Candidates for Tennessee Governor Talk Education, Rural Health Care, Workforce Development

May 16, 2018

Candidates for Tennessee's next governor discussed top priorities, education, rural health care and the break-even bushel price for soybeans at a recent candidate forum at the University of Tennessee at Martin. Here is where the candidates stand on issues discussed. The Tennessee primary election is on August 2.

Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS

Karl Dean

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said his top priority would be education. He said the state's budget would reflect that. He also wants to "protect what's important" being public safety, education and economic development. He'd cut from other departments to fund those efforts. He'd incentivize teachers to work in rural areas and said there is a disparity in some school districts in the resources they get to support education. For instance, some have more access to sales tax than others.

"I think we all agree that to have really good success in the classroom, you've got to have a good teacher and you want to have a great teacher. And to get that you have to pay to attract the best and you want to retain them," he said.

On tariffs, Dean said if the price of steel and aluminum increase it could affect farm equipment. Other tariffs could drive down the price of row crops. He wants to see farmers have access to capital and insurance.

Rural hospitals closing is what happens when there is no Medicaid expansion, Dean said. Supporting expansion, he said, "If you elect me as governor that would send a strong message that the voters of Tennessee are interested in seeing that happen." Having a hospital in a rural community, he said is key for economic development and population growth. He said the state has a role to work with nonprofits and the for-profit medical community to find answers and develop partnerships.

Public education is necessary to resolve the opioid crisis, he said. There needs to be more treatment facilities and said there is not sufficient money in the state budget for this issue.

He said more money needs to be invested in rural broadband efforts.

To address school safety issues, schools need more resource officers or need to bring in more people trained in handling firearms, he said. He added that teachers say they don't want to be the ones armed to keep the school safe. This has to be a state and national conversation, he said and supports the second amendment. He said discussions can start with the premise of keeping dangerous people who are threats to others from obtaining guns with topics involving background checks and mental health.

In his closing statement, Dean said he believes Tennessee doesn't want a strongly partisan governor. He would focus on education, economic opportunities and health care.

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Craig Fitzhugh

State House minority leader Craig Fitzhugh said his top priority is health care. The health care system is the state's most pressing need, he said, and expanding Medicaid is the best solution. He said he has

"I am convinced that now that the politics are out of the way... I think we can get together, with pressure on everybody - including the public, coming back to our legislature, I think we can come to a conclusion that will expand Medicaid even if it's only for six months or two years that will put us on the right track for reducing costs for our citizens who can't afford health care," Fitzhugh said, adding it would be his first priority to achieve this by "whatever means" he can, and suggested seeking federal waivers to improve health care and to address the opioid crisis.

Addressing agriculture needs, he said the state needs to give the industry 'every break it can' to continue to ensure farming is a top priority.

On tariffs, Fitzhugh said he is a 'free market guy.' He said it's a federal level, but the state can promote farming, new crops, science and tech and short-term credits. He said medical marijuana, with regulation and taxation, could be an opportunity for farmers.

Not enough money is being invested in addressing the opioid crisis, he said. He wants to keep the retail-driven economy going and wants to ensure roads stay in shape. "We could be and should be the hub of the south," He said. And suggested opportunities in tax revenue streams. One of these revenues, he said could come from Internet sales tax. He said he wants Congress to fix this issue.

Fitzhugh said the state needs to do a better job investing in various types of post-secondary education to address unemployment issues. He said it's "critical" to pay teachers incrementally more and again pointed to Internet sales tax potential.

In his closing statements, he said he's not a multimillionaire and is an Eagle Scout. He said he comes from a family of teachers, was the first in his family to get a college degree, served in the Air Force and works in small business. 

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Randy Boyd

Former Commissioner of Tennessee Economic and Community Development Randy Boyd said his top priority would involve economic opportunity. He said everything starts with education and wants to develop a trained workforce and invest in industrial sites, broadband infrastructure, entrepreneurs, agriculture and tourism.

Boyd said the Memphis Regional Megasite is a viable project, ready to sell. Should a company come to this site (which the state has invested a considerable amount of money in), it would transform west Tennessee, could create 11,000 jobs and bring an annual economic impact of $7 billion. "I'm determined to make that happen," he said.

Boyd said companies don't come to counties that don't have sites. It's a place to start, he said. Rural communities that don't have sites need to have the resources to develop them, he said. He added that he would finish a rail project in Port of Cates landing (a water port in northwest Tennessee).

For agriculture, Boyd said he supports the agriculture enhancement and ag innovation funds and wants to develop a farm track fund targeting processors that would source materials from local farmers.

On tariffs, Boyd said he supports President Trump. He said, however, tariffs as proposed "aren't good for Tennessee," particularly soybean farmers.

To turn around problems in rural health care, Boyd said he wants to secure a block grant for Tennessee. The advantage, he said is that Tennesseans can make decisions for Tennesseans. He wants the state to be healthier, citing high smoking and obesity rates and low-income rates. He wants to develop a better health care marketplace with more accountability and transparency. He said businesses are already incentivized to have healthier employees. He wants more people with health savings accounts.

On education, Boyd said there is a large gap in the state's potential is in trade schools, community colleges and tech schools. He would work with these schools to bring programs to high schools. Incorporating tech programs in high schools, he said, would allow students to graduate with a certificate. "If we don't get the workforce right it's going to be hard to get the economy right," Boyd said.

In his closing statements, Boyd said he is a businessman, a Christian and a conservative. He emphasized 'K to J' - kindergarten to a job. He wants to finish the megasite, Port of Cates, I-69 and rural broadband expansion. 

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Beth Harwell

Tennesse state House Speaker Beth Harwell said her top priority is to make sure the state's financial house is in order. She wants to put more money into education and to ensure teachers are paid well. She said the accountability system needs to improve. She would also prioritize literacy in schools. She described a need to improve the state's testing system.

On Agriculture, she said it's the foundation of the economy in west Tennessee and described restoring certain ag grants. She said she's proud of ag-tourism programs and would continue to move that forward.

On tariffs, Harwell said she supports President Trump and wants him to be successful. She believes 'good things' will come out of the proposed tariffs, but is "gravely concerned." She noted medical device and soybean exports to China.

She said hospital closures can't be blamed on Tennessee's not expanding Medicaid. She said states that expanded Medicaid are seeing hospital closures and pointed to Kentucky as an example. "The model has failed," she said. (A study this year found hospitals in states that expanded Medicaid were less likely to close) Harwell said some hospitals that have closed have reopened as medical centers and are still providing care. "People don’t check into a hospital for long-term are anymore. Most go to a facility for outpatient services. That’s going to be the way of the future coming up," Harwell said.

She credited the Tennessee General Assembly for cracking down on pain clinics to address the opioid crisis. She held listening sessions on this issue around the state and said it takes a three-pronged approach: prevention - as in the legislature limiting prescribed opioids to five days, educating the public and law enforcement - upping the penalty for using illegal drugs and increasing the number of TBI agents.

Technical training would be an emphasis for workforce development, she said. Tech schools need equipment, she said and praised President Trump's emphasis on apprenticeship programs.

In her closing statements, Harwell described her religious background and said she wants to keep government small. She said she's proud to be in one of the lowest tax states in the nation and also a 'pro-business' state. She said a role of the government is to help the private sector create jobs. The state budget values education, she said and wants to make sure it stays that way. 

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Bill Lee

Lee Company President and CEO Bill Lee said his top priorities would include good jobs, schools and neighborhoods. He said rural communities are being left behind and said the state has ignored vocational, technical and agricultural education. Urban centers are having trouble with safety, he said, and the opioid epidemic creates a challenge for law enforcement.

On workforce development, he said businesses in the state struggle to fill trade jobs and the state needs to invest more in developing a skilled workforce. Public-private partnerships are the answer, not the government, Lee said, and added that industry is a benefactor and should be part of the solution. Suggesting companies partner with high schools and post-secondary schools, he said there's a way to develop the workforce without building schools all over the state. Businesses are incentivized to get involved out of a need, he said and wants to invest in industry training for young people.

Rural broadband is expensive, Lee said, but the state doesn't have a choice in whether to invest in it. It's difficult to run a business, educate children and operate in today's world without it, he said. Building this could involve public-private utility providers, private sector partnerships, "whatever it takes." He said it might involve managing the budget to determine wants and needs and would look for funding from various line items in the budget to pay for something.

Lee wants to strengthen ag enhancement, rather than expanding it. He said it's designed to kickstart development. The ag industry is critical and crucial to the future of Tennessee, he said, describing his own involvement with a cattle farm. He said rural areas like west Tennessee have not received their fair share of economic development.

On tariffs, Lee said he hopes President Trump is doing one of the things he does well: negotiate. He said the tariffs are a leverage point, but said it's particularly troubling for grain farmers if that leverage point becomes a tariff. One of two candidates to answer a break even bushel price for soybeans, he said the beans are around $10 and would guess that break even is around $9.50.

In his closing statements, Lee described his cattle farming and said he is deeply concerned about the future of the ag industry. He said he is a businessman with a heart for vocational education and noted that he is the only candidate in the race who has never worked for the government or has run for office. He also described chairing a YMCA youth program and mentoring youth and a man reentering society after serving a prison sentence.

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Diane Black

Congresswoman Diane Black said her top priority is economic development, health care and education. She said about 25% of students are being left behind. She said there's been a lot of focus over the past 10 years on higher education, but said she is hearing from manufacturers in rural areas that there is not an educated workforce or students coming out of school prepared to do the jobs needed like welding, plumbing and pipe-fitting. She said she wants to address technical programs and to invest in career counselors to help students discover their talents. "And then do a dual track where we can have students that tend to be more in the career and technical to get those skills and those who tend to be more in the academic to go in that direction," she said and gave an example of students crossing back and forth in that path. She would work with the private sector to bring in equipment and technology so they can train students to use their equipment. She said businesses are willing to send employees to the schools to help students get educated.

Addressing hospital closures, Black said she has 45 years of experience as a nurse. The TennCare issue was what motivated her to run for office, to begin with, she said. Public health centers were decimated at that time, she said and wants to see more of those. Addressing emergency care, she said she is looking at models around the country to find ways to provide care. There needs to be an outside of the box thinking, she said, the industry is changing.

On agriculture, she said Congress is poised to pass the Farm Bill and wants to make sure farmers are taken care of. She said farmers need assistance with insurance for crops and have not seen the economic growth they need. One of two candidates to answer a break-even bushel price for soybeans, Black said soybeans are $10 and said the break-even would be in the $9 area. "We don't want them to just break even, we want them to be successful," she said.

On tariffs, Black said President Trump is a strong negotiator who felt the U.S. wasn't getting a good deal on trade agreements. She feels encouraged by the effort and believes fair deals will be achieved at the end of the day.

As for the megasite in west Tennessee, she said it's a boondoggle to spend $140 million and not do anything with the site. She envisioned the site's potential to harness the farming culture of the region, where crops are grown, processed, packaged and distributed at the site. She wants to grow the area in a way that would culturally fit west Tennessee.

In closing statements, Black said she grew up with depression-era parents, has a nursing license, has Christian values, is pro-life, taught at a college, ran a hospital foundation, started two small businesses, served in state legislature and served in Congress. She said she is proud to have passed a conservative budget in Congress. She said she fought for the state income tax cut in Tennessee. She said Tennessee stands for the flag and would not allow sanctuary cities in the state.