Tennessee Senate Bill 364/ House Bill 563 (SB364/HB563) – known more commonly as Tennessee’s latest “License to Discriminate” – has been presented as a bill protecting business from being penalized by local governments for anti-discrimination policies. This appeals to the far-right base, but the implications of the bill are much more far-reaching, and many of Tennessee’s mayors are having none of it.
In reality SB364/HB563 prevents local governments from considering important factors, including how well a company pays (bringing better-paying jobs to their citizens) or how well they insure their employees (denying cities the right to attempt to attract companies with better insurance, and thus reducing the burden on taxpayers for healthcare). Thus local governments would lose the ability to woo companies offering excellent benefits and pay, leveling the playing field for companies paying minimum wage and offering sub-standard ‘benefits’.
The bill’s sponsors, Sen. Todd Gardenhire and Rep. Jason Zachary, have presented this bill as an important stop-gap against discrimination in local procurement: but discrimination against whom? Companies not paying fair wages or protecting their employees? Which protected class is that? For this reason, advocates have pointed out that this bill is little more than one more example of state Republicans attempting to pre-empt local rule. When asked for comment on this bill, Dan Springer Deputy Director, Media Affairs, City of Memphis, merely replied, “We officially oppose all pre-emptive bills.”
“Our reading of the bill is that it would preclude Metro from taking a company’s policies related to health insurance, family leave, minimum wage or anti-discrimination into account when considering whether to provide economic development incentives to, or otherwise contract with, the company,” said a statement issued by Nashville Mayor David Briley’s office. “We believe local governments are in the best position to make these kinds of decisions on behalf of their citizens.”
Mayor Andy Berke of Chattanooga was explicit: “This bill is bad for business. If it passes, it will be essentially impossible for local leaders to negotiate for the wages and benefits that could help our working families the most. Here again, our state legislature wastes precious time coming up with solutions to problems that don’t exist. Legislation like this sends a strong signal that Tennessee welcomes employers who discriminate, and that only makes us unattractive to the industries that we need to keep growing. Cities like Chattanooga need more good jobs and private investment – not more reasons for companies to avoid our state altogether.”
Nothing illustrates the point made by the mayors of many of Tennessee’s largest cities better than the fact that the state has exempted it’s own development agency, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, from the provisions of SB364/HB563! If it’s bad for Tennessee, why isn’t it bad for Chattanooga, Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, etc.?