BY SARAH GREGORY
At the Greene County Partnership's annual Legislative Luncheon on Friday, state Representatives David Hawk, R-5th, of Greeneville, and Jeremy Faison, R-11th, of Cosby, answered questions on a variety of issues ranging from highway improvements to gun-related legislation, supermarket sales of wine, and the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
The luncheon, sponsored by Summers-Taylor, Inc., and coordinated by the Partnership, was held at Comfort Inn on the East Andrew Johnson Highway from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m.
Numerous business leaders in attendance submitted written questions to the Representatives. Partnership President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Ferguson served as moderator.
State Senator Steve Southerland, R-1st, of Morristown, was slated to participate, but was not able to attend because of illness.
Following lunch, Ferguson introduced Hawk and Faison, who gave brief opening statements before answering questions.
Hawk gave a brief opening statement in which he talked about the need for more efficient and smaller government.
He said Tennessee state legislators introduced a bill to limit themselves to only 15 pieces of legislation during the session.
He said they've also worked to "streamline the process" by taking such actions as merging committees.
In his opening statement, Faison made a contrast between state lawmakers and the U.S. Congress.
He said that Republicans and Democrats in Tennessee's General Assembly work together and "don't have the problems that they [in Washington D.C.] have."
He also commented on passage of a balanced budget last fiscal year, reminding the audience that the U.S. Senate has not passed a budget in four years.
By contrast, he said that Tennessee would have another balanced budget for Fiscal Year 2014.
Faison also spoke briefly about a measure he has worked to draft called the "Business Freedom Act," which he says has "a shot" at passing and is aimed at "supporting small mom and pop" businesses by providing time for compliance with rule changes before various departments can levy fines.
Faison said that, after his bill was drafted, "the bureaucrats went crazy."
One question asked was in regard to long-proposed improvements to U.S. Highway 11E, often referred to as the 11E bypass; U.S. Highway 321, known as the Newport Highway; and the Baileyton Road, Tennessee Rt. 172.
Hawk said improvements to the 11E Bypass are "an ongoing concern."
He said that there has been "no consensus" on whether a long-proposed highway segment should be added to create a "loop" around the Bypass on the north side.
Because of that lack of consensus, Hawk said, his focus has been on improving 11E, which he called a "safety hazard."
Hawk told the audience that he has asked the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) "to conduct an overall study" to identify and address the road's most dangerous areas.
NEWPORT HIGHWAY EXPANSION
Reps. Hawk and Faison commented briefly on a planned new section of the Newport Highway.
The project has already been completed in Cocke County up to the Cocke/Greene county line.
Road improvements on the Greene County side, Hawk says, "will happen eventually."
Faison told the audience that the state will begin appraising properties to consider purchases along the Newport Highway for the new road this month.
"You will see land being bought up this year," he said.
"Within the next year they will start the construction," he projected.
FOUR-LANE BAILEYTON ROAD?
Hawk says he supports widening the Baileyton Road into four lanes.
"We need better connection to [Interstate] 81, and that has always been a top priority," he said, adding that discussions with TDOT about the project are continuing.
Funding for such a project, however, will likely be difficult to secure, Hawk said, because there are "a billion dollars" in needs every year and not enough available funds to address them all.
Funding for a Baileyton Road improvement would be "very challenging to get on the list," he said.
Ferguson noted that, although the Partnership's Board has not officially passed a resolution, that organization has been working with local business leaders to encourage the Commissioner of Transportation to construct "the bypass around the Bypass."
Ferguson says that partial loop is needed, connecting the western end of the Bypass to the eastern end in order to open up new areas to economic development.
"We have lost our ability to develop large areas of retail, commercial, and industrial areas," he said.
"Every time you build new four-lane areas like that, it creates new development opportunity for you."
Hawk and Faison responded to a question regarding a bill that has come to be known as the "guns-in-parking-lots" bill.
The measure would allow people with handgun-carry permits to keep their guns in their locked cars while on most parking lots in the state.
The legislation has passed in the state House of Representatives and the state Senate.
Hawk, who voted for the bill, said that it "brings to light private property rights and gun-owner rights."
Faison, a co-sponsor of the bill, said legal gun-owners with private-carry permits have been cleared by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Safety and Homeland Security.
Those individuals, he said, should "not have to worry about criminal penalties" for leaving their guns in their vehicles.
The bill will allow, however, for property-owners where parking lots are located to post signs prohibiting weapons on their premises, even in parked cars, as at a place of business.
If a parking lot has been posted for no weapons, Faison said in response to a question about employers' rights, and "If you find there's a gun in one of your employees' cars, you do have the right to fire them."
(Note: Gov. Haslam signed the bill into law on Thursday, March 14. It will go into effect on July 1.)
HAWK'S PSEUDOEPHEDRINE BILL
Rep. Hawk fielded a question about combating drug abuse.
"We are, once again, one of the top producing states for illegal methamphetamine," he said.
Use of the drug, which is often manufactured using pseudoephedrine tablets "adds burden to the state," Hawk said.
He took the opportunity to address what he said were misconceptions about his bill.
He says it seeks to further restrict access only to hard-tablet forms of the drug.
"Gel caps and liquid forms will be unaffected," he said.
The bill would also include a provision to allow pharmacists to prescribe pseudoephedrine to allergy-sufferers.
WINE IN GROCERY STORES
Faison responded to a request for an update on an initiative that would allow grocery stores to sell wine if a local community approved that action.
The measure failed in the state House's State and Local Government Committee, but Faison said it is "not quite dead yet."
He said that Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, the Speaker of the Senate, "decided he's going to continue to move forward with it, and it will probably pass in the [state] Senate" and be brought back to a House committee.
Faison said he voted for the measure in the committee, of which he (but not Hawk) is a member.
The idea, he said, is to allow each of the state's 95 counties "to have a voice" in the regulation process.
He said that, because alcohol is a legal substance, his stance is, "Who are we, as legislators, to decide who are the winners and who are the losers?" in terms of what businesses should be allowed to profit from the sale of wine.
He urged members of the audience with opinions on the measure to contact their representatives.
THE 'OBAMACARE' QUESTION
Another question posed to Faison and Hawk pertained to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) -- widely known as "Obamacare."
Faison said that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to uphold the ACA is "hard to fight."
To comply with the act, each state is being asked to expand its Medicaid programs to include more individuals.
However, the federal government would fund the expansion for only the first three years.
Faison said the possible expansion of Tennessee's Medicaid program -- TennCare -- has led to "a great debate" in Nashville.
He says he's "struggling" with the decision.
"If we don't [expand TennCare], we have hospitals that are going to suffer and the access to healthcare is going to be limited," he said.
Alternatively, he said, compliance is "saying 'we're fine with complete and universal healthcare.'"
Faison says he is currently leaning toward being against the expansion.
Hawk also responded and reminded the audience that, during the last several years, lawmakers have undertaken efforts to reduce Tenncare's TennCare rolls because of the expense involved.
He said lawmakers' decision to reduce the rolls "hurt," because they then had to make "tremendous investments" to provide an adequate "safety net."
The decision, he says, was made because lawmakers realized that 91 cents of each dollar of revenue would be dedicated to healthcare if reductions were not made.
Hawk said his concern about the Tenncare expansion is due to the "many unknowns" about what happens after the three years of federal funding have passed.
"We want to do everything we can to ensure the long-term viability of our hospitals," he said.
"As a legislative body," the Tennessee General Assembly, Hawk said, is "not quite ready" to make a decision on the TennCare expansion.
Hawk and Faison also provided brief comments in response to questions pertaining to tax-exempt bonds, additional funding for libraries, and paving projects on Interstate 81.