By EMILY R. WEST
For the one and only time during this campaign cycle, Rep. Glen Casada and Democratic candidate Courtenay Rogers debated their perspectives on hard-hitting issues in District 63 on Thursday.
The Williamson Herald and WAKM 950 AM held a candidate forum Thursday night for both contested state House races in District 63 and 65. Questions came from a panel consisting of representatives from the Herald, WAKM and the Franklin Home Page.
Starkly so, Casada and Rogers stood on opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to the government’s role – from health care to affordable housing and education. In fact, the only point the two agreed on was the fact they were different.
Neither side saw eye to eye on how to fix health care here in Tennessee.
Casada has said throughout his campaign that he wants the federal government out of the state’s way. He believes in block grants to create a tailor-made system that will allow for picking and choosing of coverage.
He reiterated that he’s proud he didn’t support Insure Tennessee, which would have helped cover nearly 280,000 Tennesseans suffering in the insurance gap.
“I am proud that I stopped the expansion of Obamacare, or what we call Medicaid expansion,” he said. “States that have implemented have suffered under budget crushes and increases in hospitals going out of business. The federal government needs to block grant money back to the states.
“The state could implement things that could work. Opposite of the ACA, we wouldn’t require an old man like myself to have maternity coverage. You buy what you can afford and the rates stay level. When government intervenes, it drives up the cost. I’m in Realville, look at the states who have expanded.”
Rogers reminded the audience that Williamson Countians are suffering without the expansion. She said it was vital that they crossed the aisle to figure out a plan like Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee.
“Tennessee loses $2.5 million every day that we don’t expand Medicaid,” she said. “A healthy economy leads to a thriving economy. It’s imperative we in Williamson County and in Tennessee support folks who can’t support themselves. This has become such a partisan issue, and again – we aren’t thinking about the people who can’t afford to go to the doctor. So when something happens, they go to the emergency room. And guess how expensive that is and guess what that does to us?”
Williamson County Schools could have lost out on nearly $9 million in Basic Education Funding in 2016, which could have proved detrimental to the district.
Knowing the school system’s health correlates with the success of the county, both candidates said that education was important to their campaigns.
Education has been the number-one issue for Rogers this campaign cycle. She and her opponent don’t agree with what’s best for the state funding-wise.
Rogers said she believes public funds shouldn’t go to vouchers, which pay to send students from failing schools to private academies.
Casada said those children deserve more, and he sees no issue with it and wants to see them obtain a better education than at their previous school.
He also said overall he believes the direction the state was going toward education should prove positive to voters.
“With the Republicans under our governor and leadership of the House, Tennessee is now 35th in the nation,” Casada said. “We are the best state for improved test scores. We Republicans are doing it right. We are bringing business principles to education. I am proud of what the state is doing. I am proud of the macro approach.”
Rogers retorted that going from the bottom to the state’s current standing wasn’t impressive to her.
She also said she supports Williamson County Schools Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney. When asked that same question, Casada never provided an opinion either way.
“When Casada said he supports the school system, I just don’t see that in his voting record,” Rogers said. “He sponsors voucher bill after voucher bill, which is taking our taxpayer dollars toward private schools. Our public taxpayer dollars don’t need to go to pay for private schools.”
Casada said he lets the local school board and leadership manage items, but he does meet with them prior to each legislative session to determine their perspectives on upcoming bills.
“I am really a nice guy everybody,” Casada said. “I am a lovable fuzzball. I am not the destructive person my opponent would have you to believe I am. We are advancing the ability and improvements of our schools in Tennessee. We allow local control. Things are good. I am proud to support children who need vouchers.”
Gov. Haslam will roll with a comprehensive transportation plan this coming legislative session with the help of Franklin resident and TDOT Commissioner John Schroer.
Though the contents haven’t been released yet, both candidates said they know needs exist statewide and in their district that address infrastructure issues.
The thought of a gas tax has been suggested, and Casada added the state would receive a quarter billion dollars in surplus funds this year that could also help. But, he said it was going to be difficult to find a sustainable funding source for roads and have it pass through the entire legislature.
“The only thing that seems remotely popular with the people in Williamson County is the gas tax,” Casada said. “I think there are a lot of things that would help in the short term. I think there’s ride sharing and using school buses more. I hope we in the Volunteer spirit implement those things.”
Rogers said she also hopes the state will think outside of the box and sit down with a white board and figure out how to use technology to provide more innovative ideas.
She also said to start out, the gas tax should be an option in light of it not being raised since the 1980s.
“Bottom line – I drive a lot,” Rogers said. “I pay $160 a year in the gas tax. If we raised it to clear the $500 million of backlog on the books, it would take a 16 cent raise, and it would personally cost me $12 to $15 extra a month. I guarantee you people will be willing to pay three Starbucks coffees to get their kids to school on time.”
Not surprisingly, the issue of now-expelled District 65 Rep. Jeremy Durham came to light when the candidates were asked about government accountability.
Durham was expelled from the legislature in September on account of inappropriate behavior detailed in a 50-plus page Attorney General report. Nearly 22 women reported they had been sexually harassed by Durham.
“One of the biggest things we are missing is government accountability,” Rogers said. “What happened at the state House this year is scary enough that I wouldn’t want to talk about it to my daughter. Leadership either knew about it or didn’t know about it, which should scare you to death.
“It’s in a documented case brought before us. Twenty-two women said they were harassed. Now leadership said they fired someone because she was harassed. We need more people at the state House who won’t let that happen. The lack of accountability shown makes me sick to my stomach.”
Rogers said the issue with Durham was an example in which the state legislature failed to exercise its ability to act more proactively.
Casada disagreed, urging that there’s no way the government could monitor a grown man’s actions in his free time.
“I – nor anyone – knew he was harassing anyone,” Casada said. “This individual acted unilaterally on his own when no one was around. To think that we would monitor a grown man’s activities away from the legislature should scare you.
“The reference an individual was let go because of reporting sexual harassment is blatantly not true. She wasn’t doing her duties assigned for her legislator – end of story. I was there 15 years ago, and it’s a lot better environment than it was 15 years ago.”