PHOTO: From left, Keel Hunt, Randy Boyd, Karl Dean and Rep. Craig Fitzhugh speak at a candidate forum on Wednesday, May 9, 2018 / Brooke Wanser
By BROOKE WANSER
At an event organized by Tennessee builders, three candidates running for governor met at City Winery in Nashville on Wednesday afternoon for a forum on issues pertaining to infrastructure and economic development.
Boyd, who lives in Knoxville, has served under Gov. Bill Haslam as the Commissioner of Economic and Community Development. Boyd noted he was the first in his family to attend college, graduating at age 19 from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Dean, the former Metro Law Director and public defender, emphasized his ability to bring parties together. The mayoral seat he won in 2007 and 2011 was as a nonpartisan candidate.
Fitzhugh, who is from Ripley, has served in the state’s general assembly for 24 years, and is currently the Democratic party’s minority leader.
Keel Hunt, chairman of The Strategy Group and former speechwriter for Lamar Alexander during his successful gubernatorial run, served as the event’s moderator.
Questions topics were focused under the umbrella of the built environment, including infrastructure, affordable housing, privatization of state facility maintenance, and balancing needs of urban and rural communities.
A question about transit posed to candidates asked how the state government can better deal with transit issues.
Boyd said the issue cannot be solved county by county, but requires a regional, creative solution. He pointed to the growing efficiency of cars and steps away from gas-powered vehicles.
“If our whole model is based on the gas tax, it’s not going to work,” he said.
Dean said he started the Middle Tennessee Mayors’ Caucus to begin a discussion about local needs, especially traffic. “I would stress leadership,” he said. “The state has to step up and be involved in this.”
“At the state level, I think we have to have a broad overview, a broad plan, of what our transportation structure is, not just for tomorrow, not just for filling potholes, but for 10, 15, 20 years out,” Fitzhugh said.
Hunt asked if the candidates would consider alternate forms of revenue stream, like toll roads.
Fitzhugh said the state needs to be “creative” in funding new transit initiatives, while still following state law.
“If we don’t solve issues we have on the interstates, the traffic that backs up every day, that is going to be an enormous threat to the prosperity, not only of our region, but other regions of the state,” Dean said. “You’ve got to take proactive action, you’ve got to face reality and plan for the future, and you’ve got to invest in the future.”
Though the current administration has been successful in recruiting major companies to the region, Hunt asked the candidates which tool they would choose to sharpen to maintain a vibrant economy.
Touching on drug abuse, crime rates, and economic development, Boyd said workforce development would be the most critical issue going forward.
“The number one issue that we have across our state when we talk to employers is a lack of skilled employees,” he said.
Boyd said he wants to invest in technical education in high schools and in post-secondary programs.
Dean agreed that workforce development was key. “Tennessee is going to do well in the future here, we’re going to benefit under this new tax law,” he said. “This is going to be a state where people want to be.”
The only impediment, Dean said, would be tying in the educational component so companies have workers ready to be hired.
Fitzhugh said he wanted to finish the highway connector through the more rural counties, ensure they have broadband internet access, and create more technical schools.
“It ain’t that hard to bring employers into Nashville,” he said. “It’s hard to do it in other places.”
Technical and manufacturing job openings in the state and across the nation sit empty due to a job and skills mismatch, Hunt pointed out.
“We need to take a whole new approach to vocational training,” Dean said, making programs available to children throughout the state.
Boyd has worked with Haslam to grant financial access to students through the Drive to 55 initiative, but he said the initiative now needs to focus on granting access based on location.
“If you’re in Grundy County, the closest school to you is an hour away,” he said, noting his desire to build more technical schools.
Combatting drug and alcohol abuse
Fitzhugh compared the recently passed state legislature bill to combat the opioid crisis to two rivers.
Like the Tennessee River, he said it was “real wide and it covers a lot of things,” but like the Rio Grande in the summer; “it’s not very deep, it’s pretty shallow.”
Though he said the foundation of the program was solid, Fitzhugh said he was disappointed only $30 million had been set aside to combat a public health issue, in which “Tennessee is behind other states.”
Dean added that the state is behind in treatment options, with more demand than space for recovering addicts in rehabilitation centers.
“We’re not going to be able to incarcerate our way out of this issue,” he said. “The number of people and families that are destroyed by this addiction is just unbelievable.”
Boyd said he would approach the issue in a threefold manner: first, he would declare a state of emergency, similar to what Virginia did in 2016, then focus on education and rehabilitation efforts as the next steps.
What can the state do to address a need for more affordable housing?
Dean said the Tennessee Housing Development Agency has done a good job in addressing affordable housing, but needs more resources.
“I think we need to look for statewide solutions and ways that we can help all sorts of communities,” Dean said, “because it’s getting harder and harder for all parts of the state for people to find affordable housing.”
Though he agreed there is a need for affordable housing which he would get involved in, “We want to make sure that we’re not mandating or dictating quotas for affordable housing,” Boyd said. “Rather than using the stick, use the carrot.”
Fitzhugh said a focus on quality affordable housing is important. He also pointed to First Tennessee Bank’s recent promise to fund $515 million in home purchase and mortgage loans for minorities and low-income people across the south.
“I commend them for that, and I think there’s one of those public private partnerships that will just do good for everyone.”
The event was hosted by the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), Associated General Contractors (AGC), American Institute of Architects (AIA), Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS), Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA), and the Association of Builders and Contractors (ABC).
The Republican and Democratic primaries for the state election will be held on August 2, 2018, while the general election is slated for November 6.