By Jonathan Pleasant
With the start of the Legislative Session rolling around soon for the Tennessee General Assembly, Representative Timothy Hill made the decision to hold a Town Hall Meeting last Thursday night to a packed house at Loiss Country Café in Mountain City. Besides the dozens of average citizens in attendance, there was a notable crowd of local officials present to hear Hills proposals, including Mayors Larry Potter and Lawrence Keeble, and Judge Bliss Hawkins.
The meeting followed the typical format, with Hill making an introduction and going on to describe some of the upcoming issues with the session before turning it over to a question and answer session. Hill began by noting that this will be an abnormally quick session lasting a maximum of 10-12 weeks, but will nevertheless have some critical issues to discuss. First and foremost on the representatives list was education and the impact of Common Core, the new national education initiative.
Hill explained that he opposes Common Core on the grounds that national lawmakers should not be able to tell localized systems like Johnson County how to operate their schools. Further, Hill was very firm in his belief that parents can make the right choice in their childrens education, noting that charter schools and vouchers would likely come up in this session as well.
Also on the education front, Hill was in strong support of upcoming state legislation that would change the Tennessee Education Departments current stance that teacher licensure should be based on their students test scores. Feeling that this policy is inherently unfair to the teachers, Hill is hopeful that a policy reversal will succeed.
Addressing more local issues, the representative pointed out the success of his local constituent services office in the Johnson County Courthouse. Manned on a part time basis by either him or a small dedicated group of volunteers, Hill explained that he has had numerous issues come up from concerned citizens, including most recently troubles with filing unemployment.
Hill indicated that he has had as many as 75 or 100 calls from individuals who could not successfully navigate the unemployment system, either because the phone services simply would not work or because they did not have online access. In all of these cases Hill has been able to actually put the individual in touch with someone from the Department of Labor, but also acknowledged that there are serious problems with the states automated system.
As far as the legislation that he will actually be submitting himself this session, there are a couple of measures that could substantially help Johnson County, beginning with a so-called Bridge Bill that would reduce the countys state-aid match from 20 percent to just 2 percent. The law would affect 19 counties across the state and could provide over 1.1 million dollars in bridge repair funds to Johnson County alone.
The other law that Hill hopes to pass involves changes for rural assembly halls and churches that would tweak current standards for sprinkler systems based on capacity. Hill noted that this legislation stemmed directly from Johnson County and issues with the newly constructed Dyson Grove Baptist Church, which currently does not have water access. By state standards as they stand, Dyson Grove would have had to put in an expensive sprinkler system based solely on the size of the building. However, Hill is hopeful that discussions with the State Fire Prevention Division will eventually help make these situations across the state less burdensome.
Hills first questions of the night involved local wineries and their ability to self distribute their products. Currently, operations like Watauga Lake Winery in the Dry Run Community must work through a distributor, many of which wont deal with small scale businesses. However, according to Hill there is a bill that is working its way through the state Senate but has had some trouble in House, which would allow a local winery to distribute up to a limit of 3000 cases. Hill acknowledged that there may be some provisions of the law that will have to change before it can pass, but indicated that he was in support.
There were also several other comments and questions on the problems of Common Core for the countys educational system, including the cost of administering the PARCC Assessment, which can only be completed online. Hill once again reiterated that his was in opposition to these changes but would have to see what if anything can be done considering its federal nature.
There were also several questions about ongoing road projects, including an announcement that Highway 133 in Shady Valley will be resurfaced this year after several delays for patch work. Hill also mentioned the Highway 91 project that has been shelved for the past few years, explaining that even though Virginia continues with their widening project of 58 toward Damascus and the state line, the problem from the Tennessee side is simple lack of funding.
Mayor Larry Potter also made several comments, thanking Hill for his diligence and support of other county projects such as the upcoming safety improvements to Highway 67 near Pedro Shoun Road. Hill acknowledged that the process of purchasing right-of-way and moving utilities would take some time, but felt that the addition of a turning lane at this section of highway would remove a significant danger. Already, Mayor Potter commented that the newly installed caution lights and reduced speed limit seem to be having a positive affect.
Potter also thanked Hill for his help and support in completing the Sutherland Water Project, bringing public water access across the state line in Virginia all the way to Backbone Rock. With that extremely long running project out of the way, the county will now have access to other CDBG funding in the future.
Other questions ranged from concerns about Medicaid expansion, which Hill did not feel would pass anytime in the future for Tennessee, to proposed legislation that would make Pseudoephedrine a prescription drug. While its intent is to help with the rampant methamphetamine drug abuse problems in the state, Hill was strongly against the prescription only effort, noting that the average person should not have to feel like a criminal simply to buy cold medicine. Hill did indicate that a compromise measure might be discussed that would allow pharmacists themselves to issue the prescription, but again the representative was not in support because of the extra responsibilities the change would create. Further, Hill does not believe making pseudoephedrine a prescription drug in Tennessee would alleviate the problem, noting that those who are set on manufacturing meth will find ways to get it elsewhere. Hill concluded that the real challenge is in finding a way of changing the hearts and minds of the actual drug users.
Overall the Town Hall was a good opportunity for the community to give their input on upcoming issues with state government and to very clearly indicate their views to their local representative. Even so, Hill closed by reiterating that he values contact from his constituents and encourages anyone with questions or concerns to feel free to contact him. With the General Assembly coming back into session this week, Hill will be traveling back to Nashville but hopefully some positive things will come Johnson Countys way.
By Jonathan Pleasant