Legislative breakfast draws large crowd

On March 4, 2009, in News 2009, by Mark Norris

March 4, 2009

A large group gathered at the Lannom Center early Friday morning to visit with state and local elected officials and find out what is on the agenda for Nashville in the current session.

State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, State Rep. and Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Craig Fitzhugh and newly elected State Rep. Judy Barker joined local elected officials, Chamber representatives, community leaders and concerned residents for the event. Norris, Fitzhugh and Barker each took a turn addressing the audience and then opened the floor for questions.

The representatives were questioned about changes to the boards governing higher education, the importance of completing Cates Landing with stimulus funds, the Employee’s Free Choice Act and changes in the definition of workplace injuries for workman’s compensation.

“We are either fortunate or unfortunate to have three representatives in Nashville, where other communities have two,” said Bob Kirk. “We have three very capable individuals to represent us in Nashville and we are fortunate to have them with us today.”

“We are proud to represent you folks,” said State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, the first to speak at the breakfast. “You are a cut above the rest. This is a most unusual time in our state. The deficit at the state level, coupled with the Federal Stimulus Package – nothing like that has ever happened before.”

According to Norris, there is good news and bad news regarding the federal stimulus package headed for Tennessee in the coming weeks.

“The bad news is, no one understands the stimulus bill,” said Norris, who recently traveled to Washington to meet with representatives from other states on the issue. “Nobody really fully knows what it means and we are all working on it simultaneously, together. The funding is available and it is coming. (What we need to decide is) how we direct the money in such a way to maximize the stimulus funding, turn it into bricks-and-mortar-type money that stimulates the economy.”

Norris said on the state level, much has been said recently about the issue of guns in restaurants and expanding wine sales.

“I’m more concerned about putting food on people’s tables than allowing them to drop a bottle of chardonnay in their cart at the grocery store,” said Norris. “There are 70 years worth of legislature and restrictions that were put into place right after prohibition. You can’t just pull one block out. It is a very complex issue – a very important one – but I’m not sure it will make it to the front of the agenda this session.”

“Our priorities need to be on the budget,” said Fitzhugh, the next to speak. “We need to keep this state running in the direction it has been going. I think we know this stimulus package is going to be good for us, if we use it wisely. It’s like having a broken kitchen table, but you use the stimulus money on a down payment for a new house. Now, next month, you are trying to find the money to make the payment. We need to think of it as one- or two-time money (and spend it that way.)”

Fitzhugh said it is important for the state government to become more efficient and use the stimulus funding wisely, but that he is confident of the state’s standing in these rough economic times.

“We cannot come out of this recession ourselves,” said Fitzhugh. “We are part of the whole. Sales taxes are the driver of the economy. (Sales taxes are driven by) automobile sales and construction and those are both in the tank. Tennessee is positioned as well or better than most states in weathering the storm, but the stimulus will not prevent us from making some cutbacks.

“Rural West Tennessee has some challenges ahead,” continued Fitzhugh. “Of shovel-ready projects for roads, very few of them are for rural areas. Most construction is in urban areas where the cars are, where the congestion is. So if we can (use that money to) build a road, a connector, a bridge to help (infrastructure and the) economy to create future jobs, not just jobs for Ford Construction.”

“We are not only in an economic crisis, we are in a health-care crisis,” said Barker. “The majority of the phone calls I receive in my Nashville office, my Union City office and at home deal with health care. People taken off of TennCare or priced out of insurance coverage. The people I talk to on the other end of the phone are frustrated and angry and we handle these claims as quickly as possible.”

Barker also talked about the growing amount of young girls in the corrections system and witnessing the initiative of teaching inmates to answer approximately 100 calls a day to deal with TennCare issues.

“These girls were very dedicated,” said Barker. “They were in cubicles working, answering TennCare telephone calls and being trained, hopefully, to get a job. (The program) answers about 60,000 telephone calls a month, paying the girls $1-something per hour.”

Barker also announced her dedication to transportation projects in the area and education concerns.

“I am very committed to I-69, the river port, improvements to Dyersburg Airport, Everett’s Airport and the Reelfoot Spillway,” said Barker. “I love roads. I love infrastructure. (I am pleased to have been named) to the transportation and education committees, where I get to try to keep the focus on West Tennessee. My role is to repay the many blessings I have had through my life that I did not truly deserve and to make this region better for the next generation.”

Comments are closed.