Stockard On The Stump: Welcome To The Green New Deal, Tennessee

Photo: Gov. Bill Lee speaking to the Memphis Regional Megasite Authority; Photo Credit: Gov. Bill Lee / Facebook

By Sam Stockard [Tennessee Lookout -CC BY-NC-ND 4.0] –

Lawmakers across the state are cheering the Blue Oval City plan for the Memphis Regional Megasite, a Ford-SK Innovation project to build electric trucks and batteries that will transform southwest Tennessee.

But the $5.6 billion project, which will lead to 5,800 jobs, comes with some teeth grinding and eye rolling as well.

In other words, to land this deal for another auto manufacturer, state leaders are having to play friendly with a company clearly embracing President Joe Biden’s Green New Deal and the United Auto Workers.

To be clear, Gov. Bill Lee has been pushing Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bobby Rolfe to recruit the electric vehicle industry. It meshes with what Nissan is doing already in Smyrna with batteries and electric cars.

But in a ceremony at Shelby Farms Tuesday, did Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford have to make such a big deal about saving the environment and talking about the impact of climate change on weather, such as the deadly flooding in Waverly?

And did Ford CEO Jim Farley have to mention the Democratic president? Tennessee leaders reject his policies at every turn, including the idea of the New Green Deal, an effort to clean up manufacturing and turn to alternative vehicles and fuel sources.

“Just look at President Biden’s face when he drove our Lightning,” Farley said of the president’s tour in one of Ford’s new electric F-Series trucks, which are getting ready to hit the market.

Farley and Bill Ford repeatedly touted plans to make Blue Oval City the cleanest auto manufacturing plant in the world.

 Did Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford have to make such a big deal about saving the environment and talking about the impact of climate change on weather? Did Ford CEO Jim Farley have to mention the Democratic president?

But Gov. Lee would not voice support Thursday for the Green New Deal, which Republicans contend will kill jobs and raise costs for the American public.

“I think what I support is being good stewards of resources, of the environment. That’s why our Department of Environment and Conservation is working closely with Ford. There’s a couple of ways to be good stewards. One is to regulate and one is to innovate. Ford has chosen to innovate, and that’s why we’re partnering with them in electric vehicles and battery manufacturing. So we’re very pleased they’ve made that decision to be here,” Lee said.

Of course, Ford does not make the regulations. It follows the rules set by state and federal governments and shouldn’t have any trouble doing that in Tennessee, especially with plans for a carbon-neutral campus when it opens in 2025 and no waste to be buried in landfills.

Unionization not quite set in stone

Bill Ford also gave a shout-out to the United Auto Workers for their efforts over the years on Ford assembly lines.

The tepid applause that UAW line received sounded as if someone had to turn on a sit-com soundtrack. After all, the Legislature is trying to enshrine the right to work law in the Tennessee Constitution, a clear slap at unions.

Tennessee Lookout reported Tuesday comments from a UAW official in Nashville, who confirmed that UAW President Ray Curry said Blue Oval City will be a union plant. 

Based on comments from Farley, though, that isn’t certain. He told the Associated Press that employees would be given the opportunity to choose whether they want union representation.

Curry didn’t sound so sure, either. He reportedly told CBS the Blue Oval City plant will be “a great opportunity to continue” UAW’s working relationship with Ford. According to the report, Ford’s policy, based on its contract with the UAW, is to stay out of union matters.

So the push will continue to unionize Blue Oval City, because unions aren’t a done deal in Tennessee. Volkswagen in Chattanooga and Nissan facilities remain unorganized, yet General Motors runs a union plant at Spring Hill.

Gov. Lee and most Republican leaders would rather see Ford stay union-free here, even though union wages are typically about 20% higher and come with better benefits and worker safety rules.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally: Workers are free to join a union if they want to. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, pointed out right to work laws are “not incompatible” with voluntary unionization.

“The General Motors plant in Spring Hill has been a union shop since its inception and there are many active unions in the state of Tennessee. The Right to Work Amendment prohibits only forced or compulsory unionism. As long as a union is voluntary and abides by Tennessee law, it is perfectly permissible. We are grateful that Ford Motor Company has chosen Tennessee, a place where workers are free to choose whether they want to form or join a union, or not,” McNally said in a statement to the Tennessee Lookout.

But is Gov. Lee concerned about the union organizing at Blue Oval City?

“We’re a right to work state, and as such workers do have the option as to the work environment and their workplace, and that’ll apparently be true for (the Ford plant),” Lee said Thursday.

Credit Lee for at least mentioning former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, whose administration birthed the Memphis Regional Megasite, during the Shelby Farms ceremony as well as former Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who gave recruitment the collegiate try and might have landed a plant years ago if the site had been closer to “shovel ready.” (Did I really use that term?)

In fact, some lawmakers were concerned about a year ago that Gov. Lee was reversing course on the megasite. At one point, Rolfe was saying the state wouldn’t move forward with a sewer line to the Mississippi River until it landed a suitor. Lee reversed that in June, committing $54 million to the wastewater project and urging Rolfe’s department to aggressively recruit. They must have known at that point Ford was interested.

State Sen. Paul Rose was among those worried the state was going the wrong direction last year. Rose, a Covington Republican who represents eastern Shelby County, wanted the state to at least use the sewer line project to bolster economic development to Bartlett and onward, if it couldn’t land a major manufacturer. He isn’t fretting anymore.

“The governor and Bobby Rolfe hit a home run, so I could not be more pleased with the outcome. The thoughts I had a year ago mean nothing now. It’s all good, all good,” Rose said.

Lee wants COVID out of session

Gov. Lee issued a call Thursday for the Legislature to go into a special session Oct. 18 to approve funding to bring Ford and SK Innovation to the megasite.

But while some Republican lawmakers might want to slip COVID matters into the assembly, Lee appears ready to nix such a move.

“That project is significant in size and scope, and so that call to the General Assembly will be limited to issues around the megasite,” Lee told reporters Thursday.

Pressed on the matter, Lee said no COVID issues related to Ford will be brought up in this special session.

The governor spoke moments earlier at Stewart Builder Supply in Dickson as the company celebrated its 100th year in business. State Rep. Michael Curcio, a Dickson Republican whose family owns the business, said he didn’t even have to pull any strings to bring the governor to the event. All he did was ask. If it were only that easy.

Swallowing $500 million

Incentives are nothing new to economic recruiting. Local governments across Tennessee give tax breaks all the time to bring new jobs to town. The state is no different. It’ll be offering a $500 million incentives package, with some tax cuts per employee to Ford and SK Innovations, which the state has been courting for years in South Korea. 

A statement from the Beacon Center of Tennessee criticized the Ford tax incentives, writing, “We oppose all corporate subsidies to individual businesses no matter how many jobs are promised in return.”The statement noted the total incentive package will run to $700 million for the deal.

But while most people are happy with the idea of Ford bringing 5,800 jobs to rural West Tennessee, some aren’t quite as enthused with the “corporate welfare.” The Beacon Center of Tennessee, a consistent critic of business tax breaks, issued this statement: “Beacon is elated that Ford has chosen Tennessee for such a historic investment. This is a testament to our strong and thriving economy based on low taxes and free market policies. However, we oppose all corporate subsidies to individual businesses no matter how many jobs are promised in return. That includes the subsidies offered today, which coupled with the taxpayer money spent on the megasite over the past decade, now (total) roughly $700 million for this single deal. We do applaud state leaders for imposing clawbacks in the agreement so that taxpayers aren’t put further at risk like they have been with previous mega-deals. And we welcome Ford to Tennessee.”

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Keep one eye closed

When wing-shooting with a shotgun, you’re supposed to keep both eyes open and keep the barrel moving so you don’t shoot behind the bird. But when using a rifle or handgun, closing one eye can help you stay on the target.

Tennessee apparently kept one eye closed when it recruited Smith & Wesson to Maryville, announcing Thursday the company would be moving its headquarters and major operations to East Tennessee from Springfield, Massachusetts.

The company will invest $125 million and create 750 new jobs, breaking ground later this year in Partnership Park North in Blount County.

“The strong support we have received from the State of Tennessee and the entire leadership of Blount County throughout this process, combined with the quality of life, outdoor lifestyle, and low cost of living in the Greater Knoxville area has left no doubt that Tennessee is the ideal location for Smith & Wesson’s new headquarters. We would like to specifically thank Gov. Lee for his decisive contributions, and the entire state Legislature for their unwavering support of the Second Amendment and for creating a welcoming, business friendly environment,” said Smith & Wesson Brands, Inc. President and CEO Mark Smith.

‘Protected by Smith and Wesson’ sticker.

Apparently passing the permitless carry bill this year and signing it into law turned out to be a bit of an economic recruiting tool.

Incidentally, Smith & Wesson does make shotguns, but the company founded in 1852 is known for handguns. You’ve seen the bumper stickers, “Protected by Smith & Wesson.”

Let’s just hope those Smith & Wessons don’t fall into the wrong hands.

Commitment to cutting gun violence?

Gov. Lee said Thursday he wants to renew the effort to stop gun violence, which he said is wreaking havoc across the nation. The governor noted the Legislature passed bills this year to toughen penalties for crimes committed with guns.

Harsher punishment isn’t exactly what Moms Demand Action is thinking about. They want to keep guns out of the hands of criminals in the first place.

I have three children in elementary school. I can’t even begin to imagine the agaon and trauma that everyone impacted by this devastating shooting is suffering. It’s heartbreaking.

– Kat McRitchie, volunteer with Moms Demand Action, Tennessee

After one child was shot at a Memphis elementary school Thursday, the group issued a statement criticizing the Legislature and governor for adopting the constitutional carry law this year. The incident came on the heels of shooting deaths in Chattanooga and the mass shooting at the Collierville Kroger just a week ago. 

“I have three children in elementary school. I can’t even begin to imagine the agony and trauma that everyone impacted by this devastating shooting is suffering. It’s heartbreaking,” said Kat McRitchie, a volunteer with the Tennessee chapter of Moms Demand Action.

To battle this epidemic, the group wants to pass extreme risk laws, encourage firearms storage, increase the age to buy semi-automatic guns, require background checks on all gun purchases and several other steps.

Unfortunately for Moms Demand Action, though, when they show up in their red T-shirts at the Cordell Hull Building, most Republican lawmakers call them “Mothers Against Guns.” They’ve already got them pegged, and that doesn’t help them when it comes to lobbying against efforts to water down gun ownership laws.

Robinson out of driver’s seat

When the jury started deliberating Thursday, state Sen. Katrina Robinson was sitting pretty in her fight against the federal government and wire fraud charges. The judge hearing her case had already dropped 15 of 20 charges against her, most claiming she stole some $600,000 from a federal grant she received to start The Healthcare Institute.

But the jury convicted her on two counts of wire fraud dealing with payments of $2,326 to an artist through a booking agent and $1,158 to a wedding makeup artist. The convictions also stemmed from fraudulent representations made on 2017 and 2019 annual performance reports.

Sentencing is supposed to be made in January. By that time, the Legislature will be back in Nashville for a full session. It is unclear whether Robinson will return.

Whose bodyguard?

I was standing there Thursday minding my own business Thursday (OK, that’s a lie, but it sounds good), when a guy came up to me at the Stewart Builder Supply event in Dickson and said he thought I was one of the governor’s “bouncers.”

Well, 35 years ago, I did bounce a few people out of shows at the Cannery – which, sadly, is on the brink of closing after a long run. But as far as working as a bouncer for the governor, it’s probably fairer to say he’s been ready to bounce me out of a few press conferences.

Another one bites the dust: the Cannery Complex in Nashville will close in May 2022, another victim of rising rents in Tennessee’s capital city. (Photo by Sara Kauss/Getty Images for PEPSI)

If I ever quit hammering out strings of words on this computer, though, maybe I can retire and hang out with the governor’s bodyguards. If not that, I’m an excellent driver. I can hear the governor now: Watch out for that cliff!


About the Author: Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state’s best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association. Follow Stockard on Twitter @StockardSam

One thought on “Stockard On The Stump: Welcome To The Green New Deal, Tennessee

  • October 12, 2021 at 6:19 pm

    Gov. Lee seems to be talking out of both sides of his mouth. He said, you can “regulate or innovate. Ford chose to innovate.” Ford is “innovating” due to the regulation from the Biden administration calling for 30% of vehicles driven to be battery powered by 2030 or so.
    I have no doubt those of the political persuasion have aligned their portfolios to take advantage of the favored industries in the coming “Green New Deal”.


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