Southwest Tennessee Development District Executive Director Joe Barker talks about their 2019 legislative luncheon, Thursday, Jan 3, 2019.
Kenneth Cummings, Jackson Sun
Joe Barker is back as executive director of the Southwest Tennessee Developmental District after a couple months away to help with the Karl Dean gubernatorial campaign.
“I got back right after the election and have been in discussions with various elected officials about what we can do to advance West Tennessee economically,” Barker said.
The SWTDD’s hosted a luncheon Thursday with most of the state legislators with districts in the area.
“We’ve got a number of new faces representing West Tennessee in Nashville this year, and we’ve had some good conversations,” Barker said. “I think we’re represented well in the state capitol.”
Thursday was a chance for local officials and liaisons of local organizations involved in education, utilities and other groups to discuss issues before the upcoming legislative session begins later this month.
“The upcoming weeks is a good time to meet with us about any issues you think need to be brought before the legislative bodies,” state Sen. Ed Jackson (R-Jackson) said. “Because this is the time we can really have discussions and put bills together to put before votes later in the year.”
Health care is one of the main points of discussion across the state, and the question was raised about expanding Medicaid in Tennessee.
State Rep. Johnny Shaw (D-Bolivar) said he’s in favor of it.
“We had a chance to get it expanded two or three years ago, and I think not expanding it was a mistake on our part,” Shaw said.
State Rep. Chris Todd (R-District 73) said he’s open to discussion, but he’s against it based on the information he’s been given.
Richard Donnell, a vice president from Lane College, questioned Todd about his view, saying the federal government is willing to fund 90 percent of Medicaid for three years while the Tennessee Hospital Association is willing to fund the other 10 percent.
“There are 300,000 citizens in the state who are working poor, meaning they make too much now for Medicaid but don’t make enough to purchase health insurance,” Donnell said. “If you can expand this at little cost to the state budget for three years and help that many people, why wouldn’t you do it?”
Todd said his concern about passing it isn’t the first three years, but the years following that time.
“And that’s even if we trust the federal government to do what they say they will, which I don’t trust them to do that much,” Todd said.
After Donnell responded, saying helping people for three years is better than not helping people at all, Shaw made one more point.
“I’m for expanding Medicaid however we can, so if we can come up with innovative ways to do it, let’s see what we can come up with,” Shaw said.
A question was asked about vouchers for private school education after Gov.-elect Bill Lee has said he’s in favor of them.
Most of the legislators who were present said they were against school vouchers, particularly state Rep. Chris Hurt (R-District 82), who is a former teacher and football coach at Halls High School, and state Rep. David Byrd (R-District 71).
“My son got an education at Jackson Christian, and both he and I graduated from Freed-Hardeman University, so I have no problems with private schools,” Byrd said. “But I was principal at Wayne County High School for nine years, and we saw our enrollment drop from 400 students to nearly 300 in that time, and our budget took a massive hit from the funding we lost because of our enrollment decrease.
“I’m not for taking funding away from public schools for any reason, and government funds always come with strings attached, and I doubt many faith-based private schools would want that money because of those strings.”
After others expressed similar views against it, Todd questioned the possibility of a mass exodus from public schools because of private school opportunities that vouchers would bring, saying the assumption “seems odd to me.”
Dan Black, Superintendent of Bradford Special Schools District, said a mass exodus isn’t the concern.
“In a district as small as ours, losing six or seven kids has an effect on our budget,” Black said. “Public schools can’t go out and recruit students to our schools.”
After Todd suggested it’s up to the public schools to create an environment parents wouldn’t want to remove their children from, Black countered his point.
“We don’t have the funding to do the things we need to do that,” Black said.
- State Sen. Dolores Gresham (R-District 26) said education reform in the state that began 10 years ago is working, and the proof of that in recent years is the increase in the average ACT score across the state, which is now up to 20.2.
- State Rep. Debra Moody (R-District 81) ended a conversation about education by responding to a statement to Shaw about getting back to the basics of teaching reading as a foundation for everything else, saying that she was a stay-at-home mother who homeschooled her children. “I had a basic curriculum to teach my children how to read, but it worked. But now we see in our schools children coming to kindergarten that have had no help from their parents beforehand, and we’re asking the teachers to catch these children up while also helping other kids whose parents did help them get the basics. It’s a lot tougher than I think a lot of people realize, who’ve never dealt with it.”
- Shaw was also adamant about catching West Tennessee up to the rest of the state in terms of opportunities economically and in other areas. “It’s time for some of the opportunities Middle and East Tennessee are getting to come to our area, and hopefully that will happen.”
- There was an update on the work on the Memphis Regional Megasite in Haywood County from board member Michael Banks. Completion on getting land grants from owners along the wastewater pipeline corridor from the Megasite to the Mississippi River is nearing completion with about 33 landowners in a final stretch of seven or eight miles, and that should happen in 30-45 days. The list of landowners who have not given permission will be turned over to the Attorney General for eminent domain purposes. When Jackson asked how long the eminent domain process could take, Banks said that is determined by the AG offices based on how backed up they are. Banks’ estimate was 60-90 days after that.
Reach Brandon Shields at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 731-425-9751. Follow him on Twitter @JSEditorBrandon or on Instagram at editorbrandon.
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