Democrats in the Legislature went after Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and their Republican legislative counterparts from all angles Monday in a plea for more substantive attention to jobs.
What Tennesseans have gotten instead, the Democrats say, is Haslam giving pay raises to his top officials and spending money on what the administration calls “career coaches,” three large vehicles designed to help people find work.
“He’s bought three RVs using more than half a million dollars in federal stimulus money to teach people how to create a resume. The problem is once they create the resume, they don’t have anywhere to send it,” said Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, at a press conference at the Capitol.
The Democrats instead compiled a loosely connected “top ten” list of jobs bills of their own they say directly address the issue of unemployment. They are getting little attention with those bills from the Republicans, the Democrats say.
“It’s almost like they’re embarrassed that we’re doing something and they’re not,” said Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “And it’s unfortunate they’re trying to kill our bills, not help pass them but kill our bills.”
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said Republican-led efforts on tort reform, education reform and cutting red tape are producing the environment for job creation.
“I think jobs are being created,” Ramsey said. “This has more to do with the national atmosphere than it does in the state of Tennessee. We are one of the leading states in the nation, I believe, in creating jobs. This can only get better.”
But that’s not quite the picture painted by the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The state recently announced figures that showed Tennessee’s unemployment rate for February was 9.6 percent, an increase of .2 percentage points from January. Meanwhile, the department said the national unemployment rate for February was 8.9 percent, which was .1 percentage point lower than the rate in January.
Democrats seized on those figures in a press release on Monday, noting that Haslam’s pay raises for his commissioners were 11 to 20 percent increases, although those positions were already paying six-figure salaries.
Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, the House Republican leader, said Democrats are only playing politics.
“It’s unfortunate they want to make this yet again a partisan issue,” McCormick said. “When Democrats controlled the governorship, Republicans in the Legislature worked with the Democratic governor to create jobs in Tennessee, and we worked to create a good business environment, and it was very successful in a lot of areas.
“It’s a disappointment to see them politicizing this.”
McCormick said tort reform, education reform, keeping taxes low and regulations down were the best way to create jobs.
Much of the discussion has come down to the state’s megasites, the large economic generators which hit home runs in the time of Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. Volkswagen invested $1 million to make cars at a megasite in Chattanooga, and Hemlock Semiconductor made a similar investment in Clarksville for its solar plant. The state’s megasite for West Tennessee in Haywood County has not yet produced those kinds of results.
“In my counties, in West Tennessee, people haven’t seen a jobs plan from the majority in this Legislature. But they watched as the governor released his budget with no mention of the West Tennessee megasite, which is the single biggest jobs creator we have in the West Tennessee region, and the governor hasn’t funded it this year,” Finney said.
Finney noted that Haslam said as a candidate for governor that Tennessee needed job creation strategies for each of the state’s 95 counties.
“How are we supposed to create a county-by-county plan when we’re not including the biggest pieces of the plan?” Finney asked.
Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, recently complained about a lack of attention to the West Tennessee megasite. Ramsey has strongly rejected the idea that the state is holding up funds for the site.
Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, the House Republican Caucus chair, said it might take time to compare performance under Bredesen, who served two four-year terms, and Haslam, who was sworn in Jan. 15.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Maggart said.
“I guess we could go back and look at Gov. Bredesen’s track record. I don’t know how long it took him to create jobs, but he was here for eight years, and I know Volkswagen and Hemlock and those things came in the last couple of years of his time here.”
The list of initiatives Democrats presented Monday include two measures sponsored by Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis. One, SB1886, would create credits where the higher unemployment in a county the greater the tax credit would be for companies that located there.
Kyle also has proposed SJR0096, which calls for a constitutional amendment to establish a tax credit system to incentivize projects that stimulate economic growth.
Kyle noted Monday that the fiscal review staff said more than 200 businesses would take advantage of his tax credit proposal. He acknowledged the cost it would mean, but he pointed out that the bill got a negative recommendation in the finance subcommittee.
Maggart had a take on the tax-credit proposal.
“Democrats and tax credits? You jest,” she said. “Usually Democrats want to raise taxes, so I’m delighted to see they are interested in giving tax credits instead of raising taxes.”
Mike McWherter, the Democratic nominee last year against Haslam, made a tax credit proposal for job creation the cornerstone of his campaign. Haslam was elected overwhelmingly.
Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, the House Democratic leader, complained about the time element in addressing jobs, but he acknowledged that Republicans have the upper hand with their strong majorities in both Houses.
“We are three-quarters of the way through the session, and we haven’t passed bills we think Tennesseans want us to pass,” Fitzhugh said. “We’re not just trying to upset anybody or anything like that. We’re talking factually here.
“We’ve got a month left in the session. There’s still time for bipartisan action, for them to take the lead because they have the votes, and we will support job creation in this state. There’s nothing more important we can talk about from now until the end of the session.”
Other bills the Democrats presented as job creators were:
- SB592/HB313, which calls for a small business sales tax holiday
- SB1385/HB1676, which calls for block grants for Tennessee contractors with the lowest bids in most circumstances
- SB0279/HB1957, which requires the board of education to develop a green jobs program
- SB1170/HB1863, which exempts new limited liability corporations from initial filing fees
- SB1548/HB1866, called the “Tennessee Small Business Job Tax Credit Act”
- SB1549/HB1864, the “Tennessee New Entrepreneur Tax Credit Act of 2011”
- SB1981/HB2102, which gives preference to Tennessee bidders if the cost of service is not 10 percent greater than those of others
- SB2013/2014/HB1765/1764, the “Tennessee Reemployment Act of 2011,” which offers tax credits for employers equal to portions of wages paid to new full-time employees.