By Thomas Bailey Jr., CommercialAppeal.com
January 7, 2014

A more politically engaged Greater Memphis Chamber on Tuesday unveiled a 2014 legislative agenda that urges support for expanding the city’s multi-modal transportation capabilities, further establishing the airport economy, and funding for pre-kindergarten programs and Common Core school standards.

About 80 business people gathered at the chamber’s headquarters Downtown in the late afternoon to hear about the agenda and meet with local legislators.

Among lawmakers attending were state Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, Rep. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, Rep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis, and Rep. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis.

Greg Duckett, a Baptist Memorial Healthcare executive and chair of the chamber’s Government Affairs Committee, reminded the crowd that the chamber has just established a political action committee and will use the funds to support candidates supporting the chamber’s goals.

Duckett gave a brief overview of 13 chamber priorities among six areas: transportation/logistics; education and workforce development; healthcare; small business and entrepreneurship; regulatory and administrative priorities; and crime prevention and neighborhood stabilization.

Distilling the suggestions of 2,300 local businesses, the chamber is pushing for greater coordination among institutions for workforce training, Gov. Bill Haslam’s version of Obamacare, and greater restrictions on public records in the recruitment of employers.

The chamber also calls for tougher laws in cracking down on gang activity and heavy littering, and the erasing delinquent property taxes under certain circumstances, including when the tax burden exceeds a vacant property’s value and makes it hard to sell and revitalize.

The chamber culled the wish list from many requests it received from member businesses. “We really tried to focus on economic and community development,” Andre Dean, the chamber’s vice president of community development, said earlier Tuesday.

The chamber’s Government Affairs Executive Committee goes through the requests and recommends the final items for approval by the chamber board of directors.

The yearly lists have impact, Dean said. He cited as examples money received to improve the traffic-snarled Lamar Corridor and the tourist-heavy Elvis Presley Boulevard.

Many of the agenda items don’t require new laws, but action from state agencies which already have authority and the resources to help get things done.

Dean described the document as bipartisan. “We don’t look at our agenda as what we can get passed with Republicans or Democrats,’’ he said. “We look at what we can get done that’s best for our community. It doesn’t matter who’s in leadership in Nashville; we need things in Memphis.”

The agenda does ask legislators to support Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s own plan to expand Medicaid “and an overall health system that maximizes choice and value, avoids unfunded mandates on industry …”

But Dean said the agenda is full of bipartisan goals, such as support pre-kindergarten programs to prepare all children for academic success.

“We’re going to continue to push pre-K,” he said. “We think that can change lives and the outcome of our area.”

The chamber also wants the state’s open-records law changed so that local government can shield public records involving economic development. The idea is to keep secret the documents that could prematurely expose companies negotiating with local officials as the firms consider moving their jobs to Shelby County, Dean indicated.

Dean could not cite an example when such exposure has cost Memphis a prospect. “But we know of other cities where it’s cost them jobs because it was exposed,” he said.

Local legislators have been aware of the chamber’s legislative agenda as it has been in the works over the past few months, Norris, the Senate majority leader, told the gathering. While he supports some but not all the agenda items, Norris said the chamber event motivates him to return to Nashville and the General Assembly.

None of the legislators are excited about leaving their homes, families and jobs, Norris said.

“Having this type of gathering and hearing from all of you and hearing your hopes and dreams does give us incentive to get us focused on what’s important to you and what we think we can accomplish for you and this community,” Norris said.

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