Tennessee business leaders outline legislative priorities

Hank Hayes • Jan 19, 2007 at 10:00 AM

KINGSPORT - Affordable health care and work force training topped this year's business agenda for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry (TCCI) during a legislative breakfast attended by about 200 Northeast Tennessee chamber members Friday.

TCCI President Deb Woolley said having Republican Ron Ramsey of Blountville as Tennessee's new lieutenant governor and Jason Mumpower of Bristol as House GOP leader will help pro-business legislation in the upcoming General Assembly session. Ramsey and Mumpower were honored at the breakfast.

"I think Lieutenant Governor Ramsey and the Republican caucus have always been pro-business," Woolley said before the breakfast. "The problem they have had in the past, even the last two years when they were in the majority (in the Senate), they didn't have control of key committees. They didn't have control of where bills went.

"Now, with Lieutenant Governor Ramsey, he will be able to control a lot of that. Pro-business bills that didn't have a chance for public discussion will now be on the agenda, get debated and hopefully through a greater understanding of what they mean to us and what they mean to the people who are employed in this state, it will result in some favorable treatment."

Woolley told chamber members that pro-business bills like tort reform used to be introduced every year but would be "sent to a place that doesn't see the light of day."

Concerning health care, TCCI wants to protect employers from cost shifting as a result of reforms to TennCare, the state's expanded Medicaid program, as well as preserving managed care systems.

According to TCCI, employer-based health insurance premiums have increased 73 percent since 2000 compared to wage growth of 15 percent.

"Companies that offer health insurance are requiring employees to contribute a larger share toward their coverage," a TCCI position paper noted.

In work force training, TCCI supports increased school-to-work programs and an increased partnership between the state and businesses to keep manufacturing jobs, in addition to expanding the state's voluntary pre-kindergarten program.

Kingsport Chamber President Miles Burdine asked lawmakers about the fate of the state's Basic Education Program (BEP) that allocates state dollars to local school systems.

Ramsey said a proposal to change funding to a fiscal capacity rather than a countywide funding model would hurt Northeast Tennessee.

"Hopefully it will be tinkered to the point where we will come out better," Ramsey said.

State Rep. Nathan Vaughn, D-Kingsport, indicated he would take a more aggressive stance against severe BEP changes that "would destroy" midsize school systems.

"If the governor supports it, I'm against it," Vaughn said of major BEP changes.

Vaughn also issued a call for lawmakers to be less partisan.

"I'm a Democrat ... (but) we've got to stop asking the question of partisanship and ask the question ‘What are you doing for the people you serve?'" he said. "I talk to people who are hurting and have issues, and none of those folks care which party I'm from."

Mumpower warned "job killer bills" introduced last year will probably return. For instance, House Democrats last year passed a state minimum wage and a measure to allow firefighters to negotiate with local governments, but both were defeated in the Senate.

"There could be a reoccurrence of a minimum wage bill higher and separate than the federal government has, in addition to labor bills and new standards that are created to affect businesses small or large," Mumpower said.

Woolley said "it does matter who governs," and new state Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, noted Ramsey and Mumpower are ready to lead.

"Of the lawmakers up here, every person works at a small business," Lundberg said.

For more about TCCI go to www.tnchamber.org.

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