BROWN: Tennessee’s Small Business Future Looks Bright

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To some Tennesseans, the 2012 legislative session seemed to be dominated by made-for-TV issues, sometimes garnering national attention. Our state’s small business owners, however, felt very differently this year as they watched legislators pass an assembly line of welcome reforms.

Certainly, Tennessee’s entrepreneurs are frustrated with federal overreach, massive mounting national debt, bitter partisan rhetoric and gridlock inWashington, D.C. Here in Tennessee, they’re comforted knowing major legislative reforms, most of them bipartisan, are now in the book. It’s not a stretch to call 2012 ‘The Year of Small Business in Tennessee.’

The most profound change is a new law that phases out the state inheritance tax through 2015 and fully repeals it in 2016. This highly unfair levy, known as the death tax, will no longer inhibit job growth and investment. More Tennesseans will stay in Tennessee, others will relocate here, farmers won’t have to sell sections of their farms to pay it, and money will stay in our communities rather than be sent to Nashville!

Killing the death tax had overwhelming support from the grassroots. Our organization, the National Federation of Independent Business, surveyed our membership and learned 84 percent backed full repeal. Other groups, like the Tennessee Farm Bureau and free-market advocate the Beacon Center of Tennessee, shared similar information. Our leaders listened and acted.

Perhaps equally important to small business was a major overhaul of our unemployment system. Three reform bills received overwhelming bipartisan support, an indication they’re seen as good for employers and workers.

The most significant unemployment law redefines misconduct, encourages more aggressive work search, and defines ‘suitable work’ for an unemployed individual, among many changes (visit for more details). The Department of Labor & Workforce Development also is making strides in tackling inconsistencies and modernizing our unemployment system. 

One regulatory reform that didn’t make headlines requires state boards and commissions to allow licensees to opt in by electronic notification of any proposed fee increase or rule change 45 days in advance of the meeting. Over the years, many small-business owners have been surprised they must pay a large fee increase. The new law will help level the playing field.

Another reason Tennessee is becoming an even better state in which to do business is the adoption of reasonable tort reform. Last year, our state adopted a comprehensive package that included caps on punitive and non-economic damages and greater product liability protections. This year, lawmakers enacted a ‘loser pays’ provision, enabling a party to be paid up to $10,000 by the losing side on motions to dismiss when a judge determines a lawsuit has no basis in Tennessee law.

Communication continues to be key to good reforms. Entrepreneurs acrossTennesseeare explaining the challenges they face. Our leaders – in particular Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell –are doing an excellent job focusing their respective administration’s and chambers’ time on changes that will benefit our state.

Indeed, the future for small business in Tennessee looks bright. We’re eliminating taxes, balancing our budget, passing significant regulatory and legal reforms, and setting our sights on significant workers’ comp reform.

Meanwhile, states like Illinois and California are swiping their credit cards to have programs they cannot afford. Savvy out-of-state entrepreneurs see this and look for new homes for their capital. Tennessee is one of those great homes.

So when you read another headline or see another story that says Tennessee might be a little “backward,” consider that our leaders and elected officials are listening, acting and moving us forward by leaps and bounds.

Some leaders are being quoted that “the best is yet to come,” and that’s not difficult to believe.

Jim Brown is state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, the state’s leading small business association with 8,500 members in Tennessee and 350,000 nationwide.

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