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April 21, 2014

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Southerland Emphasizes Financial Background, TennCare Reform, Opposition To An Income Tax


State Senate Candidate

Originally published:
Last modified: 2009-08-03 17:05:06

Steve Southerland, a Republican from Morristown, is seeking the Republican nomination for the state Senate's 1st District seat held for the past eight years by Tommy Haun, of Greeneville.

Because there is no Democratic opposition, the winner of the GOP primary will be, in effect, the winner of the election.

Southerland, 47, is the former chairman of the Hamblen County Republican Party, having served from 1997 to 2001. In the 1998 elections, he said, Republicans swept every contested race in Hamblen County.

Southerland is married to the former Cheri Officer, who grew up in Greeneville. They met when Southerland was working for Home Federal Savings & Loan in Greeneville.

He has operated his own company, Mortgage Federal Corporation, in Morristown, for 12 years.

Southerland has been a deacon in Buffalo Trail Baptist Church for 21 years and is a former Sunday school teacher, chairman of the church's Building Committee, and
Training Union director.

He is a member of the Nolichucky Baptist Association, the Rotary Club of Morristown, and the Harbor Point Neighborhood Association.

In an attempt to help voters get to know the candidates better, The Greeneville Sun interviewed those seeking legislative offices, asking each of them basically the same set of questions.

The following are Southerland's responses.

Financial Experience Cited

Asked why he believes he is the best qualified candidate, Southerland cited his 23 years of financial experience.

"I think we need this experience in Nashville, especially in a time of funding crisis," he said.

Southerland also said he has the ability to "listen to the needs of the people, and not do what I want, but to listen to their voice."

Asked his views on the state's current tax system, which was enacted July 3, Southerland said, "I feel like the sales tax just implemented is too high. We need to look at less government spending, and not an income tax."

Opposition To Income Tax

Asked what his position on the budget situation would have been had he been in the Tennessee General Assembly this past term, Southerland said he would have opposed an income tax.

"After talking to business leaders and professionals - including plant managers, grocery owners and doctors - I asked them what they would do if an income tax were to be imposed on them. They said they would raise costs on goods and services about 5 percent."

The only income tax proposal seriously considered was for a flat 4.5 percent rate, but Southerland said those he talked to would add the extra 0.5 percent to the cost of goods and services to cover extra administrative costs.

Southerland said that, because everyone would have been paying the 4.5 percent income tax, the real burden imposed would have been more like 9.5 percent, because of additional costs that would have been passed along.

Had he been in the Senate, he said, "I would have been a leader and looked at all aspects of the budget, making tough choices on what really needed to be changed, and looking at new revenues that would have been the least harmful to the people.
"Because I did not create the problem, and was not down there to have full access to all the financial information, I cannot give you precise information at this time."

However, Southerland said he does not believe he would have voted for the current revenue plan, which is built mainly on an increase in the sales tax.

The plan, a compromise approach sponsored by state Sen. Jerry Cooper, D-McMinnville, and state Sen. William "Bill" Clabough, R-Maryville, was adopted only a few days before what appeared to be an imminent shutdown of state services.

The proposal broke a months-long impasse in the legislature over how to raise enough money to cover the state's 2002-2003 budget.

Southerland said he believes that the choices presented to legislators were much like someone saying, "Do you want me to break your right leg, or your left leg? or your left arm? or do you want to vote for an income tax?"

As an alternative, Southerland said he would have much earlier "looked at the credit-card interest that's leaving the state" and tried to impose a limit on interest rates that credit card companies can charge.

He said that, currently, according to industry statistics, the average credit-card holder has $8,000 in credit card debt. The average credit card interest rate is 19.9 percent, he said, and it would take in the neighborhood of 40 years to pay that amount off by making the lowest required payments, typically $130 to $140.

Lowering the rate by 6 percent, to 13.9 percent, Southerland said, "would be equal to giving every working person a 50-cents-per-hour raise."

What Is Solution?

Asked what he believes is the solution to the state's budget problems, Southerland said he believes the problems could be solved by implementing an integrated computer system to manage TennCare and other state benefit programs.

"I've been a pioneer in technology to the finance industry, and to reduce time and paperwork on mortgage loans," Southerland said.

He said he has implemented technology to reduce the time it takes to get a 95 percent home mortgage loan approved. The time it takes has, he said, gone from 90 days to less than 60 seconds.

"By using the same type of technology - similar technology to what I've been working with for six years - I feel I can help reduce government waste in TennCare and other benefit departments by at least 75 percent."

He said that simply getting the computer systems used by various state agencies communicating with each other would immediately eliminate fraud from multiple users of the same Social Security number.

Currently, he said, TennCare, the Department of Children's Services, and the Department of Human Services do not share information, though they are located in the same building in Nashville.

Some time ago, Southerland said, "I would have been looking to see where we could reduce government spending before we raised any taxes."

He said that the size of the budget deficit has been reported at several different levels: first a $350 million shortfall, then $450 million, "then it jumped to an $800 million shortfall."

"My question is, which was it?" Southerland said.

If the shortfall was $350 million, he said, "We may have been able to solve it with cutting some government spending." If it was $800 million, cuts and "some possible taxes" may have worked, he added.

"I think we should look at some cuts, but not the cuts they were talking about implementing," Southerland said.

He said he believes legislators knew the D.O.G.S. (Downsizing Ongoing Government Services) budget would never pass. 'That was just a scare tactic to get the income tax passed," he charged.

Southerland said that if he had been in the Senate, "I wouldn't have gotten it (the budget) to the shape it was in to begin with."

Cites 'Waste' Of Funds

Southerland said he continues to be surprised at the amount of waste and misapplication of funds in government at the state and federal levels.

He cited as a good example a recent announcement about spending $154,000 to help improve accessibility to overhead sidewalks in Morristown.

He said that, while he thinks it is great to improve the sidewalks, "that would have paid for five teachers," which in his opinion would have been a better use of the money.

"Use money where it's actually needed, instead of pet projects," and the government
will have fewer budget problems, he said.

'Leadership Needed'

Southerland said he believes legislators "have been letting one person control things down there," referring to House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington.

"We have not had leadership from East Tennessee," Southerland said.

"We need someone to stand up and lead. I don't care who it is, the Speaker of the House, or senators, or the governor, I will stand up for what's right."

Acknowledging that Republicans have long been in the minority in Nashville, Southerland said that, within the next two years, "that may not be the fact.
Everybody's wanting to throw everyone in office out," he said, and that atmosphere may change things.

Lottery Referendum

'Asked his views on a state lottery, Southerland said that a lottery question is going to be on the November ballot, "and there's not anything I can do for or against the ballot.

"I'll let the people vote on it, and if it passes or fails by one vote, be responsive to the people's wishes."

If the lottery question passes, Southerland said, "All the money should go to higher education, and some to K-12 for teaching children to read and write."

State's Needs

Asked what he considers the state's two or three biggest needs, Southerland said, "We need to ensure that Tennessee gets better jobs and maintains the jobs we have now.

"A lot of jobs in every state are going out of the country," he said, and foreign countries "are sending products back in after taking our jobs. We need some type of limitation on companies' leaving the state of Tennessee."

Asked what form this limitation might take, Southerland said he will have to "get in there and look."

In addition, he said, "Education needs to be a top priority. We need to give children the latest technology, to help them compete around the world. We also need to bring teacher salaries up to the national average.

"TennCare has got to be restructured," he said. "TennCare is a health safety net for Tennesseans, not a national health care system for the nation's sickest people."

Asked his views on the state's laws concerning open meetings and open public records, Southerland said, "I support the current Sunshine Law and don't see any need to change it."

Education Issues

Asked what he considers the state's most important educational issue, Southerland said, "I have been hearing teachers say that discipline is a big problem.

"With the discipline problems in the classroom, a lot of children that are trying to learn cannot concentrate. By talking to teachers throughout the four counties (in the First Senate District), they are telling me this is the number-one problem.

"Teachers' hands have been tied for many years, and it's only getting worse," he said.

Asked what he would try to do about this, Southerland said he would "listen to teachers, and find out what the solution is."

He predicted there is "no easy solution, because of legal problems that may arise," but teachers probably have ideas on what will work.

One possible solution, he said, is more online classes. "Allow teachers to decide which students can take advantage of online classes," he said.

"A lot of discipline problems are caused by advanced students who are bored," he said, and a challenging online class could "allow them to advance" and relieve their boredom.

TennCare Reform

Asked what needs to be done about TennCare, Southerland referred to his earlier response about more use of integrated computer systems.

"Networking all the benefit departments together - not just TennCare" - would make it possible for the state to have just one application for benefits, he said.
When someone applied for help, state workers "could tell instantly the number of benefits (the applicant) was getting," he pointed out.

Networking does raise some privacy concerns, especially with Children's Services, he said, but password protection could limit computer access to certain types of information.

Based on his experience in the mortgage business, Southerland said, he believes the computer memory capacity is not a problem.

Legislators are always "talking about high-tech jobs. Let's use it ourselves," he said.

Goals For Four Years

Asked what he hopes to accomplish in the next four years, if elected, Southerland said, "I hope to solve the problems in TennCare, and help Tennessee become one of the best in education, and make sure that teachers receive credit for the excellent work they have been doing."

"For political reasons," Southerland said, "we've been told we're 49th in education, but that's only in spending."

He said that the same report that ranked Tennessee 49th in educational spending ranked the state 19th in graduating high school students, while Rhode Island, which was 5th in spending, ranked only 46th in graduating high schoolers.

"Greeneville's school system is one of the best, but a lot of people don't realize that; they only hear that we're 49th. Credit should be given where credit is deserved."

Other Issues

Asked his position on Tennessee's Right To Work Law, Southerland said, "I agree with it."

Asked his position on Tennessee's law that recognizes the only legal marriage as that between one man and one woman, Southerland also said, "I agree with it."

Asked his position on abortion, he said, "I am against abortion, but I understand that there are some special cases where a life is at risk, and cases involving rape and incest."

In those cases he would support abortion, he said, but added, "I do not support abortion as a means of birth control."
For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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