By State Sen. Lowe Finney
Gov. Bill Haslam’s announcement concerning the restructuring of the Department of Economic and Community Development came as a surprise to both of us, as well as to our constituents. The department is generally recognized as one of the best in the country, and Tennessee has repeatedly been named one of the top places in the nation for businesses, entrepreneurs and relocations. Now, Gov. Haslam indicates that his changes will make Tennessee the best place in the Southeast for jobs. We fear he is lowering the bar to claim success.
When Governor Phil Bredesen took office in 2003, one of the biggest criticisms of the previous administration was its inability to attract jobs from outside the state. So Gov. Bredesen focused on leveling the playing field for businesses to invest in Tennessee, no matter where they were from. As a result, the department brought in 200,000 jobs and more than $34 billion in economic investment. It is directly responsible for luring Volkswagen, Hemlock, Nissan, Wacker Chemie, Electrolux, Bridgestone and numerous other businesses to Tennessee. In a recession, Tennessee was creating jobs and attracting companies. As the national economy recovers, one would expect such efforts to reap even greater rewards.
But Gov. Haslam says that he can do better at growing jobs by cutting positions and focusing on in-state businesses, rather than attracting businesses from across the country to Tennessee. He has every right to do so, and we are cautiously optimistic that his plan will create jobs across the state. To be fair, however, we must note that Gov. Haslam is talking about focusing on the very companies that Gov. Bredesen attracted. Now, the governor is saying that if such opportunities present themselves in the future, he will not make it a priority to attract them to Tennessee. It’s the wrong message to send.
Our unemployment rate remains stagnant while the national rate declines. The administration just celebrated its first 100 days in office — yet if you lost your job on the day Gov. Haslam won his election, your unemployment benefits expired this week. There is no time for celebration. We should be doing everything we can to grow jobs in Tennessee, through a combination of working with established companies while continuing to convince new businesses to relocate here. Instead, the governor is cutting 71 positions, more than half of whom are community planners who typically assist communities in developing long-term economic plans. These services are invaluable in rural areas we serve, many of which have double-digit unemployment rates.
Gov. Haslam has not indicated how he will administer these services under his plan, and there has been no mention of whether cutting staff equates to cutting expenses. The governor has already given huge pay raises to many of his cabinet members, and he insists that it is the right thing to give these increases to them instead of veteran jobs-growth officials. We hope that he will at least save Tennessee taxpayers some money in the process.
When it comes down to it, the governor’s announcement is not a jobs plan. Instead, it amounts to chair shuffling in an attempt to refocus the state on job creation, while drawing attention away from bills that propose a state currency for Tennessee, attack teachers and disenfranchise voters. There is no doubt that such a move is needed during a legislative session that has been about anything but jobs. But never forget that when watching a magician perform, it’s not the hand he is waving so dramatically that is performing the trick. It is his other hand that is creating the illusion. In the case of the governor’s proposals, the hand he is not waving is in your pocket.