VOL. 133 | NO. 25 | Friday, February 2, 2018
Tenn. Governor Candidates Talk Transparency, Medicaid and Megasite
By Bill Dries
Five of the seven major contenders in the 2018 Tennessee governor’s race called for more transparency in government but said there are questions about when to disclose information about companies seeking to locate or expand in Tennessee.
The contenders in the August primaries shared the same stage at the winter meeting of the Tennessee Press Association in Nashville, in a forum moderated by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News and TPA president.
“I think it’s a question of timing,” said Republican contender Randy Boyd, the former state commissioner of economic and community development.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has a policy of not disclosing state incentives proposed for an economic development project when the initial announcement is made.
Boyd said some financial information should be kept private during initial talks with prospects.
“In the early negotiation we need to protect the privacy as much as we can, but in the end it is made public,” he said.
Franklin business owner and Republican contender Bill Lee said there should be “a balance” in such negotiations.
“Ultimately the state has a responsibility, I think, once they are ready to make a deal with a private-sector company,” he said. “That has to be transparent and open.”
Asked whether the state should have that kind of openness if it means a prospect might locate or expand somewhere else, including a bordering state, Lee said Tennessee’s tax rate may be the real barrier.
“One of the things we ought to do in this state is have a tax rate that is lower than Mississippi,” he said. “That’s the real solution – not to keep things in secret. I do think there is a balance. Obviously it is a process of when you reveal that information.”
Lee and Boyd differed on the Memphis Regional Megasite in Haywood County, though both candidates favor completing it.
“We’ve got to get it done,” said Boyd, whose duties as ECD commissioner included working to find a tenant for the megasite. “Some of the companies that look at the site don’t have to have every single thing done before they will locate.”
Lee said the lack of infrastructure that caused a Toyota-Mazda partnership to pass on building a plant at the megasite is a “great disappointment.” But there are other issues, he added.
“We could have 10,000 jobs there, but we don’t have a workforce that’s ready for that,” he said.
Democratic contender and former Nashville mayor Karl Dean continued to say the Tennessee General Assembly’s decision to reject a Medicaid expansion compromise proposed by Haslam was “the biggest mistake the Legislature has made.”
But he also called for “being able to reach across the aisle as governor.”
“I think the state wants a governor who is going to be moderate, pragmatic, common sense and get things done,” he said. “I don’t think the state wants an ideologue as governor.”
He also warned against partisan positions on criminal justice reform by members of both parties that might cause the other side to reject proposals.
Democratic contender and state House Democratic caucus leader Craig Fitzhugh said his priority as governor would be improving access to health care. He agreed with Dean that the Legislature should have expanded Medicaid. Fitzhugh also said a Medicaid expansion could have helped the state fight opioid addiction.
“We are going to fight this war with our hand behind our back,” Fitzhugh said of Haslam’s recently announced $30 million state plan.
And he said education reforms have moderated after initially being skewed too far toward accountability.
“But we also need not to take away the literal joy of learning,” he added. “I believe we got off to a really bad start on teacher evaluations. We lost some really great teachers. Now we’re balancing it to a better evaluation.”
Boyd said he would appoint a second deputy governor to “be the eyes and ears of local governments.” He also said local governments shouldn’t have to hire lobbyists to work in the Legislature to get their priorities heard.
“That shouldn’t be,” Boyd said.
Kingsport businesswoman Kay White, a Republican who served as the East Tennessee chair of the Trump for President campaign, came out against the state’s Drive to 55 initiative, which has the goal of equipping 55 percent of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate by 2025.
“There are some individuals in Tennessee who do not want to go back to college,” she said. “To force people or make them feel they have to, to get this job or that job – I feel skills should be implemented more in our schools than they used to be.”
White also said she opposes the removal of Confederate monuments in Memphis.
“We have people that like our history, reading about it,” she said. “Our bad history brought us forward to where we are today.”
Republican contenders Beth Harwell, who is state House speaker, and U.S. Rep. Diane Black did not attend the forum. Harwell cited her duties in the Legislature, which is in session. Black was campaigning in Memphis.