, Gov. Bill Haslam has been holding a series of business roundtables across the state, and regulations frequently arise as a key point of concern. Haslam has said he supports the Democrats in their tour across the state.
Early in Monday’s discussion, Ray Pohlman, vice president for government and community relations for AutoZone, said, “I might as well get this off my chest. The Amazon thing is an absolute debacle.
“It started, I know, with the Bredesen administration, and it’s continuing in the Haslam administration. To allow them to get away with not collecting sales tax is just criminal.”
Pohlman acknowledged the dilemma facing Tennessee lawmakers in dealing with the issue of Internet sales, where taxes go uncollected while brick-and-mortar stores collect the tax. While calls are common for settling the issue at the congressional level, the AutoZone executive played political scientist on the issue.
“It’s a tough political position,” Pohlman said. “If you start requiring them to collect taxes, people look at you and say, ‘Uh-oh, you invented a new tax.’ In reality, we know the consumer owes that tax.
“It ain’t going to happen on a national perspective. Your colleagues in Congress have no skin in this game. They’re not going to derive any revenue from this.”
But most of the give-and-take between lawmakers and businesspeople dealt with regulations.
A couple of businessmen, while saying Tennessee is nothing like California as far as environmental regulations go, did express complaints about environmental roadblocks.
“We are having more and more problems with the U.S. EPA,” said Jeff Fedorchak, vice president of corporate governmental affairs for ServiceMaster, a home services company. “To the extent you all can help be a conduit and a voice for business to your federal colleagues, that would be extremely helpful to us, and I’m sure to many other businesses across the state.
“It doesn’t seem as if EPA cares much about jobs. They seem to have an agenda, bordering on a religion, that they’re going to go about no matter what. There doesn’t seem to be a jobs emphasis or acknowledgement on their part that they could pursue something that could impact jobs.”
Steve Bares, president and executive director of Memphis Bioworks Foundation, said regulatory issues discourage farmers from trying crops that are critical for bioscience industries.
There were also complaints that Memphis, well known to be on the New Madrid Fault, is held to some earthquake codes that are the same as those in San Francisco, which some felt to be unfair.
Kyle told the group that the Shelby County delegation has regular lunches in Nashville when in session and that people in business in Memphis were welcome to attend to voice their opinions on issues.
Democratic lawmakers from Memphis in the room Monday included Rep. Larry Miller, Rep. Barbara Cooper, Rep. G.A. Hardaway, Rep. Antonio Parkinson, Sen. Beverly Marrero and Kyle.
Desi Franklin, executive director of the Workforce Investment Network, part of the Memphis Area Career Center, expressed concern that jobs are requiring a higher level of skill sets than a lot of residents have.
“I’ve been approached by several employers in the medical device areas, as well as other advanced manufacturers, who cannot find workers who have skills they need,” she said. “There really is a need to close the skills gap.
Marrero said she has a grandson with a degree in business finance who is working in a pizza restaurant.
“Kids are scared to death coming out of college these days,” Marrero said.
Fitzhugh said he felt the meeting overall was “very positive.”
“Leaders of local business and industry in Shelby County are attuned to problems and opportunities. They’ve got some good ideas,” Fitzhugh said. “Tennessee is a business-friendly state, and we need to keep it that way.
“It was an open, frank discussion. It was a great start to see where we are with jobs and try to get ideas about retaining, growing and attracting new ones.”
The “jobs tour” was scheduled to visit the Haywood County megasite and Solar Farm later Monday. The tour continues Tuesday in Madison and Weakley counties and moves east as the week goes on.