By Scott Robertson
The National Federation of Independent Business has a great line about the need for businesses to be well represented when state legislatures start to meet: “You are either at the table, or you are on the menu.”
As rhetoric goes, it’s an appeal to fear, so it’s not quite as strong with business owners who are naturally confident, or with those who are already well-represented by their local and state Chambers of Commerce. But still, it’s a great line.
At this writing, as the calendar turns, there are fewer business-related hot topics being hyped by the business lobby in Nashville than any year in recent memory. Part of that is due to that lobby’s own effectiveness. In previous sessions, for instance, the legislature has done a great deal to clean up Tennessee’s once-onerous Workers’ Comp laws. Just so, the unemployment laws in Tennessee are now more favorable to employers than in many other states.
No divisive issue stands to pit moderates against conservatives the way Medicaid expansion did last year. There is, however, the seemingly strong possibility of a gas tax hike proposal. That proposal could pit social conservatives – who reflexively rail against any and every proposed tax increase – against fiscal conservatives, who see maintaining roads and bridges as necessary for the private sector to thrive, and thus are willing to consider a higher gas tax as an investment in jobs and in competitiveness with other state economies. Taking dollars from other areas of government to replenish highway reserves that were plundered during the Bredesen administration could serve as an olive branch to social conservatives to show that the current administration is not just playing tax-and-spend.
During a telephone interview with The Business Journal in December, Tennessee Chamber of Commerce President Catherine Glover appeared less concerned with how the gas tax question will play out than with education and workforce development concerns.
Glover called Governor Haslam’s Drive to 55 push for more effective education, “vital to success in the workplace.” Glover pointed to the impending wave of baby boomer retirements as a driver of the need for qualified young employees for the businesses of Tennessee. “We’re coming up on an employee shortage,” Glover said, “especially in IT, healthcare and manufacturing.” Some of the state’s largest employers could lose as much as 40 percent of their respective workforces to retirement within the next five years alone. “Addressing the workforce is key to Tennessee’s continued success,” Glover said.
Across the border in the Commonwealth, a headline-grabbing bill has already been filed. Senate Bill 88 would increase the Virginia minimum wage from its current federally mandated level of $7.25 per hour to $8.00 per hour effective July 1, 2016, to $9.00 per hour effective July 1, 2017, and to $10.10 per hour effective July 1, 2018, unless a higher minimum wage is required by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The measure would also provide that the cash wage paid to a tipped employee would not be less than 50 percent of the minimum wage and that the tip credit would equal the difference between the cash wage required to be paid to a tipped employee and the minimum wage.
The question is not whether that bill will pass. Passage is highly unlikely. The question is whether in an election year, the vote will be closer than it has been in the last two sessions, when a nearly identical bill has been voted down soundly. Last year, the bill never sniffed the floor of the full assembly, dying in January on an 11-3 Commerce and Labor Committee vote.
Counting the District of Columbia, 30 states have now enacted minimum wages above the federally mandated $7.25/hour, and Democrats see it as an issue that could help the party in down-ticket elections come November.
There is absolutely no chance the Tennessee State Legislature will vote to raise its own state minimum wage this session. That’s because Tennessee is one of five states with no minimum wage to raise.