Sunday column: On blackmail and the bathroom bill

Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick perhaps captured the essence of conflict dynamics in the 2016 legislative session when he made an impromptu speech last week on the House floor berating the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce for its stance in opposition to the transgender bathroom bill.

“All these companies who tried to blackmail us over this thing, when they come for their corporate welfare checks next year, we need to have a list out and keep an eye on it,” declared McCormick, whose commentary was echoed by other Republicans and a few Democrats.

The conflict here is between the agenda of social-issue conservatives, who have formed the voter base for electing a Republican supermajority, versus the agenda of business barons, who have provided in substantial part the money used in financing Republican campaigns.

The alliance has worked well for years now, in Tennessee and nationally, as Democrats whined that voters are acting against their economic interests while voting for Republicans because of social issues.

In Tennessee, the supermajority has passed dozens of bills that boost business interests, sometimes arguably at the expense of consumers (a mandated 20 percent business profit on the sale of wine, for example), injured employees or anyone filing a lawsuit alleging corporate misbehavior. And, of course, there have been bundles of tax breaks and “business incentives,” otherwise known as corporate welfare.

The standout example this year is allocation of $30 million to a corporation — unnamed because secret negotiations are under way — based on our business-friendly governor’s assurance that the company’s investment in Tennessee will be really wonderful.

At times, it’s seemed that a lobbyist need only say that a proposal is “good for business” to assure a strong tendency for approval.

On social issues, the supermajority has fallen in lock-step on most matters involving abortion or Second Amendment rights. A bill declared good for gun owners or bad for abortion will instantly create a pro-passage inclination.

But corporate welfare has been a source of unease among populist conservatives, including many tea party folks.

McCormick’s outburst came after the Chattanooga Chamber joined scores of business groups in denouncing as discriminatory — on the basis of sexual orientation — a bill that would require a public school student to use a restroom based on the gender entered on the individual’s birth certificate. Much more quietly, business lobbyists also generally backed business-friendly Gov. Bill Haslam’s successful veto of a bill declaring the Bible as Tennessee’s state book.

Skipping details of the uproar caused by the bathroom bill, let’s just say the business people won and the social conservatives lost. Using McCormick’s terminology, the “blackmail” worked.

McCormick, who began his political life as a Democrat before seeing the GOP light, also grumbled that the Chattanooga business barons have given zero attention to a recent extraordinary surge in gang-related violence in his hometown. That brought some Democratic legislators to their feet in applauding his commentary, both on corporate welfare and on recognition of a need to deal legislatively with violence concentrated in minority communities where poverty is a bigger concern than sexual orientation and the use of restrooms.

It was a strange and perhaps momentary alliance in the political dynamics of Legislatorland. Following the majority leader’s comments, House floor debate quickly returned the norm, including some lock-step voting and partisan bickering over what an unaffiliated observer might consider somewhat silly.

But you could consider the bathroom bill and the Bible bill somewhat silly and symbolic, though the measures were meaningful to many. Thirty pastors held a news conference to push passage of the bathroom bill; 60 corporations signed a letter opposing it. The bill died when House sponsor Rep. Susan Lynn voluntarily threw in the towel, apparently under considerable pressure from fellow Republicans who did not want to set up a public vote.

Had not the businesses weighed in, it’s a pretty safe bet that the bill would have passed. It’s also a pretty safe bet that businesses won’t face corporate welfare retaliation. You don’t want to rock the boat when it’s already leaking.