State Sen. Bell: Tennessee lawmakers should consider travel boycott of California

Mike Bell

NASHVILLE - Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, says state lawmakers should weigh boycotting next year's National Conference of State Legislatures in California as retaliation over a state-funded travel ban issued against Tennessee's 2016 counseling law targeting lesbians and gays.

"I think that's an example of something we should seriously consider not going to, because I think when we do, we give in to California and we support them in passing a policy or a law based on a disagreement with us," Bell told Senate Finance Committee members Tuesday.

The Southeast Tennessee Republican's comments came as he presented his resolution denouncing California in the Senate Finance Committee.

Bell's resolution accuses California of trying to "blackmail" Tennessee, North Carolina, Mississippi and Kansas, all of which have passed measures that critics charge are anti-LGBT.

It narrowly passed the 11-member committee with six votes. Two lawmakers voted no and three, including Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, abstained.

The resolution denounces California over the ban and urges Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and the GOP Senate and House speakers to consider barring travel to California. Golden State lawmakers last fall barred state-funded travel to Tennessee over a 2016 law allowing counselors and therapists to reject clients whose goals conflict with the professionals' "sincerely held principles."

"I truly see this as being potentially the first shot in what could become an economic civil war between states started on a whim - and I think this was done on a whim in California - based on disagreement with policy in other states," Bell said.

He wants to send copies of his resolution to thousands of legislators representing all 50 states.

"I'm hoping what this does is throw cold water on states getting into economic war with other states," Bell said.

Watson sounded a cautious note on the resolution, reminding Bell that California has the world's seventh-largest economy. Tennessee, the chairman pointed out, receives about 47 percent of its overall funding from the federal government, while California gets about 16 percent.

"So be careful whose bow you choose to shoot across and how much pain you can inflict, because my concern with this is economic development," Watson said. "I don't know how you can ban legislators from going on a trip and then turn around and allow economic development people to go meet with businesses that are wanting to come and move to Tennessee, which we want them to do."

Watson said he believes "actually being more embracing is a strategy that may be more effective in terms of bringing people from a higher-tax state, or what we would consider in Tennessee, a more oppressive state."

Bell agreed that Tennessee's executive branch should continue to spend money on sending state economic recruiters to California, saying that it's good to lure companies fed up with California to the Volunteer State.

Voting for Bell's resolution was Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who is a co-sponsor of the measure.

But the deciding vote for approval appears to have come from an unlikely source - Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, one of just two Democrats on the panel. She voted yes, raising eyebrows from some Democrats.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.