The Business Journal Q&A: Ron Ramsey comes home
By Scott Robertson
The tweet Ron Ramsey sent Friday, April 22 read simply, “The @tnsenate of the 109th General Assembly has adjourned sine die.” The Latin term at the end means there is no date set for resumption – the business of the session is finished.
With the end of the session, and Ramsey’s prior announcement he would not seek re-election after 20 years in the state senate (plus two terms in the state house), so too ended Ramsey’s legislative business.
During his time in leadership, the business climate in Tennessee has improved markedly. That fact is due, at least in part, to the business-friendly legislative agenda for which Ramsey was responsible.
Ramsey started the morning of Monday, April 25, his first day back in his Blountville office, with The Business Journal.
The Business Journal: Let’s set the stage a bit. Business owners today know what it’s like to do business here, but what were the key business issues you were being asked to work on when you first started in the house in 1993?
Ron Ramsey: Well at that time there was a Democrat majority in the state senate and in the state house. Let’s be honest, in the great scheme of things we had pretty pro-business democrats at that time with Ned McWherter as governor, Jimmy Naifeh as speaker of the house and John Wilder as speaker of the senate. Yet every year the businesspeople still had to fight on issues like the statewide minimum wage. Labor union issues were prevalent in the state at that time, because even though the democrats were relatively pro-business, they were fairly pro-union too. Every year you had to battle to stay a right-to-work state.
The biggest thing you realize when governors come and go is how important the people they pick to run their departments are. We did not have pro-business commissioners at that time. So no matter how pro-business the governor wanted to be, those roadblocks were in place. Governor Bredesen’s Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), which is really the state EPA, was run by radical environmentalists. It was almost impossible to get things permitted. So when Governor Haslam came in and changed those commissioners, the state changed for the better.
BJ: Is it fair to say that when you started, business was playing defense in Nashville, and that in your time there, it’s been able to shift to playing offense?
RR: There’s no doubt about it. Really up until five or six years ago any business organization will tell you it was constantly playing defense. Every year they would keep their fingers crossed that the two speakers would appoint at least a relatively pro-business Commerce Committee. That was where most of those issues came from. Every year, whether it was union issues or regulatory issues we were constantly playing defense, but as I mentioned, in the last five to six years we have been able to play some offense.
BJ: You talk about Governors McWherter and Bredesen being pro-business Democrats*. There are some of our readers who will see the phrase “pro-business Democrat” and think about that what they think about ghosts. They’ve been told such a thing exists, but they haven’t seen one with their own eyes.
RR: I can understand that. It’s all relative of course. I can assure you in today’s world, Ned McWherter or Phil Bredesen would be called pro-business Democrats. But yes, some of the issues they promoted would make you scratch your head. They could be very pro-business on some things, but, for instance, Phil Bredesen was very pro-union too. But both of them did a whole lot for recruiting business and promoting business in Tennessee.
BJ: So when Governor Bredesen’s term ended and Governor Haslam’s term began, things were changing on Capitol Hill as well. What did you do to help the state government become more business friendly?
RR: Well, first I stressed to Governor Haslam how important it was to appoint the right commissioners to the departments, especially back again to TDEC. The TDEC was notorious for asking for A, B and C to get a permit done for some business, then when the business did those things, TDEC would add D, E and F to their requirements just to keep you from being able to do business. I gave Governor Haslam several examples of where that had happened and I remember when Bob Martineau came in, one of the first things that happened was one of those types of issues arose here in the district. We were able to resolve that. On Commerce and Insurance, you might think, ‘well, what’s that got to do with business?’ Let me assure you, almost every licensing process that business owners have to go through – whether you’re a real estate agent or an auctioneer or whatever – those go through the Department of Commerce and Insurance. A lot of the time, those licenses were held up for no reason other than incompetence. So we had to look at how to turn that around and get some business sense into those departments.
After all that I was able to say to the governor, ‘finally we have a Republican house, a Republican senate and a Republican governor. We can start playing offense now. We can start addressing some things like Workers Comp.’ That was an area where we weren’t competitive nationwide. I sat and watched the governor’s meetings where business leaders told us we had good tax policy and we were fiscally sound as a state, but we were lacking when it came to workers compensation.
We had, depending on the rating, double what other states had at that time, mostly because there wasn’t an arbitration system. In common sense terms, before we started reforming workers comp, if you had a workers comp case, you immediately went to court. When you went to court, that put the employer and employee at odds. You may have a 25-year employee who had an injury and you’d tell them what you could do. But once it went to court, you lawyered up and couldn’t even talk to each other. It was crazy.
So we set up an arbitration system, which meant there were some attorneys in Northeast Tennessee who weren’t too happy with me, but now we can sit down and work things out before it ever gets to court. When you do that you cut the attorney out and both sides end up better, I think. You have some communication. I think now we have seen rates stabilize and in some cases actually go down where other states are still going up.
I took what I called a “red tape tour” back in 2008 or 2009 and one of the things I heard a lot about was the unemployment compensation program we had in Tennessee and how out of control it was. I think what brought it to a head was when we had a growth business cycle get interrupted in 2008, when everything stopped, but then in 2009 and 2010 when things started picking up, employers were having a hard time hiring people. Business owners were hearing from potential employees things like, ‘call me in 15 weeks when my unemployment runs out.’ We reformed workers comp so we now have the most sound workers comp pool in the nation. We do things now like requiring people to actually be looking for work – what a novel idea. They weren’t in the past. If you are called back to work and don’t take that same job back, then you lose your unemployment compensation. When we started, we found out you could be in prison and still draw unemployment compensation checks. We reformed all those things.
We did tort reform. I remember when I became speaker in 2011. Governor Haslam came in and we started working toward putting some caps on punitive damages so businesses could have some certainty. One of the lobbyists for those business issues came to me one time and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to have a big grassroots campaign on tort reform so we could get this passed.’ I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘Tort reform passed on Jan. 12.’ This was n March. He looked at me and asked what I meant. I appointed the committees in January and I had five votes in Judiciary to make sure we got tort reform out. The rest is history. Now we are seeing some people trying to roll back some of that, but that won’t happen anytime soon.
On top of all that, just the general environment is better for business. We are doing a much better job of getting out permits. We are doing a much better job of getting out licenses.
BJ: I notice you’ve been talking a lot about working with governors, and as politicians go, you like to be a relatively humble fellow, but there have been some things that you’ve been able to accomplish because you had the role of speaker. It hasn’t been just setting the committees. You’ve been able to accomplish things from that chair that you wouldn’t have been able to as simply a state senator.
RR: Well, we changed the whole complexion of the state senate. When I came in the Democrats had a 22-15 majority. Now we have a 28-5 Republican majority, almost the most highly Republican state senate in the nation. But if you’re going to do that, you have to have results.
And you’re right, I’m not comfortable talking about myself a lot, but to be perfectly honest, the people of Northeast Tennessee are going to miss me being lieutenant governor. Of course, they would miss anybody from Northeast Tennessee who had been lieutenant governor, because you’re not going to have some of the little things – and some of the big things – on a day-to-day basis. From little things like being able to make one phone call and having problems fixed to bigger things like passing a piece of legislation that allows the Pinnacle in Bristol to grow and flourish, and hopefully the Crossings too, down here at the intersection of the interstates. Those things would not have happened, period, if it had not been for a piece of legislation I passed.
I remember when Eastman was going through their big decision about their corporate headquarters. They asked the state for incentives and I remember Charlie Poe who lobbies for Eastman saying they’d gotten a proposal from the state and them saying, ‘That’s not good enough.’ The state would tell him, ‘That’s the best we can do.’ So Charlie would say, ‘Well, we’ll call Ron Ramsey and see what we can get done,” and the state would say, ‘No-no-no, wait a minute. We’ll see if we can’t come up with something else.’ That happened, like, three times until they finally got what they wanted. People don’t understand that the biggest industrial recruitment package in the history of the state of Tennessee was done for Eastman. You might think of Volkswagen or some of these others, but it was Eastman.
I remember one time up in Johnson County, there was a company up there that made yarn and thread. They were called Parkdale. At that time they employed a few hundred people and were getting ready to expand to several hundred more. They were probably the biggest industrial expansion in Johnson County. We had used every metric to give every incentive we could. We still were a million dollars short of them committing to staying in Johnson County. I called Commissioner Haggerty and told him what we needed. He said, ‘Ron, we have done everything we can.’ I said, ‘you don’t understand. They’re moving out if they don’t get this money. Three hundred to 400 jobs in Johnson County means a lot more than 300-400 jobs in Rutherford County. We have got to have this money.’ I’ll never forget him saying, ‘Ron, the bad news is, tomorrow is my last day in office. Randy Boyd is coming in tomorrow. The good news is, today is my last day in office.’ We got that million dollars and they stayed up there. Being able to do things like getting $8.8 million to buy Doe Mountain up in Johnson County that I think will grow and flourish. You look at the call centers that we have gotten in here. There was hardly a week went by that I didn’t get a call from a county mayor or a Clay Walker telling me what they needed, and I’d be able to help. I could pick up a phone and make things happen. That is going to be something the people of Northeast Tennessee will miss, no doubt about that.
BJ: You had a great deal to do with the success of the efforts to keep NN Inc.’s corporate headquarters in Johnson City, too. How did that all go down?
RR: There were several things going on there. That came down to Dan Eldridge, the Washington County mayor. That was one where I helped Northeast Tennessee, not just my district. That was not in my district.
Again, that company was not going to stay here, and I worked closely with the commissioner of economic and community development and worked closely with Mayor Eldridge to make sure we got what we needed. I can’t remember the exact dollar figures now. I just remember that I dug in and said, ‘this is what we need to do because this is huge for Northeast Tennessee.’
I’ve got to be honest with you. Sometimes where I do get frustrated is when we recruit businesses to come to Northeast Tennessee and we get right to the edge and for some reason they end up going to middle Tennessee. That happens way more than you might imagine. Middle Tennessee has infrastructure. It has a pro football team. It has Predators hockey. It has all those direct flights out of the airport. So when we get an opportunity to get somebody here, I have gone to the mat for them to make sure that happens. Those are few and far between at times, and we do see sometimes the rich get richer in those collar counties of Nashville. So when we had an opportunity in Northeast Tennessee, I always went to the mat to make sure it happened.
BJ: Are there –
RR: Before we go any farther, and you may be about to ask about this, I want to just bring up one thing where I think we did the best work, and that’s in education. You can talk to employers all day long and yes, tort reform is big and unemployment compensation is big, but if you don’t have a trained workforce, then you don’t have anything. We literally broke the back of the teachers unions here in the state, because I think they were more for the adults than the kids. Every time you’d go to one of their meetings, they would be talking about compensation or insurance, nothing about educating kids. To say we have moved the ball is an understatement. We are leading the nation right now in test score improvements in K-12 education. We have done that four years in a row now. The best day of my political career, and I mean this, I was driving down Highway 75 past Tri-Cities Christian School, when the governor called and said our National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores were in. When you heard we were 40-somethingth in the nation in education, you were hearing those NAEP scores. I pulled over to the side of the road, said a little prayer and crossed my fingers. I remember thinking, ‘We have done everything. We did teacher evaluations. We did tenure reform. We took collective bargaining away from the teachers. We did charter schools, everything. When he told me we were not only the fastest growing state in the nation during that two year test group, but we were the fastest growing in the history of the test, I literally got a tear in my eye. We were making a difference. Now the NAEP scores are out again, and we did the same thing. We honored an eighth grade math teacher in Nashville a month or so ago. At that time we had gone from 47th or 48th in the nation to 24th in the nation. That’s in five years. That’s amazing! Then you get on the higher ed side. You know, when I graduated from Sullivan Central and the next day about half my graduating class went to work for Eastman. That’s doesn’t happen anymore. You can’t just graduate high school and get a good job.
We began promoting the two-year schools. We had to figure out how to get the students there. Working with the governor, we put in place the Tennessee Promise, which makes us the only state in the nation that you can come out of high school and go straight to two-year school for free. That’s working. The FAFSA form is something that students fill out to get eligible for aid for college. Forty percent of the FAFSA forms that were filled out in America this year were in Tennessee. That tells you that this is working. The governing boards that we’ve set up this year to help the four-year schools I think will make a big difference. Those boards will help schools like ETSU and MTSU determine what’s best for their own areas.
So education reform is the biggest thing that we accomplished, and that took a change from Democrats to Republicans because the Democrats were so beholden to the teachers unions. When those teachers unions said, ‘jump,’ the Democrats said, ‘how high.’ I saw this for almost 20 years.
BJ: Are there regrets about things you wanted to accomplish but weren’t able to?
RR: Not really. I was trying to examine that. The reason I am stepping down is my family. I’m 60 years old now. If I had run again, I would be 65 when I got out. For some reason, there’s a big difference in my mind between 60 and 65. I have four grandchildren now. Four years ago, I only had one. He just registered for kindergarten. I just said to myself, ‘I don’t need this.’ But at the same time, I analyzed my career and said, ‘what more can I do here?’ I could continue improving, don’t get me wrong, but I think the goals that I set, I have pretty much achieved. We’re not going to go past having a 28-5 Republican majority in the senate. That’s as much as you’re going to do. We need to continue our education progress, but we’ve set the ball rolling there. Somebody else can do that. I just couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to accomplish.
BJ: You didn’t want to accomplish taking the word ‘lieutenant’ out from in front of the word ‘governor’ in your title?
RR: No. I tried that one time. I had fun running for governor. People don’t realize how much money influences that. I love the governor and we couldn’t get along better, but obviously he had a little more money than I did when we ran against each other last time. I raised about $3 million and he spent about $18 million. You just can’t do that. And I don’t want to do that any more. If you handed it to me on a platter, I’d say, ‘no, I’m kinda done.’ I’m not running for anything else.
People say, ‘why is Ron Ramsey really retiring? What’s he want to do?’ I’m telling you the truth. I want to come back and run my real estate business. I want to work one full-time job instead of two full-time jobs like I’ve done for 24 years. I want to slow down just a tad.
I told my wife last week as we were sitting at the house, ‘All my life I have been in a hurry. I have been self-employed since I was 24 years old. I started my surveying business at 24 and my real estate business at 30. It just seems like all my life I have been in a hurry. I want to be able to step back at least a little bit.’
My wife laughed at me and said, ‘Ron, that’s your personality. You’re always going to be in a hurry. Well, maybe I want to be in a hurry for a little different things now.
BJ: You mentioned the individual university boards for the former Tennessee Board of Regents schools. It’s been speculated in print that you might want to chair the ETSU board. Any truth to that?
RR: I wouldn’t want to be chair. I wouldn’t mind serving on it at some point. I think I would be interested in that, but I don’t guess I can until I get out of office. I haven’t ever looked at that in particular. Those board members will be appointed this fall, though, so I don’t think I could be one of the initial ones, but obviously I love ETSU. I went there. My wife went there. All three of my daughters went there. My sons-in law went there, my mom, my grandmother – we kind of bleed blue and gold, so I want to continue to help and support ETSU. That’s another place where we’ve been able to do some things over the last few years with the performing arts center – I helped get money for that and got that moved up to the top of the list. I got some money for the football stadium. I think in the end that will help ETSU more than we’ll ever know.
I love Dr. Noland to death. Golly, what a dynamic personality. We have to keep him at ETSU. The governor was teasing me when the Chancellor John Morgan of the Board of Regents stepped down. He said, ‘Dr. Noland would be good for that position.’ I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘Don’t even think about it.’ We want to keep Dr. Noland here for a few more years.
So obviously, I do love ETSU. Would I be willing to serve on that board sometime? Yes. But I don’t go out of office as senator till Nov. 8, election day, and the speaker is a two-year term, so I don’t go out of office there till Jan. 10. Those boards will be appointed by then and I assume that as an elected official I won’t be able to serve. So yes, I want to help them moving forward someday, but no, I don’t want to chair it. I don’t want that much responsibility.
BJ: So what duties do you have remaining as lieutenant governor between now and Jan.10?
RR: Oh, I have boards and commissions to make appointments to. So there are still a few things to do even though we are out of session. That’s another place by the way, that we have changed the culture. I did make a difference there. The two years before I had Governor Haslam and Beth Harwell to work with, we got out on June 18 and June 14. That’s absolutely ridiculous. That’s letting the session to run you instead of you running the session. We came in with goals of when we wanted hearings to stop and committees to shut down. I hope they continue to get out in April. I think that’s what our founding fathers wanted. I think it’s one reason Tennessee is so successful and well-run is because we are citizen legislators. We come back home and run our businesses. We got out two years in a row now on April 22. We should never go past May.
So between now and January, the second Thursday of the month, I am chair of the building commission. We make sure all the architects are lined up and the jobs are working. I always go down for two or three days for those meetings. And there will still be constituents calling me asking for things to be solved. I’ll stay busy.
BJ: What will you miss most about being lieutenant governor?
RR: The people. I helped almost every state senator get elected. They are some of my best friends in the world. A week ago Monday I took 26 Ramseys to Nashville. The governor had lunch for us at the governor’s residence. I told my real family from Northeast Tennessee that I was glad they got to meet my other family. I room with two other state senators for the last 10 years. They’re all good people. You know the stereotypical politician just is not the case in Tennessee. I’d say the majority of the state senators are tea-totallers. That breaks the stereotype. I will miss those people a lot. I’ll try to stay in touch, but it won’t be the same.
BJ: What would you like to see from the legislature for Northeast Tennessee in the future? Many folks are scared that Knoxville will become the eastern border of Tennessee again in the eyes of the state government.
RR: I hope that’s not the case, but (pauses) it will be a long time, if ever, before anyone else works their way up to lieutenant governor from Northeast Tennessee again. I just hope I can still use my influence with the friendships I have there, and with whoever takes my seat – and I’m staying out of that race – will be able to work with the other state senators and state representatives to make sure Nashville knows that east Tennessee doesn’t stop at Knoxville. I’m sure that as long I’m living and have a relationship with the people in the legislature, I’ll still be able to help some (pauses again), but it won’t be the same.
*The August 2006 issue of The Business Journal featured Bredesen on the cover with an article detailing how he had built strong support in the Tennessee business community for his re-election bid.