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Lawmakers talk shop over breakfast in Erwin

Sue Guinn Legg • Mar 24, 2018 at 12:51 AM

State legislators Rusty Crowe and John Holtsclaw Jr. and representatives for Sen. Lamar Alexander and U.S. Rep. Phil Roe discussed their work in Nashville and Washington at the annual Unicoi County Legislative Breakfast Friday.

Hosted by the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce for more than three decades and sponsored by what is now Ballad Health for 17 of those years, the breakfast packed the meeting room at Erwin Town Hall with county leaders and citizens eager to hear what the lawmakers had to say and to have their questions answered.

Eric Carroll, administrator of Unicoi County Hospital, introduced the elected leaders and the representatives following a brief update on work on the construction of the county’s new hospital.

Work on the medical office complex that will adjoin the new hospital is now underway, Carroll said. The construction is moving quickly and the entire facility should be ready to begin taking patients in mid- to late October.

Bill Darden, district director for Roe, began the legislators’ comments by saying the often remarked sentiment that nothing gets done in Washington is not the case for Tennessee’s First District congressman.

Within the past year, he said, the Veterans Affairs Accountability Act has been changed to allow the removal of VA workers who perform poorly, veteran claim reviews have been beefed up; the GI Bill has been amended to allow more veterans the opportunity for higher education, and work continues to expand the Veterans Access to Care through Choice Act that allows veterans to see medical specialist not available at their local VA hospital.

Darden listed federal tax reform, regulation reforms and border protection as other areas where progress is being made and upcoming action on the Farm Bill as something Roe is staying on top of.

Alexander Field Representative Lana Moore agreed with Darden that good things are being accomplished in the nation’s capital and put the passage of first major tax reform legislation in decades at the top of the list.

Within the past year in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee chaired by Alexander, Moore said “there have been 13 bills moved out of that committee,” 32 hearings with confirmations of presidential nominees for HELP administrative positions, and multiple hearings on topics including legislative action to address the opioid epidemic.

This year, Moore said, Alexander’s focus is on reformation of the Higher Education Act to simplify the financial aid applications for college-bound students, directing federal resources to local communities help battle the opioid abuse and other legislative actions to address the epidemic, prioritizing funding for the backlog of national park maintenance and revolutionizing the unfair pay system for songwriters.

In Nashville, Crowe said there is team effort underway on “lower taxes, less government intrusion, more personal responsibility, faith and family” that is paying off and something to be proud of.

“We have the lowest taxes in the nation and we reduced food tax by 3 percent.”

The Hall Tax on investment earnings is being eliminated; taxes on manufacturing are being cut; the inheritance tax was done away with “and we are still saving money,” he said. “We have the largest rainy day fund we have.”

“We shrunk the government by 10 percent. And the last two budgets were balanced without any debt.”

In Unicoi County, Crowe said, work to improve the road to Rocky Fork State Park recently cleared the environmental study phase. The park visitors center is being designed and is expected to be completed in about two years. And work to secure $475,0000 in funding needed to bring water to the park entrance is underway. “We’re almost there. The governor is aware of this and we’re going to it.”

On the public records restrictions proposed for Ballad Health and the Mountain Harvest Kitchen business incubator in Unicoi, Crowe said the legislation is needed to put the health system on a equal playing field with other systems that do not face the same reporting requirements because of its recent merger, and to protect the recipes and other business information of the kitchen’s clients.

Holtsclaw agreed that “In Nashville, things are really going well.”

“Tennessee has the lowest debt and the lowest tax burden in the nation. That’s saying a lot. We have the lowest unemployment rate in history … at 3.3 to 3.4 percent last month. And our business growth is the second-fastest in the Southeast,” he said.

In the coming year, Holtsclaw said, the state will add another $2.2 million funding to broadband internet service, invest another $30 million in school security and require able-bodied people who receive TennCare to work.

And for Unicoi County, he said, food service incubation information is being protected and the county’s Sessions Court judgeship is being upped from a part-time to a full-time position.

Email Sue Guinn Legg at slegg@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.

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