By EMILY R. WEST
With a much quieter debate than their counterparts in District 63, Sam Whitson and Holly McCall shared their perspectives of how to fix the problems in Williamson County from the state legislature.
The Williamson Herald and WAKM 950 AM held a candidate debate Thursday night for both contested state House races in District 63 and 65. Questions came from a panel of representatives from the Herald, WAKM and the Franklin Home Page.
Whitson earned his spot on the ballot after beating Franklin incumbent Jeremy Durham in the August primary. Durham has since been expelled from the legislature due to inappropriate conduct detailed in 50-page plus Attorney General’s report. Nearly 22 women came forward in the document, saying Durham had sexually harassed them.
Voters now will have to choose from Whitson, who is a Republican, or McCall, who is a Democrat. Neither has held public office prior to this election.
Both candidates agreed – Speaker Beth Harwell’s three-star healthy plan is a good start to address the the health care issues in Tennessee.
But is it enough?
As designed, the 3-Star Healthy project will work to help those with mental or behavioral issues. It would also help veterans who are struggling.
Whitson has said that he believed it makes a start to help fix the problem.
“I understand that the 3-Star program would cover those with mental and behavioral issues, and they disproportionally fill up the emergency rooms, as I understand. Sometimes they account for 40 percent of all emergency room visits,” Whitson said. “It’s a good start to address this issue, but 20 percent of those on the ACA who don’t qualify for subsidies, their insurance rates go up to $700 to $800 per month. Those are the people will also need to look at as we do any kind of reform.”
McCall said she understood Whitson’s point, as she is purchasing her own insurance from the state exchange. But she has said throughout the campaign cycle she still favored Insure Tennessee, which would have helped nearly 280,000 Tennesseans in the insurance gap. Gov. Bill Haslam brought the idea before the legislature in 2015. It was never voted on before the full House.
The desire to have health care for our families is not a partisan issue,” McCall said. “We all just want decent health care for our family. I have knocked on over 10,000 doors as of last weekend. I talked to a woman who worked 60 hours a week. She lives with her elderly mother, and she’s a single mom. She doesn’t qualify for Medicare because she makes too much, but doesn’t make enough for Obamacare and that’s who I want to help.”
During the 65th House District election cycle, transportation has stood as the number-one issues for both candidates vying for the open seat.
How to create a sustainable funding source is where it could prove difficult in the months ahead. Gov. Haslam will roll out a comprehensive transportation plan this coming legislative session with the help of Franklin resident and TDOT Commissioner John Schroer.
Transit has been an issue both have been passionate about, but McCall has routinely said her past work with the Metro Transit Authority gave her a more rounded insight into the issue.
McCall said she could see it being easier to pass a gas tax increase, judging by Haslam’s indication and interest that it could happen. The gas tax hasn’t been raised since the late 1980s.
“I think it’s going to be easier for us to get a two-cent gas tax increase than a user fee,” McCall said. “We are all driving cars now that are more energy efficient. There’s still not too many electric cars, but we don’t use as much as gas as we used to. So my comments about a user fee would be that I might have an electric car but I am driving more miles than someone with an F-150 pickup truck. So who should be paying more?”
She also said it could prove beneficial to look at the vehicles that put the most wear and tear on the road. She also suggested looking at the hotel/motel tax as a source to promote transit initiatives.
Whitson said that the state had to find a sustainable funding source, period. He noted the key word to figuring out the state’s issues is “long-term funding.”
“I think it’s important we address this issue and I look forward to what our governor comes up with January,” Whitson said. “We need sustainable funding to move throughout our infrastructure. We are fortunate to not have debt, and I will work to continue to do that.”
Whitson noted it would also take some federal money to help some of the state’s road needs, specifically when it came to having a transit system as proposed by the nMotion plan.
“They are in a series addressing that and holding public hearings,” Whitson said. “I cannot see our local governments with the needs they have for public safety and other issues like education that they could help fund a $6 billion project. I think we all agree. It’s got to be done. It’s the blueprint of the future. And I will do my best to work on that and move forward as we can.”
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.
Whitson said he had a vested interest in the school system to begin with, having five grandchildren attend. He also noted his wife Pam had worked int he Franklin Special School District.
He also noted that he had talked with the district leadership and the county’s chief financial officer to get a better grasp on tackling the BEP issue.
“Charles Sargent has been a great advisor to me on this issue,” he said. “It is a complicated issue, and it is important that we fully fund it. It benefits all of us here in Williamson County. I have five grandchildren in the county schools. Their future and their teacher’s future rest on the future of our school system.”
Neither providing clear cut solutions to fixing the Basic Education Program formula, both candidates said its necessary they delve into the issue if elected.
“When I go and talk to parents, what they are concerned about is not necessarily the BEP itself, but how it impacts their kids,” McCall said. “They want to know that their child is going to get a good enough education to get to the college they want to get into, and if their child isn’t going to go college, they want to know that their child could get a good career after.”
She attributed part of the problem to the state legislature having three parties: Democrats, Haslam Republicans and the far right.
“I think its very partisan,” she said. “It is imperative to me that we get that business coalition of Democrats and Haslam Republicans who can come together and recognize how important of an issue the BEP is, and put forth some substantive legislation.”
Whitson also he had been involved indirectly and thought that state representatives could serve as an example and keep students first in the community. He said his primary mode of involvement recently has been donations and advice to school board candidates.
“I think it’s important as a citizen and as a state representative to get involved,” Whitson said. “I think it’s good to feel passionate for something that’s important to the community. School board races are nonpartisan races.”
McCall said she didn’t feel getting involved in school board races as a state representative would prove to be the best idea.
“Two years ago Rep. Glen Casada and former Rep. Durham did get involved in school board races here,” she said. “It didn’t turn out well. We had two years of near chaos in our school board that finally got resolved in this last election. I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for them to get involved in other races.”
The issue of the Stand for Children money injected into the District 65 race was briefly noted, as Whitson explained he had no control over how much the organization spent on his campaign during the primary. The group from Oregon – which is charter school group – gave money to his campaign and used its independent expenditure account to place at least $100,000 into the race prior to the general election.
“Sometimes free help is not the best help,” he said.
He also noted that McCall had helped Metro Nashville School Board candidate Jackson Miller in the August election. According to campaign finance records, McCall did communications consulting for Miller in the amount of $1,200 in January. This work came before any PACs or special interest groups announced any endorsements.