Sunday column: Let corporations compete for official state status stuff

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson was clearly trying to make a debating point, or maybe even being sarcastic, when he proposed honoring corporate entities with official state status. But it is suggested that the former Marine from Memphis has planted a seed that could grow into a great business-government partnership.

In the waning hours of the 2015 session, Democrat Parkinson rose during House floor debate to suggest that the Legislature was plowing new ground by designating the Barrett Model M82/M107 rifle as Tennessee’s official state firearm. Republican Rep. Susan Lynn of Mount Juliet more or less said the same thing.

Lynn and Parkinson suggested that, for the first time, the General Assembly would be endorsing one commercial product over potential competitors. In this case, Barrett over other makers of guns — say, for example, Beretta, which is opening a new manufacturing plant in Tennessee and getting a bunch of state taxpayer money in the process.

If we’re going into that questionable territory, Parkinson said, he would propose that Memphis-based Federal Express be designated as the official delivery company of the state of Tennessee, and that Memphis-based AutoZone be declared the state’s “official auto parts manufacturer and distributor.”

After the official legislative endorsement of Barrett’s product was approved by the House 74-9, Parkinson followed through by formally introducing resolutions to endorse FedEx and AutoZone, corporations that have, incidentally, generously contributed over the years to legislator campaigns. They have given more that Barrett’s founder, Ronnie Barrett, who is married to a former legislator, has hosted events where legislators could shoot guns, including the M82, and has donated a few dollars here and there.

The Senate didn’t get around to backing Barrett in those last legislating hours, failing even to set up a summer study committee to ponder the ramifications. So the first official state product endorsement is left hanging until next year.

The lack of scheduled study is a shame, especially considering Parkinson’s suggestions. Any reasonable review would surely conclude that, if Tennessee is to embark upon granting official preferences (which, of course, can be used in advertising and product promotion), the benefiting corporations should pay for it. And not just through hiring lobbyists, providing campaign money to legislators or otherwise doing nice things for them, but through actual payments to the state general fund.

Now, the Legislature regularly endorses products unofficially. For example, Jack Daniel’s is effectively the only “Tennessee whiskey” that can be marketed as such. So why not designate that product as Tennessee’s official whiskey? Unless a competitor, say George Dickel or whatever, can pay a better price.

Let the corporations compete in an open, free enterprise marketplace for an official Tennessee endorsement. Maybe the resulting revenue could even be earmarked to offset state incentive money and/or tax breaks to corporations investing in Tennessee. The state stands to lose about $20 million a year in revenue from a tax break granted FedEx in the past legislative session. Surely the company’s board would go along with giving a million or two to become the official state carrier — and it might become a point of corporate pride to beat UPS in the bidding.

The state now has umpteen official state songs, the exact number being subject to debate, depending on whether you count the “Bicentennial state rap song” and such. But what if record companies could pay a price and compete for the right to promote a new release as an official state song?

Volkswagen will get $165 million in this year’s state budget for its Chattanooga operations. Wouldn’t it be worth something to the company to have the Passat produced there designated as Tennessee’s official state vehicle? And maybe General Motors would be ready to bid on behalf of the Cadillac SRX made in Spring Hill or Nissan on behalf of the Maxima. Or, in the tradition of state songs, maybe there’s room for all three.

Thomas Nelson Publishers in Nashville is the biggest producer of Bibles in the world. Instead of just designating the Holy Bible as the official state book, another House-passed proposal pending in the Senate next year, the measure could be revised – for a price — to declare the Tennessee-made Bibles as the official book, or books. (The company’s website indicates there are hundreds of versions available.)

The marketing possibilities are endless and, after all, government should act more like a business. Right?

Note: This is a slightly expanded version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel, also available HERE.