ELIZABETHTON — The state of Tennessee is in great financial shape even though the national government is a mess.
That was the message the area’s legislative delegations to Washington and Nashville delivered during Friday’s annual legislative breakfast sponsored by the Elizabethton/Carter County Chamber of Commerce.
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, discussed his frustration in Washington with government spending, especially with the Senate. Roe said “the Senate has not passed a budget since I have been in Washington,” but Roe was quick to say that Tennesseans Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, also Republicans, were not part of the problem.
Roe said only 60 percent of federal spending is with revenues raised through taxes and the remaining 40 percent comes from borrowing.
He said much of the spending is required by law, such as Social Security. The remaining is discretionary spending, which can be cut. He said that included most government departments, such as the Department of Defense, Homeland Security or Commerce. He said the debt is so bad that if all the discretionary spending was cut out entirely, there would still be a deficit.
Roe said the real debate on the budget will come in May.
Alexander and Corker were not able to attend and were represented by the their Tri-Cities field directors, Lana Moore and Bridget Baird.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, state Sen. Rusty Crowe, state Rep. Kent Williams and state Rep. Timothy Hill all spoke about the sound shape of state government, but also expressed concerns over federal health plans and their impact on the state.
With many state and local government workers attending the breakfast, Ramsey said the state’s pension plan “is one of the best-run in the nation.” He said the state has $36 billion in real investments to cover the state’s promises to its long-term employees.
Ramsey also praised the state’s financial condition, saying “we owe less money per capita than any state, and we pay back what we borrow.”
Crowe said he “was proud of the state of the state” and went on to say Tennessee’s finances “are in great shape.”
Crowe also commented on Carter County’s expanded delegation. He remembered the days when the county was only represented by him and the late Ralph Cole. He said now the county is also represented by the lieutenant governor and Tim Hill in addition to Kent Williams.
Williams also praised the state’s finances, and took time to explain how the state managed to improve its condition despite the national recession.
“We had to make some very painful cuts,” Williams said of the time right after the recession hit in 2008. “We made those painful cuts but we still invested in infrastructure.” Williams referred to the expansion of the Tennessee Technology Center in Elizabethton. The construction that is now under way was a result of decisions reached during the depths of the recession, he said.
“We didn’t bury our head in the sand,” Williams said. He said the training the expanded center will provide will help create a trained work force to help make Tennessee a desirable place for industry to locate.
Hill, the newest member of the county’s delegation to Nashville, said he was proud of his district, which includes Roan Mountain, a portion of Watauga Lake and other sections of the high Carter County mountain ranges.
“I tell people in Nashville I represent the most beautiful district in Tennessee,” Hill said.
Hill’s 3rd District was extended into Carter County during the last redistricting. Prior to that, Carter County had only one district, Williams’ 4th District. Ramsey said he was proud of the redistricting effort, which also allowed him to take a portion of Carter County into his formerly Sullivan and Johnson counties district.
Ramsey said all redistricting plans since the landmark Supreme Court case of Baker v. Carr had been challenged in the courts, but this one that he had a hand in drawing was the first that had withstood a court challenge since the 1962 Supreme Court case.
Most of the legislators expressed concerns with the Affordable Care Act.
Hill said “Medicaid expansion is huge,” and predicted the legislature will follow Gov. Bill Haslam’s lead on the issue.
Williams said one of his concerns is the impact it would have on rural counties. He said those counties could lose medical service and hospitals.
Ramsey said Medicare expansion “is a tough issue.” He said “a day of reckoning is coming,” when the state will have to make difficult decisions on whether to cut people from expanded TennCare rolls or raise taxes.
Ramsey made strong responses to two questions from the audience.
Ramsey said there has been some knee-jerk responses to the recent school shooting tragedy at Sandy Hook, Conn. He said the proposal to require background checks on every gun sale won’t work because it won’t work when “two thugs in South Chicago want to trade guns.” He said he is proud of a law he sponsored for gun carry permits. He said 400,000 people now have them and the law is working.
Ramsey also said education reform is working. He said there was some fears among teachers over evaluations, but the system is working to benefit students.
Williams said Basic Education Program money has not been cut, but he knew that funding went down in districts such as Carter County where there was a decline in enrollment. Funding went up in Elizabethton, where there was an increase.