published Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Lawmaker lashes out at VW on English bill

NASHVILLE — Efforts by a Volkswagen lobbyist Tuesday to state the German auto manufacturer’s concerns about a bill requiring all Tennessee driver license exams be conducted in English had a Northeast Tennessee representative questioning if the company was trying to strong-arm lawmakers into dropping the issue.

“That speaks closely to blackmail,” snapped Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, who went on to say he doesn’t see the logic in suggesting “we would be less than hospitable by supporting the language of this country. ... This is a public safety issue.”

The lawmaker’s outburst came after VW lobbyist Mark Smith sought to rebut testimony by pro-English lobbyist Eddie Garcia. Mr. Smith said it had caused him to worry lawmakers might erroneously believe Volkswagen, which is building a $1 billion plant in Chattanooga, supported the bill.

Mr. Garcia told members of the House Public Safety Subcommittee that a VW executive in Herndon, Va., informed him that all of the company’s scientists, executives and researchers coming to Tennessee were bilingual and spoke English.

In response, Mr. Smith said “we don’t quibble that making sure that matters like signs, which are currently tested, are sufficiently covered in the exam. What we would submit to you is that a one-size-fits-all, English-only, no-exception legislation is perhaps not the gesture of Southern hospitality that we think that companies looking to Tennessee are looking for.”

He said “our angle is a matter of economic development,” noting that states Tennessee competes with for large-scale investments do not have such laws. Tennessee now is trying to attract VW suppliers, some of them from Germany, to the Chattanooga site.

Mr. Smith said a VW executive had let Transportation Committee Chairman Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, and the English-only bill’s sponsor, Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, know of VW’s “concerns about this legislation; it is not acceptable to Volkswagen; Volkswagen has not signed off on the legislation.

“It is an appreciated gesture and one we would urge this committee to think perhaps more carefully from an economic development standpoint before you go down the road of sending a signal to the economic development community English should only be spoken,” Mr. Smith said.

After Rep. Shipley’s remarks, Mr. Smith offered his “regret” for having offended anyone and noted he was “not here to suggest that if this bill passes Volkswagen is going anywhere.”

Before Mr. Smith’s testimony, Tennessee Jobs Coalition Chairman Dan Haskell said the group, which is comprised of major employer groups in the state, opposed the bill. He noted legal, adult immigrants in the state may speak English but “may never learn to write and read well enough to pass” the written portion of the driver license exam in English.

The written portion is given in English as well as Spanish, Japanese and Korean.

Economic and Community Development official Lori Odom also objected to the bill and urged lawmakers to “consider the competitive disadvantage that English only puts Tennessee.”

She noted three of the state’s last $1 billion-plus investments are foreign-owned. That includes Wacker Chemical in Rep. Watson’s district.

Rep. Watson, a lieutenant in the Bradley County Sheriff’s Department, earlier was having none of it.

“This bill is going to put thousands of tax dollars back into our budget. Most of all it’s going to make it safer. ... this is a safety bill,” he said.

The bill passed the committee on a 4-1-1 vote. Chairman Dean abstained, which is in effect a “soft” no vote. Rep. Dean later voiced puzzlement over Rep. Shipley’s outburst about implied threats.

“That’s not the way I intepreted,” he said, noting Volkswagen was trying to relate the “intangible” aspects that affected its decision to locate in Chattanooga and Tennessee.

In an e-mail to Rep. Dean, a VW executive noted that while the company’s executives are proficient in English, VW “appreciated the state’s decision to provide drivers’ license training materials and tests in these executives’ native language. Overall, we believe that this decision has provided for a more full and thorough understanding of the rules of the road.”

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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jamesd said...

This is AMERICA and our language IS ENGLISH! TOO many jobs are requiring to be bilingual! The road signs, instructions, etc. are written in ENGLISH! Speaking English should be a requirement for citizenship, drivers license, or any other formal permit. We as Americans are being discriminated against because we have to learn a foreign language to have jobs here in AMERICA!

March 10, 2010 at 8:13 a.m.
elvisd said...

You can be d--- sure that Germany or any other country does not hand out driver's licenses, citizenship, certifications for professions, and the like without something that demonstrates the ability to speak the language. I love how other countries want to live out various ideas of "freedom" vicariously through us that they would never allow in their own lands. Other examples: many of the countries that call our rather loose immigration policies "fascistic" are the very ones who are trying to clamp down on their own illegal immigration. Mexico does not give out drivers licenses to foreigners nor does it allow them to vote. There are "restricted zones" along their coasts and borders where foreigners cannot own land, but somehow we're these totalitarian monsters.

March 10, 2010 at 8:21 a.m.
themanfromtn said...

I don't have an issue with the license. You can translate the book on a computer, print it out in whatever language you need to and charge a fee to the requester. What I have an issue with is the last three 1 Billion dollar investments in TN were foreign? VW does not approve of the legislation? What about the rest of the foreigners that have purchased TN and the rest of the United States as well? Since we are selling our country to the highest bidder we should ask all non American nonvoting foreigners what they want our laws to say so they can feel more at home when they are away from their country. Wait, when I went to germany in the army the first thing I had to do was take a 2 week class on how to speak german. American citizenship (birth or naturalized) should be required to purchase property in America. The American government should be spending our tax dollars investing in new American auto plants instead of sending out to foreign countries and giving it to immigrants from india to start businesses here in the US. That includes guaranteed loans with no interest. I am waiting for the government to start importing Haitians’ and giving them free money that hardworking Americans should be getting from American tax dollars to start American businesses in America!

March 10, 2010 at 9:01 a.m.

We, the people, the descendants of Pilgrims, slaves and immigrants who built, sacrificed, bled and died to give future generations the blessings they did not yet have, are being drawn, quartered and killed "incrementally", didn't you know? The Progressive-Left beat goes on and on in 2010.

March 10, 2010 at 9:12 a.m.
HiDef said...


When I was in the military I was able to take a one day course and obtain a legal driver's license that allowed me to drive in the country of Germany. I rented a car and drove all over the southern part of Germany for one week. I do not speak any German. I also drove on city streets in Bosnia for four months. I do not know any of their language either. As for other countries expecting us to adapt to them, how about the air traffic control system and pilots? We expect every other country to know English and adapt to us.

March 10, 2010 at 9:22 a.m.
whoknows said...

Just playing devil's advocate here, cause I can.. Jamesd, you do know that we do not have an official language in America, right? English is not our language. It has never been declared official, and never will be. You cannot require English before becoming a citizen when English is not even the national language...

March 10, 2010 at 9:28 a.m.
Musicman375 said...

Nobody asked you, whoknows. JK :) Seriously though, although English is not our national language, I have spent some time in Germany and I only encountered one citizen there who didn't speak English fluently. Here's a secret for anyone who doesn't know; every EU country teaches their citizens English! Multiple people in Germany informed me of this fact while I was there. I don't see why this is a big deal for VW. They all know the language. Take the darn test and get over yourselves. And as for scientists supposedly not being bilingual; English is the international language of science. Those few do not have any excuse.

March 10, 2010 at 9:49 a.m.
elvisd said...


Since you were a soldier protecting those countries, it would make sense that you be able to move around them. I just don't think that VW fits that category.

Any country that has to have foreign troops in it isn't truly a sovereign country anyway, and is in little position to make demands of its foreigners. I hope that we are, and have a right to have policies that recognize our sovereignty.

March 10, 2010 at 10:05 a.m.
HiDef said...


This was within the last decade. Bosnia, yes I was there as a "stabilization force" acting on behalf of the US Military, but Germany was my R/R (rest and relaxation) destination. Either way it didn't require me knowing any German to understand this autobahn sign :-) Now, finding my destination, thats another story...

March 10, 2010 at 10:57 a.m.
Nashmusic said...

As a product of public education, I am appalled that many schools in our country—perhaps even TN, are cutting classes in music, arts and PE to save money. We all can come to some agreement that these courses are critical to a child’s academic career. So if TN is looking at saving money and allocating those saved dollars to public education, then why continue funding multiple languages for a driver’s license exam, which is a privilege to the tune of nearly $ 200K or more per year?

Lives are not to be risked to appease any one group or make this privileged opportunity to drive an easier process for the sake of being friendly or accommodating.

When a person is injured or killed due to a motorist's inability to read and understand a written sign, I am sure the excuse or as the VW lobbyist said “hospitality” of "let's continue being friendly to license applicants" will be not be accepted.

Must we wait until then?

Eddie Garcia

March 11, 2010 at 1:19 a.m.
hayett said...

Hi to all, hmm, interesting to read through all those comments. I am German, and reading below the comment from Musicman, he is right, everybody in Germany has to learn English, for at least 5 years. But this English is for general conversations. I am soon moving to Chattanooga and I already read through the license test on the internet, and a lot of wording and sentences are not common English that you use in a normal conversation. Plus take in mind, that the European metric measurement system is different to the US one, so when it gets to Miles instead of kilometers etc. of course it is difficult to pick the right answer. Also please be informed, that the German license test is available in several languages, means, if you are Italian, living in Germany you can made a least the theoretical test in Italian with out any problem or special request. Another argument to offer the test in German is, as I read on the internet site that the test actually is available in Spanish, Korean and Japanese, so what is the obstacle to also offer it in German, since more and more Germans are coming to live for a longer period of time in Chattanooga?

March 11, 2010 at 3:50 p.m.
Musicman375 said...

You make some good points, hayett.

In response to your comment about our measurement system: One comforting thought for you is that when you get here and become subjected to using the standard system rather than metric, our cars do show both speeds on the speedometers for a quick and easy translation, as long as you know enough to get you through the test.

March 11, 2010 at 4:30 p.m.
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