Embarrassed after last year’s thrashing at the polls, Tennessee’s Democrats kept it on the down-low for weeks but suddenly are offering sharp critiques of Gov. Bill Haslam and the Republicans running the legislature.
Democrats saw their opening with the introduction of Haslam’s first package of bills and the awkward absence of anything resembling a jobs bill from the governor, who has promised to keep a laser-like focus on improving the economy.
That shortage of substance on jobs, coupled with highly publicized Republican bills to undercut the teachers’ union and other public-employee associations, opened the door for Democrats to argue that the GOP is playing politics while the economy burns in Tennessee.
“A lot of what they’re doing is punitive in nature. They’re trying to go after the Democratic contributors. If you look at a lot of bills filed by Republicans, they’re going after our base of support,” said Rep. Mike Turner of Old Hickory, chairman of the House Democrats’ caucus. “They’re acting like Tom DeLay when he took over in Washington. They’re starting to strong-arm lobbyists. They’re starting to carry lists around of who donated to who.”
The governor tried to answer critics in advance by contending in the days before he submitted his bill package that it was impossible for the state to legislate its way to economic recovery. He’s promising instead to rid the state of burdensome business regulations, although he has yet to name any.
“I don’t think there’s a legislative package up here that will create jobs,” Haslam said. “I do think this: I think looking at rules and regulations and where we might be hand-tying businesses and being actively engaged and going out and recruiting and selling Tennessee — that’s how we create jobs here.”
Democrats dispute that and touted their own jobs bills at a news conference last week. It’s a debate that underscores the wide gap in the two parties’ view of the role of government. Republicans see government as an obstacle, while Democrats believe it should take an active role in creating jobs.
“The trite thing to say is you can’t legislate jobs,” said House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley. “You can’t pass a law to require a company to move to Tennessee. But you can certainly do some things to encourage that.”
Among the Democrats’ ideas: a sales-tax holiday for small businesses and a change in the law to require state government to buy goods and services from Tennessee businesses if possible rather than c contracting with companies outside the state.
Fitzhugh said the sales-tax holiday would provide “a little jump-start so that, if a small business needs some capital investment, that small business can buy that and be relieved of a pretty high sales-tax obligation of about 10 percent.”
“If we encourage one new entrepreneur, that’s jobs,” he said. “We’re going to have to create jobs one, five, 10, 50 at a time.”
Republicans, who say they are working to create a friendly climate for long-term economic growth, deny they’re trying to punish Democratic constituencies.
“It’s amazing when you’ve lost your power that all of a sudden the other person’s abusing power,” Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said.
While Haslam didn’t submit any jobs bills, he did call for limiting jury awards to $750,000 for pain and suffering and disfigurement in negligence cases against businesses and health care professionals. Haslam said that’s “to make sure there’s a predictable environment” for businesses.
But the state’s trial lawyers, another big Democratic campaign contributor like the teachers’ union, say medical malpractice filings actually have dropped 44 percent since 2008 and account for only 3 percent of all civil lawsuits.
“Damage caps amount to more government, not less. Tennesseans are trusted in the ballot box and should continue to be trusted in the jury box,” the trial lawyers’ association said in a statement.
Haslam also submitted education reforms and claimed them as economic improvement measures. To produce a better-educated workforce for high-quality jobs, he said he wants to weaken teacher tenure and lift the state’s cap on charter schools. The Tennessee Education Association has opposed both in the past, but another bill is causing the most controversy.
Wisconsin is embroiled in public protests because that state’s Republicans want to ban public-employee unions from bargaining over issues other than wages. Here, Republicans would prohibit the TEA from negotiating any issue by repealing outright the 33-year-old law giving collective bargaining rights to teachers. That would effectively bust the TEA, which traditionally gives more campaign cash to Democrats than Republicans.
Perhaps realizing that he runs the risk of appearing too politically partisan, Haslam is trying to stay out of that fight, telling legislative leaders he will remain neutral.
Before his bill cleared the Senate Education Committee on a 6-3 party-line vote this month, Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Brentwood, criticized the TEA as a “fierce proponent for mediocrity” and labeled collective bargaining “an albatross” hampering children’s education. Democrats and their supporters pounced on the opportunity to paint Republicans as anti-teachers.
Tennessee public employee associations threw a raucous rally at the Legislative Plaza last week to denounce that bill and other Republican attempts to undercut their power in this state. Other bills outlaw union political contributions and make it a crime to create “a hazardous or offensive condition” by picketing. Tennessee Citizen Action’s Mary Mancini called it “a direct attack on freedom.”
“You could take what Jack Johnson was saying and substitute teachers for al-Qaeda or Enron or some other bad actor out there,” Turner said. “These are teachers. Everybody in this state has a good memory of some teacher who impacted their lives. These are good people in our communities, and they’re trying to make them bad guys, and that’s just wrong. We’re standing with the teachers.”
“There’s people out of work and hurting out there,” Turner added. “It’s time for Republicans to govern. The people gave them a mandate and they don’t want to govern. They want to play politics. The election is over and we need to govern now, and we’ll start campaigning a year and a half from now.”