By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
MORRISTOWN, Tenn. — The Haslam administration’s project to reduce regulation and make Tennessee friendlier to business is still gathering data and it will be late in the year before a set of recommendations is ready.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam promised a top-to-bottom review of regulations soon after taking office in January, saying that cutting regulation would help deliver jobs and reduce the state’s nearly 10 percent unemployment rate.
Haslam said after a recent business round table that the project is taking so long “just due to the number of areas” state government regulates, and trying to determine whether existing regulations are justified.
“Most of those things were there for good reasons, so we want to make certain that we’re not just throwing something out as part of the process,” Haslam said.
While each department has been assigned a “top-to-bottom” review, the Economic and Community Development Department has taken on the highest profile.
ECD Commissioner Bill Hagerty has joined the governor on a series of statewide roundtables to discuss business regulation and incentives. Hagerty has said expects to finish the information gathering by the end of this month. A full report to the governor is expected this fall.
Hagerty said his department is working on what he called “regulatory opportunities” at the federal, state and local levels.
“Streamlining and making business-friendly environments is good for all of us,” he said.
Any changes would come on top of an already glowing reputation for Tennessee’s business regulations.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in June ranked Tennessee as the country’s top state for the taxes and regulation category, citing the state’s business-friendly Legislature and it’s “No Surprises” regulatory system.
Kim Sasser Hayden, executive director of Tennessee Conservation Voters, said her group worries that the views of business interests may be given more attention than environmental ones.
“People seem to think that lack of regulations will always equal jobs, and that’s not necessarily the case”, she said. “Because that can lead to environmental problems and public health problems.”
Hayden, who ran the campaign of Haslam’s Democratic opponent Mike McWherter in last year’s governor’s race, said she’s taking a wait-and-see approach.
“The governor had some environmental leanings as mayor of Knoxville,” she said “And we hope he’ll take everything into account — not just what he’s hearing from the business side.”
Shortly after he was sworn into office in January, Haslam announced a 45-day freeze on new rules and regulations. The Department of Commerce and Insurance couldn’t immediately say how many proposed rules were re-evaluated in the process.
The department’s own review of its operations is being prepared for the governor, said spokeswoman Shannon Ashford.
Haslam told business leaders in Hendersonville that the goal isn’t to chip away at regulations at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation without regard of the effects.
“Obviously we have an environmental responsibility and we take that very seriously,” Haslam said. “But we also want to make certain that we’re not making it where you’re not able to make wise business decisions.”
But for several speakers at the roundtables, environmental regulations have been cited as directly affecting their businesses’ competitiveness.
At the Hendersonville event, Halo Prosperities managing partner Danny Hale complained that state regulators had made unreasonable demands when his company wanted to build a highway over a stream on its 440-acre Indian Village development in Sumner County.
“TDEC comes out and says we’ve got wetlands here, so you’ve got a problem,” Hale said. “But if you pay us $150,000, the wetlands don’t really exist.”
“If it was wetlands, it was our wetlands,” he said. “So we looked at it almost as a taking.”
TDEC spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton said under the federal Clean Water Act and the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act, businesses can either pay for mitigation to replace lost resources elsewhere or come up with their own mitigation plans.
Halo decided to pay $27,300 to the Harpeth Mitigation Bank to mitigate the disturbance of .39 acres of wetlands and $140,000 to the Tennessee Stream Mitigation Program to make up for the elimination of 700 feet of lost stream, according to the department.
“I really did not mean to make an issue of my personal situation but rather to try and open a dialogue on the larger issue of ‘waters of the state,'” Hale said in an email.
“My issue is based on private property rights,” he said. “I own and have deed to the property in question. I should be able to move a drainage ditch, water flow, or creek bed or develop so called ‘wetlands’ on my property so long as I allow the water to pass unrestricted.”
At the Morristown meeting, Terry England of New Tazewell-based England Furniture noted that Chinese businesses have far lower operating costs.
“Talk about regulations, I just visited China (and) they were tipping everything into the river around the back,” he said. “I can’t dispose of my chipped wood without hauling it from Claiborne County to Loudon County.”
“They may be small issues, but collectively … we need some assistance in maintaining what we’ve got without losing it all.”
Haslam told reporters after another speech in Hendersonville that the recommendations of the Department of Economic and Community Development won’t trump the reports of other departments.
“ECD is looking at it from a jobs creation standpoint,” he said. “They don’t have the overall role in it. They’re doing just as to how it impacts job growth.”