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."