By EMILY R. WEST
Republican lawmakers were peppered with questions about everything from the gas tax to paying for health insurance during a town hall meeting Tuesday night.
Held at the Elk’s Lodge, the meeting was filled with citizens from across the political scale, caring about a host of issues.
Both state representatives plus Williamson’s lone senator fielded questions with Republican candidate Sam Whitson sitting on the panel. Whitson primarily listened, and later left during the conversation. As a member of the Lodge, he had to stay to for its 7 p.m. meeting or leave the building. Democratic candidates were not allowed to participate, but both Courtenay Rogers and Holly McCall joined as a part of the audience.
A hot topic, infrastructure concerns and roads in particular, brought up a handful of questions from constituents. The three lawmakers alluded to a plan from Gov. Bill Haslam that could prove to answer some of Tennessee’s needs. Haslam has yet to roll out the plan and won’t until the January session.
Last year, none of the Williamson delegation said they were in favor of a gas tax increase. Tennessee lawmakers haven’t touched the tax since the late 1980s in terms of raising it.
Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) said the state is losing out on gas tax funding because cars have become more efficient. He said revenue has continued to go up, but not enough to maintain and construct roads.
But incumbent Glen Casada (R-Thompson’s Station) said he noticed public sentiment changing in terms of wanting a dedicated funding source for roads.
“I noticed last year 54 percent of Williamson County residents were willing to pay more for roads,” Casada said. “… And this is your money, not the government’s money.”
As it sits right now, there are $6.1 billion in backlogged projects across 62 counties. In Williamson, there are seven. If TDOT did nothing but work on backlogged projects, they wouldn’t be completed until 2034.
The state would have to spend $5.3 billion for the new project needs, which include state routes and local bridges. Together these projects span 59 counties, with 16 projects in Williamson County. Between backlogged and new, Williamson County would need $457 million to complete road and bridge projects.
How to pay for health insurance also was of worry for some sitting in the room. Whether some in the audience felt uninsurable or felt anger about the Affordable Care Act’s efficiency, the group looked at the panel for answers.
Together, the paneled blamed the federal government for bankrupting the state exchange.
This week, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee announced it will not stay on the state exchange in the Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville markets in 2017. The Nashville market includes Williamson County. Now, the state exchange will only offer Cigna and Humana as insurance options for those who live in those markets. Earlier this summer, Insurance Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak announced the state exchange was crumbling, and allowed BCBS to raise rates by nearly 60 percent.
“I think your beef is a legitimate beef,” Johnson said. “But it’s with President Obama.”
Efforts to help the thousands of Tennesseans who needed coverage also fell short the past three years in the state capital, after Republicans said they talked “ad nauseam” about Insure Tennessee to no avail. Haslam’s plan called for covering nearly 300,000 Tennesseans through a “Medicaid expansion.” Lawmakers reiterated Tuesday night expanding Medicaid wasn’t what they considered the “right” option for the state.
Casada said the state would like to address the solution with a block grant. He said he considered it more economically feasible. So, for example, if you don’t need diabetes or maternity coverage, consumers wouldn’t have to pay for that in their plans, he said.
He said arranging health care in a pay-for-what you need system is being thwarted by the federal government. He said the legislature is also waiting for the presidential race to determine what they might be able to accomplish.
“It will meet your specific needs, but they just won’t let us,” Casada said. “So as long as the Fed says, ‘No, Tennessean you will do how we say it,’ we have no option until they let us be us. But we will make our appeal to the federal government to block grant the money back to us, and we will solve the problem. But again, if Big Brother won’t let, there’s nothing you can do.”