Topics of local import on tap
Stephanie Myers
Tennessee state representatives are gearing up for what’s slated to be a busy legislative session in Nashville. Even though the 109th Tennessee General Assembly was set to begin this week, hot topics already seem to be forming around education reform, the state budget, a revised fuel tax and state health care reform.

State Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, encouraged constituents to contact their local representatives ahead of the start of session to let them know topics about which they are concerned.

“Now is the time for people to speak. If ever they want their voices heard we need to hear from them within the next two weeks because that session will be the first week of February that that will be decided,” Matlock said about the health care reform, deemed “Insure Tennessee,” Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to use federal Medicaid expansion dollars to create a state health insurance program for lower-income families. The governor announced late last year plans to call a special session to focus on the proposal the week of Feb. 2.

“We (Tennessee) would set up a separate exchange from the federal (government) which would have different provisions,” Matlock said. “The governor has proposed it. It doesn’t necessarily mean the legislature is going to approve it, but it sure seems to be better than the federal exchange.”

Matlock said constituents from whom he has heard are largely against the reform.

“It’s a combination of things,” Matlock said. “Most people think it’s an overreach into an area the government has no role in, specifically health care and should we mandate health care to people. Some believe it’s constitutionally unfounded that there is no place inside the U.S. Constitution that we are to be involved in things like health care.”

Haslam said in a state press release that the proposal leverages federal dollars to give residents a choice in their coverage “and to address the cost of health care, better health outcomes and personal responsibility,” Haslam said.

The state forwent a traditional Medicaid expansion two years ago.

Common Core a hot topic

Education reform, whether pushing forward with Common Core, the state standard that has been implemented across Tennessee classrooms during the past couple of years, or adopting a new curriculum, will be on the forefront of discussion in the General Assembly, representatives agreed.

“Everyone wants higher and more rigorous standards and expects our schools to produce better results. Everyone wants that,” Matlock said. “How you get there is where the debate begins, what methods you use, what curriculum you adhere to, how you teach that curriculum. That’s what has been really strongly debated.”

“They go from one extreme which would be completely disbanding the entire curriculum, starting over again and just absolutely saying go back the way we did it pre-Common Core,” he added. “Most of the folks want to take some of the good things, modify them, rename it, of course, and then the aspect of federal mandates is what has everyone so upset. I don’t think anyone wants to be told by some bureaucrat in (Washington) D.C., that you have to teach it this way, you have to say it this way, you have to show it that way. No, we don’t want that.”

Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston, said the education system in Roane County, unlike Loudon County and Lenoir City schools, has not yet fully implemented Common Core standards.

“Most of the people that are opposed to it had some misinformation. There are some things that need to be addressed,” Calfee said. “The main complaint that I’ve heard from the educators and local governments was the cost of the testing.”

Calfee said he hopes to bring forward legislation that would help rural schools receive more funding.

“That’s something that’s really important to me,” Calfee said. “I’ve spent a lot of time in county government in Roane County, and I understand the aches and pains and challenges of local government. If we can get that changed back it will make it a little bit more level playing field on the funding for smaller school systems compared to larger ones.”

Regardless of the proposals, State Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said budget cuts are inevitable across the state due to a decrease in revenues, McNally said.

“Right now, it looks like it will be fairly tight,” McNally said. “We are probably looking at somewhere between a 1 to 7 percent cut in expenditures or what our base budget was last year, and a lot of that depends on the revenue figures we will be getting over the next few months. Mainly it’s a decrease in revenues, particularly on the corporate income tax, the franchise and excess tax. It’s probably the area we’ve seen the major decrease in.

“There will be some, I think, general reductions in expenditures in a number of departments. Unfortunately, we are having difficulty in controlling the cost of TennCare,” he added. “That’s one of the big expenditures in the state government right now, health care.”

Increase in state gas tax?

Local legislators agree that a revised fuel tax will also be a big ticket item this legislative session. The state has not see a gas tax increase in a quarter-century.

While not in favor of raising taxes, Matlock and Calfee said they believe the state needs to focus on building new roadways, pointing to trimming budgets in other departments to help create funding for future road projects.

Due to uncertainty over federal funding levels, TDOT Commissioner John Schroer sent a letter Oct. 24 to Tennessee state legislators stating that 12 construction projects and 21 right-of-way acquisitions, representing almost $400 million in transportation improvements, will be delayed by at least two years. Two projects in Loudon County , as a result, that have been affected include right-of-way acquisition, one of the first steps into starting a construction project, for a signature intersection at U.S. Highway 321 and 11 and the expansion of U.S. Highway 321 from the intersection with Highway 11 to Simpson Road East.

“We deal with everything in cash, so that’s a great program, but if you do that it does limit that you can only build new roads and bridges when you have new revenue,” Matlock said. “And we are to a point where the revenue is basically planned out, and we are only able to maintain roads, so if we are going to be progressive and ask new people and industries to move into the state and relocate we have to keep up with infrastructure which is adding new roads and bridges to access people to their employment.”

Options considered to raise more revenue include an increase in the fuel tax, an increase in vehicle registration fees or the implementation of license tags for trailers, Matlock said.

Calfee pointed out lost gas tax revenue from hybrid and electric cars and potentially keeping all federal monies at a local level.

“All we can do is request that and that may be something that the legislature may ask the governor to request of Washington, but we’re going to face one of these days a problem with maintaining the roads,” Calfee said. “And there are about 8 billion in highway projects on the books in Nashville and really not very much money to fund that. We’re going to have to do something on that.”