NASHVILLE, Tennessee – The first meeting of Tennessee House of Representatives members interested in issues related to rural districts was organized by Representative Bruce Griffey (R-Paris) and attended by nearly three dozen legislators.
The House Rural Caucus is a bi-partisan group with no formal leadership.
In his invitation to the meeting, which was held prior to the House Republican Caucus meeting on August 22 in the upstairs dining room of 417 Union restaurant, Representative Griffey expressed that the moderator or chair of the meetings, hopefully held monthly, would rotate with each meeting.
“The general idea,” said Griffey in his email meeting invitation, “is to get together, discuss rural legislative issues, and hopefully bring a bigger voice to the House chamber for rural districts.”
Griffey maintains that there are issues and challenges unique to the rural districts of the state.
That thinking seems to be in line with that of newly-elected Governor Bill Lee, whose first executive order required all 22 executive departments to conduct a review and recommendation process on how the state’s rural areas are currently serviced and how the transformation of the rural areas could be accelerated.
In his invitation, which included an attachment corroborating the information he provided, Griffey pointed out, “For the past four years, it appears ECD (Economic and Community Development) has spent approximately $21.5 billion dollars to attract/promote new business development. Of that $21.5 billion, approximately $14 billion was spent in the 17 urban counties and only $7.5 billion went to the remaining 67 rural counties!”
The meeting was opened by Griffey with a brief introduction in which he reiterated that this is a bi-partisan group, focused on rural issues with the hope of making a difference through “a bigger voice.”
Representative Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station) led a prayer, with a special intention for Representative Johnny Shaw (D-Bolivar), who had been hospitalized.
Following along on the organizational structure items on the agenda prepared by Griffey, there was unanimous agreement that the chair of the meeting would rotate among the attendees, dues would not be collected unless needed and that Griffey’s assistant, Cody Woods, would take notes.
Griffey started the discussion reviewing the ECD information provided in the email invite, adding that he would like to see a flip on the allocation of ECD dollars. Such a plan would continue spending the metropolitan areas while also encouraging businesses to move to rural areas.
He also expressed a preference that they get consensus on five to ten agenda items from the Rural Caucus to take into the upcoming legislative session.
Representative Patsy Hazlewood (R-Signal Mountain) advised that there is a tiered system with ECD dollars that gives additional credits for rural counties, which can serve as a structure for the program to be built on.
Griffey thought that the current system is not working well enough, when two-thirds of the dollars go to just 17 of the 95 counties.
He also brought up the topic of the surplus, which has since been reported by The Tennessee Star to be $636.1 million for the just completed 2018-2019 fiscal year.
A broad-ranging and relatively lengthy discussion ensued about the best use of the budget surplus at the local level.
Needs specific to the districts included an emergency helipad, courthouse and school structures and funding of volunteer fire halls were discussed.
Strong objections to sending a loosely proposed $1 million per House District or $3 million per Senate district came from Representatives Kent Calfee (R-Kingston) and Andy Holt (R-Dresden).
Those objections, along with a reminder by Representative David Hawk (R-Greenville) that they should stay at the macro level, with involvement in the local level being “what will get you beat more than anything,” seemed to curtail further discussion on that type of proposal.
Representative Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro) had done some investigation about a parking garage to accommodate the employees of the Cordell Hull Building and would be located to the right of the current legislative offices.
Rudd pointed out that it would be a one-time expense of $10 to $12 million – significantly less than the $22 million cost of the current garage that accommodates the legislators – that would not only help the employees, but be a savings of $2 million per year on parking fees.
Representative Dan Howell (R-Georgetown) said that the money given back to the counties in 2017 had a real impact with roads that hadn’t been paved in years. He said that sending the surplus back to the counties, “like we did with the IMPROVE Act,” which Howell voted for, would allow investment back in to the community for infrastructure and education – the two driving forces in economic development.
After some other discussion, Griffey circled back to the surplus, saying “It’s taxpayers’ money.” He offered two options for discussion: cutting the state portion of the food tax down to zero or “getting rid of the professional privilege tax,” on the remaining professions subject to the tax, doctors and lawyers.
Representative Chris Todd (R-Madison County) proposed an enhanced sales tax holiday.
Hazlewood added that, having served on the finance committee for five years, it has been fortunate for the state to have surpluses, but the state is not always going to be in that position. She agreed on getting the money back in the hands of the taxpayers, and advocated that a sales tax holiday is a one-time shot.
Representative Mary Littleton (R-Dickson) said she hears about broadband every day and thought they were missing the boat.
Seemingly in agreement, the discussion continued with several representatives adding perspective to the rural broadband issue including past grant funding and future grant needs from the state.
Calfee didn’t want to move too far off the topic of TDOT (Tennessee Department of Transportation), saying that, “We need to get on them to get contractors to do their jobs.”
After relaying some specific situations, Calfee said that the contractors are not held accountable. Ninety percent of Calfee’s constituents were against the IMPROVE Act, which Calfee voted against, because of the lack of contractor accountability – something he shared with the governor at the time.
Todd suggested that better accountability might be achieved with TDOT if the ultimate authority were not a commissioner, but a voluntary board that served on a rotating basis.
The safety grant that passed last year, said Representative David Byrd (R-Waynesboro), will put a School Resource Officer (SRO) for the first time in all eight schools in his district that applied for the grant.
After about 45 to 50 minutes into the meeting, several attendees began leaving the meeting.
Regarding the surplus, Representative Lowell Russell (R-Vonore) summarized that he would like to see the $10 or $12 million allocated to the parking garage, the rest divided up for broadband with something for safety and the rainy day fund.
The last topic on the agenda addressed rural health care options and hospitals, which is what Representative Kelly Keisling (R-Byrdstown) said is the subject that really affects him. He added that health care has become more regionalized over the past few years.
Todd added that the needs include emergency care, by way of an emergency room to get patients stabilized before transferring them elsewhere, in addition to clinics.
The challenge is getting doctors to go to those places, concluded Todd.
Rudd and Reedy both talked about the low Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates being a problem as well as the trend toward being a specialist versus a general practitioner.
Representative Michael Curcio (R-Dickson) brought up a related issue in Hickman County which is largely agricultural and where there is only one large animal vet who is over 70 years old.
The option of an incentive to pay off student loan debt in exchange for a contract to work in the area for the next three to five years was mentioned.
At just about the one-hour mark, more members began leaving and it was obvious that it was time to wrap up the meeting.
Griffey said that the various ideas discussed would be pulled together and circulated around in an email, allowing the members to rank the issues and come up with a list of the most important items.
To set the stage for the next meeting, Griffey nominated Reedy as chair, which was met with no objections.
A date for the next meeting of the House Rural Caucus was not established at the time of adjournment.
Pictured from left to right: Representatives Kent Calfee (R-Kingston), Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station), Kelly Keisling (R-Byrdstown), Mike Sparks (R-Smyrna), Jay Reedy (R-Erin), Chris Todd (R-Madison County), Mark White (R-Memphis), Kirk Haston (R-Lobelville), Chris Hurt (R-Halls), Rick Eldridge (R-Morristown), Lowell Russell (R-Vonore), Rush Bricken (R-Tullahoma) and Bruce Griffey (R-Paris). Attendees not pictured: Representatives David Byrd (R-Waynesboro), Scott Cepicky (R-Culleoka), Michael Curcio (R-Dickson), Clay Doggett (R-Pulaski), Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby), Johnny Garrett (R-Goodlettsville), Curtis Halford (R-Dyer), David Hawk (R-Greeneville), Patsy Hazlewood (R-Signal Mountain), Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough), Timothy Hill (R-Blountville), Andy Holt (R-Dresden), Dan Howell (R-Georgetown), William Lamberth (R-Portland), Mary Littleton (R-Dickson), Pat Marsh (R-Shelbyville), Dennis Powers (R-Jacksboro), Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro), Iris Rudder (R-Winchester), Micah Van Huss (R-Jonesborough) and Dave Wright (R-Corryton).
Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.