By Kendal Groner
Community members and stakeholders filled Erwin Town Hall for the annual Legislative Breakfast held on Friday, March 23.
Legislative remarks were heard from State Senator Rusty Crowe, State Representative John Holsclaw, and field representatives from the offices of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander and U.S. Congressman Phil Roe. The remarks were followed by a question and answer session.
The representatives discussed highlights of the work they accomplished in 2017 along with new legislation and issues they are working on with the federal government.
Bill Darden, field representative for the office of Rep. Phil Roe was the first to speak, and began by discussing the work Roe has done as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
“You hear time and time again that nothing is getting done in Washington D.C.,” Darden said. “That’s not the case with Roe.”
Darden mentioned the Accountability Act that Roe signed into law in 2017, that allows for the termination of inefficient or incompetent Veterans Affairs employees. It provides a more streamlined process for removing employees due to poor performance or misconduct.
Next, Darden discussed the Forever GI Bill and the Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, two other bills Rep. Roe has recently worked on. The Forever GI Bill, enacted in 2017, allows veterans to choose how and when they utilize their education benefits.
Darden said the GI Bill has been “changed significantly” and said that previously there were many times where veterans could not access their education benefits after 20 years.
“People can now access it forever,” he said.
The Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, or the Choice Act, took effect in 2014, although Darden says Rep. Roe continues to work on it. The Choice Act allows veterans to seek non-VA medical care if they are unable to secure an appointment at a VA medical facility within 30 days, or they live over 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility.
“It’s not perfect, but the congressman continues to tweak it so veterans can get care,” said Darden.
According to Darden, Rep. Roe has also been “front and center” with President Donald Trump’s agenda on tax reform and protection of the nation’s border.
Next, attendees of the breakfast heard from Lana Moore, field representative for Sen. Alexander.
Moore again touched on the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which included a provision to repeal the Affordable Care Act requirements and lowered individual and corporate tax rates. She said this was the first time in decades to have major tax reform legislation.
Sen. Alexander has also been very active as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Moore said 13 bills have come out of the committee that are now public law. The committee has been responsible for confirming presidential nominees and has held 32 oversight hearings.
Moving forward this year, Sen. Alexander has plans to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which would streamline student loans. There has also been discussion about simplifying the FASFA form, which is a requirement for all college students seeking any type of financial aid.
“It can be cumbersome,” said Moore. “It can really become a deterrent.”
Moore said there has been bipartisan consensus about the FASFA form and said progress is being made to simplify it.
The opioid epidemic is also a key focal point for Sen. Alexander in 2018, and along with diverting health resources to address the health crisis, he held the sixth hearing on the opioid crisis where attending governors testified about what measures they have found to be successful or unsuccessful.
“Most people would agree the federal government isn’t going to solve the problem,” said Moore. “Most of the answers are going to come from the local communities.”
This year, Sen. Alexander introduced the National Parks Restoration Act along with the Music Modernization Act. The National Parks Restoration Act is intended to address the $11.6 billion in National Park Service maintenance backlog. Using revenues from energy production, the act will help rebuild waterways, trails, campground, roads, and buildings in parks across the nation. The Music Modernization Act will allow songwriters and producers to see greater payouts from their works.
“It’s long overdue,” Moore said. “It will revolutionize the way songwriters are paid.”
State Sen. Crowe began by saying he is primarily focused on lower taxes, less government intrusion, more personal responsibility, and faith and family.
“If you just approach all of the issues in that way … it works,” Sen. Crowe said.
He reported that Tennessee has the lowest taxes in the nation as percent of personal income, and said that along with food taxes being reduced 30 percent, the Hall Income Tax is being phased out.
Manufacturing taxes have been cut and there are no longer insurance and gift taxes. Sen. Crowe said the state government has been shrunk by 10 percent, and there has been a balanced budget the last two years with no debt.
“Tennessee is in great shape,” Sen. Crowe said. “We’re still saving dollars. We have the largest Rainy Day Fund we’ve had.”
Locally, Sen. Crowe said Rocky Fork State Park is on track for completion and he expects it to be an amazing attraction once it is finished.
He said the Tennessee Department of Transportation met March 1 to ensure there were no environmental problems with the road systems. The design for the new visitor’s center at the park is also underway.
“We’re about two years away from being actually finished,” Sen. Crowe said.
A total of $475,000 is still needed to finish the water lines in the area, but with help from grant funding, Sen. Crowe says it will all be accomplished.
Sen. Crowe said he was “so pleased” the Town of Erwin received an additional $500,000 to render the former Morgan Insulation Property site ready for a new investor.
On the topic of the ambulance services in Unicoi County, Sen. Crowe said he is hopeful that plans will come to fruition to establish the county’s own ambulance department, and took note of the Community Development Block Grant the Town of Erwin was awarded to purchase new ambulances.
“That’s a very unusual grant to be given for those sorts of things,” he said. “I’m really proud of the city and county getting together to try and work that out.”
The merger deal between Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health Systems, now known as Ballad Health, is generating close to $400 million dollars that is going back into the community according to Sen. Crowe.
The new Unicoi County Memorial Hospital is now only five months away from substantial completion.
“Knowing the corporate staff that’s working on this, I know they’re going to try and keep as much of the specialty and physician staff as they can,” Sen. Rowe said.
Lastly, Sen. Crowe mentioned two bills he sponsored pertaining to the confidentiality of open records. The first of the two bills was related to Ballad Health, whose records have been closely monitored by the state since the two health care systems merged.
“What we had to do is close some of the records as they are now,” Sen. Crowe said. “When this information goes to the state, it all becomes open record again. To keep Ballad Health on an even playing field, we have to maintain that proprietary information is confidential.”
The other bill protects the proprietary, trade secret, and marketing information of the clients of business incubator services such as the Mountain Harvest Kitchen in Unicoi.
Sen. Crowe concluded his remarks by stating that the issue of medical marijuana, preventing and preparing for active shooter situations, and the opioid epidemic remain tough issues for the state.
Rep. Holsclaw began by remarking that one of his main goals was to increase voter turnout in Tennessee, which currently has the lowest voter turnout in the nation.
He said he was honored to serve as chairman of the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee. Rep. Holsclaw said the Subcommittee was efficient and conservative.
“Tennessee has the lowest debt of any state in the nation,” said Rep. Holsclaw.
He reported that Tennessee’s unemployment rate has remained low, and is currently around 3.4 percent.
“You have to hide if you don’t want a job,” Rep. Holsclaw said.
The Broadband Accessibility Act that passed in 2017 was sponsored by Rep. Holsclaw and has the purpose of increasing broadband accessibility and services.
He also reported that Governor Bill Haslam recently proposed an additional $30 million to improve school safety across the state.
“We have to do something to protect our vital resource and our future, which are our kids,” Rep. Holsclaw stated.
On the topic of healthcare and the opioid crisis, Holsclaw said electronic monitoring is being utilized to regulate opioid prescriptions, and there has been a push in attempts to close pill mills.
He also reported that the Tennessee House of Representatives approved a bill for Tenncare recipients who are able bodied to now have work requirements.
Following the remarks of the representatives, event attendees were encouraged to participate in a question and answer session facilitated by Trent White, a Unicoi County High School student.
Concerns were raised by local citizens concerning Tennessee’s marriage law, the gas tax, cell phone usage while driving, and medical marijuana.
Sen. Crowe said there was an issue with a loophole in Tennessee’s marriage law that allowed judges to grant marriage certificates without a legal age limit. Sen. Crowe said he felt there should be a requirement for parental involvement if those requesting marriage are under 18. He said they are currently trying to amend the bill to require a minor to be at least 17 and have an affidavit of parental consent and display maturity along with self sufficiency before being granted a marriage certificate.
The money from the gas tax, which was increased four cents in 2017, is going to cover road work and bridges. Sen. Cowe said the Unicoi County Highway Department could begin receiving as much as three times what they have been in state funding.
One local citizen was concerned about the dangers of cellphone usage while driving. Although texting and driving is illegal, Rep. Holsclaw said the topic is a “hot button” for him and he is currently looking at a bill that would allow law enforcement to issue fines for general cell phone usage while driving.
“Unlike drunk driving, everyone has a phone … the statistics are alarming,” Rep. Holsclaw remarked about cell phone use while driving.
Sen. Crowe said the medical marijuana issue has been a difficult topic for him. He said after sending letters to agencies such as law enforcement, correctional facilities and substance abuse clinics, he has been advised to not support medical marijuana. However, he says the comments and concerns he has received from individual citizens pleading for medical marijuana have been authentic and heartfelt.
The Tennessee bill for medical marijuana has currently been amended to decriminalize use for those with one of the 15 qualifying conditions. The medical marijuana would not be permitted to be smoked, but would be allowed in forms such as patches, ointments, or tinctures if it was recommended by a physician.
Rep. Holsclaw said he felt people can often fail to differentiate the difference between legalizing recreational versus medical marijuana, and emphasized that the bill would only decriminalize marijuana for medical use.
“Federally, it’s still a schedule one drug,” said Sen. Crowe
Holsclaw said he intends to vote on any medical marijuana bills according to what the expressed interests of his constituents are.
The legislative breakfast has been held in Unicoi County for over three decades and was sponsored by Ballad Health and Unicoi County Memorial Hospital.