Despite a rather testy exchange between the two parties’ caucus chairs about the “Tennessee Wage Protection Act” on the House floor Thursday, the bill passed 66-27-1 and heads for the Senate committee process beginning next week.
The chamber’s approval moves House Bill 501 one stop closer to ending a four-year battle to prohibit cities and counties from setting wages, family leave and insurance benefits that private businesses must offer employees as a condition of obtaining local-government contracts or operating in the jurisdiction.
“These are issues best left up to the state and federal governments, not local government,” Republican Caucus Chair Glen Casada said.
If the bill becomes law, it would nullify regulations passed in Nashville and Shelby County requiring businesses contracting with those governments to offer a certain level of wages and benefits to employees.
“Once again we have a piece of legislation that will tie the hands of the local government. You are preventing them from being able to negotiate good contracts,” said Democratic Rep. Larry Miller, whose amendment to exempt his home of Memphis and Shelby County was tabled.
The issue of prevailing wages brought Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Turner to the floor. He grilled Casada on whether he knew what a prevailing wage was, and a touchy back and forth ensued.
According to the bill, when awarding contracts local governments cannot “require a prevailing wage be paid in excess of the wages established by the prevailing wage commission for state highway construction projects in accordance with title (state law) or the Tennessee occupational wages prepared annually by the department of labor and workforce development, employment security division, labor market information for state building projects.”
Rep. Antonio Parkinson, of Memphis, questioned the differences in the costs of living in Shelby County and Crockett County, population 14,500, and suggested the local officials there know what’s best for their workers.
Casada fired back: “If a local government, and I’m not going to use any names, mandates 30 bucks an hour for a construction job, that drives up the cost of that construction, and it causes that entity go further in debt. In turn, that causes taxes to go up on the taxpayers of that community. This bill is an attempt to stop that.”
Parkinson complained of the hypocrisy he perceives in the Republican-run Legislature dictating mandates on local governments when often GOP lawmakers criticize federal intervention in state affairs.
“When the federal government puts things on us that take away personal freedom or economic freedom, that’s wrong,” Casada replied. “When local government does the same invasion on local folks, it’s up to us to protect the citizens of the state.”
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick got in the last word before the vote. Decisions made by local governments reach beyond their jurisdictional boundaries, he said.
“Big cities affect the whole state. They don’t just affect their city limits,” the fifth-term Republican from Hixson said. “They are economic generators for the surrounding counties. That alone is reason enough not to let them set up some little people’s republic in some city in the state of Tennessee.”
The vote went mostly along partisan lines. Republicans siding with Democrats against the bill included Mark Pody of Lebanon and David Alexander of Winchester. Joining them was Kent Williams, an independent. Charles Curtiss of Sparta was the only Democrat to vote in favor of HB501.