In his final speech as Tennessee governor, Phil Bredesen urged his political successors to focus on jobs and education and not be sidetracked by anti-immigration and pro-gun laws that may score political points but could hurt economic recruitment.
"We are not going to be successful as a country — and we're certainly not going to be successful as a state — if our main focus is on how many different places we can carry our guns, how few languages we use for our driver's license tests or how closely we match Arizona's immigration laws," Bredesen told a Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Wednesday.
"Those are political distractions, and we need to focus on those things that are really important for our state."
Bredesen said he is proud of his administration's record of attracting more than $34 billion of investments with nearly 200,000 jobs over the past eight years, and of the state winning a $400 million Race to the Top"grant from the federal government for education reform.
"We have so much going for us in economic development and education reform right now; let's not ruin that by getting off into out-of-the-mainstream political issues," Bredesen said.
Gov. Phil Bredesen addresses the audience at the Chattanooga Convention Center.Staff Photo by John Rawlston
The Democratic governor, who will be succeeded Saturday by Republican Gov.-elect Bill Haslam, said there is no need for Tennessee to adopt a state immigration control measure similar to what Arizona, a border state with Mexico, did last year. He also cautioned that proposals for English-only driver's license tests could undermine the state's success in recruiting foreign companies.
But a leading Tennessee proponent of stricter immigration laws said Bredesen is ignoring the problems of illegal immigration as well as surveys showing that more than 70 percent of Tennesseans want a law allowing the state to help enforce federal immigration laws.
"It's regrettable that the governor would try to grandstand himself on these issues in his final days in office, and I think it shows he just doesn't understand the degree and scope to which illegal immigration is important in the state," said state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas.
Carr is chairman of a Republican task force on illegal immigration and introduced a resolution in support of the Arizona law last year.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that more than 130,000 illegal immigrants live in Tennessee. Carr said such immigrants inflate government costs for education, health care, safety and other programs by more than $400 million a year.
He said Republicans are looking at three bills this year to allow local law enforcement to do more to identify and deport illegal immigrants.
Bredesen said after his speech that immigration controls in a state like Tennessee, which is in the middle of the country, should remain a federal responsibility.
"This stuff of these states stepping in and taking over a federal responsibility can really go too far," the governor said. "It's one thing if you are in Arizona on the border, but if you are in Tennessee, it's really about grandstanding."
Bredesen said he temporarily sent Tennessee National Guard troops to Yuma, Ariz., in 2007 to help enforce U.S. immigration laws, but he urged lawmakers "to deal calmly and quietly with these issues and not in a way that makes us look unfriendly to outsiders or a crazy outlier among the states."
Some concerned business prospects have mentioned how lawmakers loosened laws last year to allow people to carry guns in bars and restaurants, Bredesen said, but that is less a concern than proposed changes in immigration rules and English-only requirements.
"I just think it is a dangerous thing to assume that that kind of stuff is just a sideshow and that it won't affect things like economic development," he said.
Bredesen said he had to make several phone calls to executives of foreign companies trying to reassure them about Tennessee when the Legislature was considering some anti-immigration measures.
"That's a real and practical issue for international companies operating in Tennessee," Bredesen said.
He noted that his first trip as governor was to drive a new Nissan car, which the Japanese carmaker produced in Smyrna, Tenn., and his final trip Wednesday was to unveil the new Volkswagen car that will be built in Chattanooga.
"Foreign investment is key to our state, and we don't need to send a message that somehow outsiders are not welcome," Bredesen said.
But Carr said he has yet to hear of any specific international business concerned about the English requirements for a driver's license, which he said he supports as a safety measure to ensure motorists can properly read road signs.