If Tennessee Republican leaders were expecting a quiet Memorial Day weekend, they woke up to Sunday papers around the state filled with criticism of their work on SB632/HB600, the Special Access to Discriminate law. The measure nullifies the Nashville Contract Accountability Non-Discrimination Ordinance passed in April, prevents any city or county from adopting a similar law, and redefines "sex" in the Tennessee Code to the detriment of transgender people.
Under the Influence: The Commercial Appeal's Wendi Thomas bestowed her first "On the Pipe," as in crack pipe, awards for a number of bills, but the Special Access to Discriminate law was first in her list:
"The Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce law, which forbids local governments from ensuring that their contractors don't discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered employees. Yep, the legislature has decided that it should be up to businesses to decide who they discriminate against. Sounds like a lovely idea."
Nimble Lobbying: Letting businesses decide may prove tricky, as the Knoxville News Sentinel's Tom Humphrey, noted in his own awards presentation when he took a swipe at the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce for changing their position on the law:
Most Remarkable Lobbying Acrobatic Performance: To the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry for its amazing backflip on HB600, the bill that overrode a Nashville city ordinance prohibiting discrimination by city contractors based on sexual orientation. The chamber backed the bill as business friendly, then - after it had passed - reversed its position and declared its opposition "because (the bill) has turned into a debate on diversity and inclusiveness, principles which we support."
Governor Unmoved: Despite the reversal of the TN Chamber, Governor Haslam nevertheless signed the bill, as noted by The Tennessean's Chas Sisk, leaving the new act without much rationale other than putting discrimination into the law:
But since the General Assembly adjourned, Haslam and the legislature have been criticized by major businesses and gay rights groups from across the country for a law that reverses a Nashville ordinance requiring city contractors to follow the city’s anti-discrimination rules, which protect gay, lesbian and transgendered people. Haslam signed the measure nonetheless, saying the campaign against the bill came too late. “You had a chance to engage in this during the legislative process,” Haslam said of a public push to see him veto the bill. “To kind of change tracks on Monday felt a little late to me.”
Well, you're not the only one, Governor Haslam. The problem is that the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community got stuck with the effects of the law, and you're stuck going down in history as supporting it. It's no fun being left holding the bag, is it?
The Impact: Perhaps the most trenchant criticism came in Josh Flory's piece in the Knoxville News Sentinel in which he quotes a Scripps Network Interactive executive saying the law will scare away the talented workforce he needs:
"Its passage will impede our ability to recruit and retain the best possible work force," company President John Lansing said in a statement. "Most significantly, this legislation sends a signal that Tennessee is unwilling to take a stand against an intolerant employment environment."
Dang! Can it get any worse? Yes, it can.
Hometown paper pounds final nail: When the Governor's hometown paper uses the Scripps story as the basis for yet another editorial (the Knoxville News Sentinel had already editorialized about the bill last week in addition to Pam Strickland's biting column), then you know it's bad. "Codifying intolerance hurts state business" is a title that tells the whole tale. The last paragraph of today's editorial is the best:
"Haslam needs to show more leadership by condemning, rather than signing, such narrow-minded legislation. Passing laws that codify intolerance - and run counter to the policies of many Tennessee companies - could chase away jobs, talented workers and tourists. Tennessee isn't an island; the state participates in the global economy, one that offers as much diversity as it does opportunity. The state's leaders must promote tolerance of that diversity to compete for 21st century jobs and succeed in the marketplace."What does that kind of leadership look like?: Leadership from the Governor and the Legislature could take a number of constructive paths. Examples include (a) heading off discriminatory legislation in the coming year, (b) backing Sen. Jim Kyle's appropriately numbered SB2121 (as in 21st century!) to repeal the Special Access to Discriminate law, or even (c) backing a bill to amend Tennessee human rights law to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in employment. These are all good options that would concretely help people who experience discrimination and more broadly do much to repair Tennessee's severely tarnished image.