Democrats took their “Jobs Tour” to Maury County on Wednesday, but the big news was who didn’t show up.
Mike O’Rourke, president of the United Auto Workers Local 1853, and Mike Herron, chairman of the group, were scheduled to participate in the jobs tour stop but were called to Memphis to hammer out details of General Motors’ reported plans to jump-start production at the idled Spring Hill GM plant — a development that has brought bright hopes to the long-suffering community on the jobs front.
Former state Rep. Ty Cobb did the talking for O’Rourke and Herron for members of the media attending the roundtable discussion at Columbia State Community College. Cobb basically confirmed reports that two vehicles will be built at the plant, one beginning in 2012 and another in 2013, with the first bringing 600 jobs on a $60 million investment and the other 1,100 jobs on a $358 million investment.
“As we speak, UAW and GM leaders are talking in Memphis, with some confidential meetings,” Cobb said.
“You know, this is the most modern plant in the United States at the Spring Hill facility, so they can have a vehicle up and producing quicker than any other plant in the country. So that’s something that has really helped with getting a product back in this facility. They also have one of the best skilled workforces in the country.”
The company has already put $400 million into engine manufacturing at the site that began in 2009. The area is trying to recover from the layoffs of about 2,000 workers during the recent auto crisis and recession, a blow that has also hit suppliers.
“This is all good news,” Cobb said of this week’s developments. “The future is bright for GM and the people that work in this region.”
It was timely information for lawmakers interested in spurring job growth in the state.
“I think what the message here should be is this is what happens when labor and management work together,” said Rep. Gary Moore, D-Joelton, who recently became president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO.
The Democrats began their week-long tour in Memphis on Monday and are gradually moving across the state, collecting input from business leaders, educators and anyone else who has an interest in improving job growth.
The tour comes in the wake of a legislative session that saw Democrats offer several “jobs bills,” most dealing with tax credits, while Republicans primarily stuck to a limited legislative agenda on employment, asserting that jobs cannot simply be legislated into existence.
But House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley and Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney of Jackson expressed their continued interest Wednesday in pursuing measures through the General Assembly aimed at helping Tennesseans find work.
“We’ve seen already that there are things we should propose again,” Fitzhugh said. “There may be some new ones.
“The key is that we have to do this not just as a Democratic task force as a result of a Democratic jobs tour but as a Legislature. We think the ideas will be ones that will be embraced by the majority party and be successful.”
Democrats know the political obstacles they face, with majority Republicans making the case that legislators can best create jobs by reducing regulations that impede business and smoothing the job environment with legislation like tort reform. Gov. Bill Haslam took a limited approach to job legislation this year, his first in office, although he has supported the spirit of the tour the Democrats are conducting.
Republicans hold a 64-34-1 majority in the House and a 20-13 majority in the Senate.
“We must have Republican support to pass any jobs bill we produce,” Finney said.
“The governor requested us to specifically talk to people who are putting their capital at risk. That’s what we’ve tried to do. Some of the things we proposed in the spring we anticipate bringing back this next year and hope to have bipartisan support for.”
But Finney noted the Democrats are hearing about some new challenges on the tour. They heard Wednesday about communication gaps that still exist between industry and schools, although state government has taken steps recently to smooth the journey through higher education for students with the Complete College Act. One of the issues is having enough classroom space to accommodate students seeking training.
Finney said the Democrats are hearing that mom-and-pop shops are hurting and could benefit from tax credits and ideas like a small business sales tax holiday.
“Traditionally, our Republican colleagues have always been for less taxes, and less taxes on businesses is what would help,” Finney said.
Finney said such legislation would focus on existing businesses in the state, as opposed to relocating businesses, which has also been a major theme of the Haslam administration as it seeks to increase jobs.
“A bill we had last year, which we’re going to continue to work on, is to require state contracts to go to state businesses located in Tennessee already,” Finney said.
“We heard from one yesterday (Tuesday) in Weakley County who for years had a contract with the state, and then an out-of-state corporation came in, won the contract at a higher bid, and that money and that tax money now goes out of state.”
Democrats heard some good news Wednesday apart from the GM developments. Marvin Sandrell, who runs a heating and cooling business in Columbia, as well as a business in Spring Hill, said he had had to hire about eight new people in the last year.
“Columbia is probably pretty fortunate to have more commercial work going than most places around. It just seems to be picking up some,” Sandrell said. He said grants are helping in hiring.
Legislators also heard that Pell grants are helping non-traditional students seeking training who may not qualify for Hope scholarships from the state lottery.