Legislators focus on job creation

On September 7, 2011, in News 2011, by Mark Norris

By Tom Humphrey, KnoxNews.com
September 7, 2011

Panel meets small business owners

NASHVILLE — Tennessee legislators have divided into partisan groups for separate proclaimed quests to find ways of helping create new jobs while Gov. Bill Haslam is in California this week with the same mission.

On Wednesday, a House Republican Task Force heard testimony from small business owners on what can be done at the state level. There were some complaints that unemployment benefits, which now can run up to 99 weeks, make it hard to find workers to accept available jobs.

House Democrats announced they would make a six-day tour of the state soliciting comment on job creation from businessmen, local officials and the general public starting Sept. 19. A Sept. 23 stop is planned in Knoxville.

Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, who chairs the House GOP Small Business and Economic Development Task Force, said he was happy to hear that Democrats have the same objective and the effort warrants bipartisan cooperation.

“I say let’s work together,” he said.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said he also hoped for bipartisanship, though Democrat-proposed bills with a job-generation aim fared poorly in the past Republican-dominated legislative session.

On the other hand, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, derided the Democratic effort as “the Obama Apology Tour” in a news release blaming unemployment on the Washington administration.

“The Democrat tour, much like the Obama bus tour, is more about politics than job growth,” Norris said.

Haslam, who is on an industry recruiting trip to the San Diego area this week, also has recently made a point of listening to business owners in a series of “economic roundtables” across the state. Matlock said the GOP legislator group “will not get ahead of the governor” in proposing legislation for consideration next year and will coordinate its work with the Haslam administration.

A central theme of the Republican discourse has been eliminating regulations that cause problems for business. Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey each has efforts under way for encouraging businesses to provide examples of unneeded regulations for repeal.

At Wednesday’s GOP task force gathering, most of the regulations that drew complaints came from the federal level, not the state level. House Commerce Committee Chairman Steve McManus, R-Cordova, asked each person testifying for examples of what could be done at the state level and acknowledged afterward that the lack of specific answers was “pretty frustrating.”

For example, Harry Wampler of Lenoir City, CEO of Family Brands International, which operates three meat-packaging facilities, said federal rules on “humane slaughter” of livestock was “one of the most aggravating things” for his business.”

“If there are four hog squeals in your plant in a day, you get shut down,” he told the panel. “It’s just ridiculous.”

As for something state politicians could do something about, the most often mentioned subjects were unemployment benefits and worker’s compensation rules.

Unemployment benefits were extended to a maximum of 99 weeks in a bill approved earlier this year by the Legislature, 23 weeks more than previously permitted. Some of those testifying, including Josh and Earl Hammer, owners of Hammer’s department stores, said they have openings unfilled because potential employees prefer to continue drawing employment benefits rather than work.

Matlock, who voted against the bill during the past session, said he personally believes the system should be changed to “de-incentivize unemployment.”

On worker’s compensation, legislators were urged by building contractor Wyatt Owens of Paris, Tenn., to consider creating more regulations to require subcontractors to obtain worker’s compensation insurance and more enforcement officers to stop those who are ignoring the laws.

“There are eight or 10 game wardens on Kentucky Lake to check and make sure you have a fishing license,” he said. “There’s not a single person in the state of Tennessee to check if you have a contractors’ license.”

Those ignoring the law — typically taking cash for labor and working part time — compete unfairly with honest contractors trying to follow all the rules, he said.

Both the Democratic and Republican groups say they will have more specific proposals to present in time for the 2012 legislative session, which begins in January.

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