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Tennessee: GOP may block 'living wage'
The Tennessean
Michael Cass

December 4, 2011
View the Original Article

Months after they prevented Nashville from requiring city contractors to sign a nondiscrimination pledge, Republican state lawmakers are now moving to put more limits on cities’ ability to insist that businesses meet certain standards in how they treat their employees.

A bill the General Assembly will consider next year would prohibit local governments from imposing requirements on contractors doing business with them for health insurance coverage, minimum wage levels or family leave allowances beyond what state law requires.

State Rep. Glen Casada, R-College Grove, who plans to sponsor the House version of the legislation, said small-business owners shouldn’t have to deal with different requirements when they cross county lines. Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, has already filed the Senate version.

“If you’re a small businessman and you do business in Woodbury and Murfreesboro and Franklin, it’s the same as far as minimum wage and family leave and insurance no matter where you’re doing business in Tennessee,” Casada said. “That is why we’re doing this.”

The legislation attempts to build on Republicans’ success last spring, when they nullified the Nashville nondiscrimination ordinance. That law would have required Metro contractors to pledge not to discriminate against their employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But the General Assembly overturned it, and Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill into law over the objections of numerous advocacy groups and major corporations.

Casada said the other proposed restrictions on business regulation were part of his original plan to prevent contractor nondiscrimination policies like Metro’s, but he decided to “break it into pieces” to make it more digestible for lawmakers.

Metro Council members and others who opposed the state’s nondiscrimination decision said they’re also troubled by the new legislation. They said the proposal is ironic, coming from a group of Republicans who often rail against mandates imposed by Washington officials.

“I continue to be amazed that the folks who are so often telling the federal government to get out of their business continue to want to create roadblocks for municipalities,” Councilwoman Megan Barry said.

Barry has worked to create a “living wage” for Metro employees, but she said she doesn’t have any plans to try to place similar requirements on other employers.

Casada rejected the claims of Republican hypocrisy.

“We just want smaller government,” he said. “To have a big, overreaching local government would defeat the purpose.”

Through a spokeswoman, Kelsey referred questions to Casada. But he said in a news release announcing his proposal last month that the legislation would “open up job opportunities, especially for minority teens in Tennessee.”

Citing a study published in May by labor economists William Even and David Macpherson, Kelsey said increases in minimum wage requirements reduce employment rates for black male teenagers.

“Excessive regulations from local governments are unwittingly pricing certain employees out of jobs, especially minority teens, who do not yet have the skill set to demand high-wage, high-benefit jobs,” Kelsey said in the release.

The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce has not taken a position on the legislation.

Jim Kyle, the Senate Democratic leader, said the Republican bill is simply another example of “pre-emption of the local government.”

“I’m just a believer that elected officials of local governments ought to be able to determine the quality of life of the communities they’re elected from,” said Kyle, who represents part of Memphis.

Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project, which supported the Metro nondiscrimination ordinance and is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state, said he’s worried about Republican efforts.

“All the lobbying interests that care about local government need to wake up,” he said. “If we don’t stop this train, local authority is going to be gutted in the next few years.”

Sanders said the legislation could prevent cities from requiring the extension of benefits to domestic partners of contractors’ employees. But he said he hasn’t heard anyone in city government talk about pursuing such an initiative.

Casada acknowledged that most local governments in Tennessee aren’t pursuing the kinds of regulations he’s looking to prohibit. But he believes Memphis and Nashville could.

“The bigger cities seem to be interested in these macro issues,” he said.

Memphis and Shelby County approved living wage ordinances for companies they do business with in 2006 and 2007. The Memphis ordinance required contractors to pay employees $10 per hour with benefits or $12 an hour without benefits when the council passed it five years ago, The Commercial Appeal reported.