TN Legislature Really Is Taking Care of Business

Actions of the 107th General Assembly, recently adjourned, establish that businesses generally have reached a new peak of political power in our state.
Probably the most prominent illustration came when the business lobby locked horns with the Second Amendment lobby over whether employees should be able to keep guns in their locked cars in the company parking lot, even if the company prohibits firearms on premises.
The “Safe Commute Act,” as the National Rifle Association and the Tennessee Firearms Association called it, was the subject of a vigorous and intense push – including a TFA threat to politically crucify those voting no. The business lobby pushed back with less rhetorical bombast but equal vigor.
Maybe the whole thing – pitting individual gun rights against business property rights — was largely symbolic. But legislators took it seriously and business won.
Beyond the symbolic, examples abound of legislators in the Republican majority making Tennessee, already rated at the top of business-friendly lists, even more business friendly.

A sampler:
n Complaints about unwarranted collection of unemployment benefits led to the Unemployment Insurance Accountability Act of 2012, which creates stricter rules for qualifying, requires more verification that recipients are looking for work, makes recipients subject to random enforcement audits, makes those getting severance pay ineligible for unemployment checks while the severance is still being paid, and requires recipients to take jobs at lower pay than their lost job. (SB3658)
n The inheritance tax was repealed, providing substantial savings for those who want to pass their business on to heirs. The exemption level, now covering estates valued up to $1 million, will be raised in steps between now and 2015. (HB3760)
n Having enacted a major tort reform bill last year by limiting noneconomic damages in successful lawsuits, legislators followed up this year with lesser measures with a similar goal. Perhaps most notable is a bill that requires the person filing a lawsuit to pay the defendant’s attorney fees up to $10,000 if the lawsuit is ruled groundless by a judge on a motion to dismiss. (HB3124)
n The state’s FastTrack support of new and expanding businesses will now include $80 million of direct cash grants in addition to previous incentives to cover infrastructure improvements, job training or tax credits. (HB2344)
n Bills that could be characterized as a tax increase on a business were shot down. Examples include the proposed repeal of a property tax break now enjoyed by solar installations (HB3296), deemed too broad by the state comptroller’s office, and a bill that could have increased local government collections of hotel-motel taxes (HB3319).
n While legislators in the past have approved multiple mandates requiring health insurance to cover various things (hearing aids for children last year), this year no such efforts were successful. An example was legislation that would have required insurance companies to pay for orally administered anti-cancer chemotherapy drugs. That bill was defeated despite an appeal by Republican Rep. Curry Todd, who revealed that he suffers from cancer. (HB1087)
n State departments and agencies would give more advance notice — at least 45 days — to those holding state professional licenses, certifications or registrations that would be impacted by any pending fee increases or regulation changes. (HB3688)
n The “Tennessee Works Act” makes companies eligible for state grants (largely using federal money) for training of previously unemployed workers they hire. (SB2129)
One is hard pressed to find legislation approved in this year’s session that could be deemed as unfriendly to businesses.
A possible example, at least for some big companies, is a bill that requires advance approval from the Department of Revenue when claiming deductions from the state excise tax for payments made to affiliated companies. (SB2234).
The department estimates the measure, which was part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s legislative package, will translate into $12.5 million in increased revenue. That’s based on the proposition that companies will be deterred from even trying to take debatable deductions and, if they try, will be turned down in many cases.
As things stand now, Revenue Commissioner Richard Roberts told a Senate committee, that about 100 companies are “in various stages of audits” to determine whether deductions previously claimed are appropriate.
Of course, the commissioner also saw the bill as business friendly. The companies will now know on the front end whether their deductions pass muster, he reasons, and thus avoid the hassle of an audit.
And, to paraphrase Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s comments on businesses fighting the gun bills, if that’s the biggest worry businesses have in Tennessee’s Legislature, business people are very fortunate folks indeed.

Note: This is a column written for the Knoxville Business Journal, also available HERE.

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