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VOL. 126 | NO. 214 | Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Casada Weighs In on Anti-Bias Legislation

By KATHLEEN CARLSON

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Editor’s Note: This is an occasional series that profiles Tennessee’s state legislators. Credit his friends – and the inspiration of Ronald Reagan – with starting state Rep. Glen Casada on the road to public service.

CASADA

“I am of the Ronald Reagan generation,” said Casada, elected in 2001 to the Tennessee Legislature from Williamson County.

As a student at Western Kentucky University during the Reagan era, Casada admits he wasn’t much attuned to politics. He was moved by Reagan’s expounding on the greatness of America and the importance of self-reliance.

Over the years, Casada has tackled local issues like parks and recreation, along with broader issues such as taxes and the relative powers of branches of government. Recently, he has weighed in on whether local governments can adopt their own measures outlawing employment discrimination for sexual orientation.

Federal and state law doesn’t prohibit anti-gay bias, but Nashville’s metro council voted to require its contractors to promise not to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Shortly after the metro council ordinance passed, Casada and Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, sponsored legislation invalidating metro’s action. (For a profile of Beavers, see the Oct. 19 Daily News at www.memphisdailynews.com.) The bill passed by large margins in both House and Senate this spring.

Last week, state Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, and Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said they’ll introduce legislation in January to again allow the metro council to adopt antidiscrimination measures that are stricter than the state’s.

“Fundamentally, Brenda and I disagree,” Casada said. “It’s not business’ role to be involved in this social question. It’s business’ role to be left alone so they can create jobs.”

Businesses, especially small businesses, need “to have the same code of conduct from Mountain City to Memphis, the same rules of operation,” he said.

There’s nothing in the bill that prohibits anyone from practicing their sexual orientation in their private lives, he said. The metro anti-bias measure amounted to “Nashville trying to inflict their morality” on someone doing business outside Davidson County, he said. There are “too many of these patchwork bills, so I say stop it now.”

As Gilmore sees it, the contractor anti-bias measure “originated in Davidson County and the local legislators felt very strongly about it. They debated it thoroughly and it passed. I feel Rep. Casada should respect the wishes of Davidson County.”

It’s “hypocritical,” she added, for state lawmakers to say they don’t want the federal government looking over their shoulders then second-guess local government.

There’s no hypocrisy at all, Casada countered, because intrusive governments kill jobs by diverting resources toward compliance with directives rather than production.

Gilmore disagrees the measure would hurt business, saying it sends a strong message that “we value everyone; we don’t discriminate against anyone – it’s what they bring to the job.” Metro council tried to make the measure “non-intrusive,” she said, with exemptions for religious beliefs and for small businesses.

Chris Sanders, chair of the Nashville committee for the Tennessee Equality Project, said 47 small businesses endorsed the metro council measure, and that a National Federation of Independent Business survey shows small businesses are more concerned about lagging sales than local regulation. Moreover, “they’re angry about federal health and safety regulation, not anti-discrimination” regulation, Sanders aid.

Casada said he knows of no entity representing small business that backed the metro ordinance, and said the NFIB itself backed his bill.

Getting the state legislature to pass Gilmore and Kyle’s bill may be a tough sell, Gilmore conceded, “but I think it’s worth the effort.”

Sexual-orientation discrimination probably wasn’t a prime concern when Casada successfully ran for the Williamson County commission in 1994. He was part of what he called “a movement within the county to expand parks and recreation within Williamson County.” The park was built and he began to tackle government budget issues.

In 2001, amid much debate over the possibility of a state income tax, a seat in the state House opened.

“I was adamantly against a state income tax, and I figured I can articulate a ‘no’ as well as anyone else,” Casada said. He won and has served ever since, now chairing the House Committee on Health and Human Resources.

Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson served with Casada in county government in the 1990s. Casada has been a “champion for no state income taxes, a champion for small business and a champion for (curbing) rules and regulations that sometimes can handcuff cities and counties,” Anderson said, adding Casada can draw on his experience as a county commissioner to understand how state laws affect local governments.

Casada remains steadfast against a state income tax.

“I like our consumption-based tax, if you will,” he said of Tennessee’s sales tax. “It’s one of the last things to go down in a recession and one of the first things to bounce back.” He considers it fair because people choose what to consume and factor in the cost of the tax in deciding what to buy. Plus, he said, “It’s a motivator to excel – the harder I work, the more money I keep.”

Sales taxes do squeeze some middle-class people when they buy food, Casada said, noting the state doesn’t tax food stamp purchases. He said he thinks the state could do “some tweaking” with the application of sales tax to food, possibly charging tax on some consumer services and then removing a like amount from “unprepared foods.”

He sees his main goals as a lawmaker to “keep taxes and regulations low so that Tennesseans can excel in whatever field they choose. … Secondly, I think it’s incumbent that the poor are helped, but through private endeavors, not government endeavors. In my opinion, if you and I have more of our money, we can help create jobs and we have more money to give to those in need.”

Casada not only has been active with Williamson County’s Chambers of Commerce, but has also worked with nonprofits. He served for three years on the board of BrightStone, a Williamson County agency that serves adults with developmental disabilities.

“He continues to support BrightStone and has always had the needs of individuals with special needs uppermost in his thoughts,” said its executive director, Brenda Hauk. “He has been accessible – which is huge. He listens, brings in others to listen, and knows how to get the information that is needed to make a good decision.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called him,” she said, adding Casada always promptly returns her phone calls. “I don’t always agree with him politically, but I support him and sing his praises.”

Stephen Murray, executive director of the nonprofit Community Housing Partnership of Williamson County, also gives high marks to Casada for helping cut through red tape to solve a housing issue involving state government. Casada is an ex-officio board member with the affordable-housing group.

Asked to pick three issues he considers most important to Tennessee, Casada mentioned – in no order of importance – health care reform, judicial selection and education.

Every state, including Tennessee, will have to deal with the mandates of the 2010 federal health care reform law, he said. They’ll have to set up systems called exchanges that small businesses can use to buy health insurance for employees. They’ll also have to figure out how to cover uninsured people. The U.S. Supreme Court may scrap all or part of the health care reform law, but the state still needs to plan – and complying with new directives will be costly, Casada said. He plans to introduce legislation to allow insurance to be bought across state lines, in hopes that greater competition will cut costs.

Longtime state Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, served with Casada on the House panel on health and human resources.

“I thought he did a good job overall” chairing the panel, Odom said, adding his only real difference of opinion was over procedure and the level of information on a group that spoke on state health compacts that would provide an alternative to federal health reform.

Another key issue is education, which Gov. Bill Haslam has identified as his No. 1 priority, and lawmakers will look at the effectiveness of past educational measures, Casada said.

“Our biggest hurdle (to education) is not funding,” he said. “Our biggest hurdle is that (for) most Tennesseans, education is not a priority.

“That’s a cultural problem that I don’t have an answer for.”

On judicial selection, Casada sees the state constitution as clearly requiring judges to be elected. Under the current system, the governor appoints judges at the appellate level, and elections are held later on whether to keep them in office.

Meanwhile, Casada meets with constituents at regular coffee meetings. He also listens to news programs across the political spectrum, from National Public Radio to conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh.

“I just like to know how they come to (a) conclusion, and it helps me to think more clearly when I understand those I disagree with,” he said. “I may not agree with them but I enjoy listening to them.”

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