Citizens voice concerns at Legislative Coffee meeting

On August 11, 2009, in News 2009, by Mark Norris

StateGazette.com August 11, 2009 Friday morning, the Dyersburg/Dyer County Chamber of Commerce played host to Sen. Mark Norris, Rep. Craig Fitzhugh and Rep. Judy Barker during a Legislative Coffee meeting. More along the lines of a town hall meeting, the state legislative members first gave an introductory presentation and then answered questions from the audience. […]

StateGazette.com
August 11, 2009

Friday morning, the Dyersburg/Dyer County Chamber of Commerce played host to Sen. Mark Norris, Rep. Craig Fitzhugh and Rep. Judy Barker during a Legislative Coffee meeting.

More along the lines of a town hall meeting, the state legislative members first gave an introductory presentation and then answered questions from the audience.

Norris spoke first, saying they are halfway through the 106th General Assembly and they will go back on Jan. 12. He also said he had spent a lot of time butting heads with other legislative members over the state budget during this economic crisis.

“I suspect we are going to take up not only next year’s Appropriations Act, but the Appropriations Act for the year we are already in,” said Norris. “There’s going to be some tweaking likely needing to be done of the current budget.”

Norris mentioned their caucus had accelerated some of Gov. Phil Bredesen’s cuts to try to meet the decreasing revenue.

“I think within seven days of his presentation of the budget, based on certain economic projections, we were already down another $100 million less than he had projected,” said Norris. “We had originally proposed to accelerate some of those cuts. It was met with some pretty fierce opposition and some misrepresentation so the compromise was we put a trigger in the appropriations act.”

Norris said they had agreed to not accelerate the cuts, but Bredesen had to agree to impound the millions of dollars if the projections were not correct. Norris said the projections were not correct and last week, the trigger was pulled and $56 million was withheld.

Norris then noted the economy would take some time to rebound.

“If the economy turned around today, we’ve been told by our economists, it would take three to four years to get back to the point before it tanked,” said Norris.

Next, Fitzhugh took the podium. He said there were some leadership changes on Capitol Hill and especially in the House. Fitzhugh was reappointed as chairman of the House Finance Committee. He said he and Norris did have some disagreements, but they worked through them. He also noted Barker, Norris and himself work well together and will continue to do so.

Fitzhugh said this past budget was a tough one. He mentioned legislative members not wanting to be where they were a few years ago, where they spend one-time money for recurring obligations. And they had the opportunity to spend the money this time because they had a bundle of federal cash, but chose not to. Fitzhugh however said they did continue some necessary programs.

Fitzhugh said the General Assembly did something unusual this budget year. The oddity was taking steps for the next budget year.

“They made some decisions to change some recurring expenses based on recurring revenues to non-recurring expenses based on non-recurring revenues,” said Fitzhugh. “We put in place already, a lot of cuts that are going to take place at the end of this next fiscal year.”

Fitzhugh said the state was looking better on revised revenue estimates.

“This is a relative term. We’re looking a little better actually,” said Fitzhugh. “Our decrease in revenue is not as much as we thought. That’s good news believe it or not.”

He then told the audience the General Assembly was closely watching the state’s tax dollars.

“I can say with assurance your tax dollars are being looked at, every single dollar,” said Fitzhugh.

He said his finance committee and the budget sub-committee scrutinizes every bill that spends a dollar. Both the committee and sub-committee are composed of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.

He then noted Tennessee is so sales-tax dependant that revenues dip significantly when automobiles and homes don’t sell. But, when they do sell, Tennessee will catch up faster than surrounding states.

Fitzhugh said he knows what local governments are facing and they are making an extra effort to not have unfunded mandates.

“I think Judy, Mark and I know and understand that and watch that,” said Fitzhugh. “So, if you can be grim and optimistic at the same time I think that’s about where I am.”

Fitzhugh said the biggest disappointment he has is spending so much time in Nashville, but is easily available by phone and e-mail.

Barker took the podium next saying when she was elected she promised she would work her heart out for the people of Northwest Tennessee.

She said one way she is doing that is keeping the focus on projects in Northwest Tennessee. In 2005, she contracted with the state to research every property owner along the right of way for I-69 in Obion County. She said Friday the project was supposed to be let-for-construction, which means open for bids. She said an agreement with the railroad company and the state of Tennessee was not worked out. The next let-for-construction date is Sept. 18.

“My understanding is in Dyer County, the environmental studies are going on,” said Barker. “So, I-69 is progressing.”

She also said the River Port project is dear to her heart and has only missed its meetings in which she was required to be in session in Nashville.

“The port is progressing, ” said Barker.

Barker told the audience the port was a regional concept and it was a prime example of communities working together.

“Every monthly meeting has representatives from Dyer, Obion and Lake County sitting at the table working together,” said Barker.

Next Barker mentioned she had told Tennessee tourism representatives that not enough publicity was being paid to Northwest Tennessee.

“We need to focus more on vacationing in Tennessee,” said Barker. “Keeping our state revenues in our own beautiful state.” She mentioned Reelfoot Lake and Discovery Park as destination spots.

Barker said anytime she gets the opportunity she tries to inform others in the state legislature about Northwest Tennessee’s projects.

“One of these days we may need their support and they need to be well educated on these projects,” said Barker.

Norris said he and Fitzhugh had been working with a group called the Mississippi Corridor of Tennessee. The group is planning to put a network along the Mississippi River from Mississippi to Kentucky. Norris said a map was put together highlighting industrial, historical and recreational locations.

Adding that one successful highlight was the progress in designating a route along the west coast of Tennessee as a National Scenic Byway.

“All of this is done respecting private property owners’ rights,” said Norris.

Next the question-and-answer question portion of the meeting began.

Dyersburg businessman Joe Yates complimented other communities on their downtown renovations. He said he didn’t want Dyersburg to fall on the back burner and that some communities that received stimulus money were not shovel ready, whereas Dyersburg is.

“I just want to say, I appreciate what you do,” said Yates. “I appreciate the monies that are spent around the area. I appreciate the regional concept, but just like always you always want to protect your own back yard. And right now the downtown area needs your help.”

Norris said they got the grants approved, but asked was there a holdup.

Yates said they were going to receive $1.5 million from the state, but will need more to finish the project.

Fitzhugh said he had been following Dyersburg’s progress very closely and said if more money becomes available Dyersburg would be at the top of the list.

Attorney John Lannom asked Norris to report on Bredesen’s plan to facilitate a new community college program.

Norris said he didn’t know what happened to Bredesen on the issue and Fitzhugh was the House sponsor of the bill.

He did mention that community colleges and technical schools were needed as ever before.

“That’s to retrain and turn around a number of folks to get them in a viable economy,” said Norris. “The four-year schools, right now, are a little bit less useful in the sense; we got some real fast turnaround that’s necessary at retraining and retooling.”

Norris said there is a huge interest group they have to work with.

Barker said she was a product of a community college and she is in tune with the need for community colleges. And Dyersburg State Community College and the Tennessee Technical Center are meeting the need for training people for jobs.

Fitzhugh said higher education reform is something he has been very interested in.

He said everybody thought they were going to merge the UT system and the Board of Regents.

“I hope it’s not going to be that way and I don’t think it will,” said Fitzhugh. “I think it will be more like giving community colleges a part in that scheme that they deserve. A separate ability to have some more significance in funding and some more significance in priorities as far as education goes.”

Fitzhugh noted private efforts that were taking place to make community colleges tuition-free, noting that 21st-century educational opportunities and a community college education are key components in getting a job.

One member of the audience asked if the mega-site in Haywood County and Bredesen’s trip to China, a couple of years ago, were going to bring any jobs to northwest Tennessee.

Norris said this administration’s main focus is on the Clarksville, Chattanooga and Haywood County mega-sites.

“Job one is making sure we support that site and it can develop the jobs we need,” said Norris. “The question was not whether it would be funded, but how it would be funded.”

He said somewhere in the budget process that Bredesen wanted to use some grant money for a solar farm and the $62 million the governor was going to use for the solar farm was on hold.

“Whether we have to reapply for those funds for a more conventional use is a question I’m trying to answer,” said Norris.

Last week, Norris had to fill out a Freedom of Information Act request for with the federal government and the state of Tennessee.

“This is not designed to try and make the governor look bad,” said Norris. “It’s designed to try and say that there is a narrow window of opportunity for us to try and draw down those grant funds. And if the solar farm idea isn’t going to work we need have an opportunity to amend the application to apply for funds we can put to work.”

He said there was a place for green energy, but not at the expense of getting something done quicker.

Fitzhugh said a commitment was made to the Haywood mega-site.

“This is one of the last best mega-sites in at least the Southeast to give us the ability to vie for those big-type automotive plants,” said Fitzhugh. “There are not that many out there and they are few out there and they are very interested in this site.”

He also said a he had confidence the stimulus money will come through for the solar farm.

“It’s in the budget and it’s going to be funded and I think from Shelby County to Obion County will see the positive benefits of it sooner rather than later, I hope,” said Fitzhugh.

Another member of the audience said Dyer County residents were concerned about jobs and the speakers should think about West Tennessee jobs when they go back to Nashville.

Norris said the stimulus is mysterious to everyone, from regular citizens all the way up to President Obama.

Norris also mentioned qualified school construction bonds available under the Federal Stimulus Act. He said they passed a statute that enables local education authorities and local government units to go through the process to draw down those funds. He said Shelby County did not know about the statute and he wanted to make everyone know about it because the deadline for the funds is due Aug. 21.

“It’s money to be used for construction or repairs or acquisition of equipment and even in some cases land for qualified construction,” said Norris.

He said the monies available were between $2 million to $20 million per project. Norris clarified this was a virtually interest-free loan.