U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan, Jr., told members of the Blount County Chamber of Commerce that Tennesseans and the country are in for an interesting two months. While he doesn’t think he will see a lot of new Republicans in Congress this year, he is predicting victory for the top job.
“This is going to be an interesting next 70 days in Tennessee,” Duncan said. “This is an interesting time in politics. I think John McCain will win the election unless he messes up real bad between now and then.”
Duncan was the guest of the chamber for the legislative forum, moderated by Joy Bishop, vice chair of government relations for the chamber board. Participants at the 7:30 a.m. Tuesday meeting numbered approximately 45.
In looking at the U.S. House and Senate, Duncan said Democrats will likely pick up 5 to 6, maybe 10 to 12 seats in the House. “It is shaping up to not be a good year for Republicans.”
The past year has been one of big spending, Duncan said.
“This Congress has been the biggest spending Congress I’ve ever seen. I voted against a lot of things I would have voted for had we had surplus cash, but we don’t.”
Citing final appropriation numbers for that came to Blount County, Duncan pointed out more than $1 million that came to the county, the Blount County Sheriff’s Department, Blount Memorial Hospital and for erosion control.
Telling a story about being called a hillbilly and being teased about “if we wore shoes” not so many years ago, Duncan said “Now everyone in the whole country wants to move down here with us. I believe the future in Blount County will be good. The next five months will be better but the next five years will be much, much better.”
Duncan said there has to be a happy medium between too much growth and too little growth. The problem is everyone has a different idea of what that happy medium is, he said.
“We’ve taught young people that development is a bad word. Development isn’t a bad word,” he said. “You’ve got to have some development if you’re going to have jobs for kids when they get out of college.”
The congressman said that while nobody wants to overdevelop any area, most development can give families nicer homes. When development is hampered drastically it leads to smaller houses that cost more, he said.
One topic that came up early during the talk was the economy. Lack of money in the federal coffers has tempered Duncan’s enthusiasm for new federal spending or projects and he said even if you take out what is being spent in Iraq, he remains concerned about the U.S. spending overseas.
“We’re spending half a billion dollars in other countries. We’ve got to stop or cut back on spending and do some of the things we need done here.”
Steve West asked Duncan his thoughts on the price of oil, developing new and/or alternative fuel sources and better mileage vehicles. “I think we can do safe drilling with no pollution,” West said.
Duncan said the free enterprise system can help pay for improvements to the environment, adding that the worst polluters are communist or non-capitalist countries. “Don’t over-regulate the system. We can drill in an environmentally safe way,” he said.
Duncan said all types of energy must be explored but oil drilling is needed in the meantime. “”We’ve got to explore it all -- solar, wind - we need these,” he said. “We’re not anywhere close to developing those to where they need to be.” Duncan added that it is often said that America can’t “drill its way out” of the current energy crisis. “But we can’t get out of it without some drilling,” he said.
Carl Van Hoozier with Vulcan Materials asked Duncan about the Highway Trust Fund that pays for highway road construction. Duncan said the 2009 Highway Bill will be the biggest bill. “That is probably going to be one of the biggest questions facing the next Congress,” he said.
Duncan said there is a happy medium with highway building but road building is necessary. “You don’t want to pave over all your grass but you have to good highways if you’re going to have an expanding economy,” he said. “Think of the mess we would have if the West Knoxville interstate was still two lanes.”
Duncan said regulations, red tape and rules often hinder and expand costs in transportation. “It took 14 years for the newest runway at the Atlanta airport to be approved. Construction took 99 days. Nine miles of road in California took 17 years to complete.”
Blount County commissioner Dr. Bob Profit asked Duncan’s thoughts on national health care. The congressman said the fastest way to solve the problem would be to let government take it over, but he said that would be the wrong way. “We’ve got 52 percent of health care paid for by the government. We took a minor problem for a few people and made it into a major problem for everyone. It’s gotten to the point where it’s ridiculous, and it’s all because we pay through a third-party system.”
Duncan said medical savings accounts have become very popular. Now 6.4 million people have medical savings accounts set up, he said.
“We need to start deregulating the insurance industry. More competition always brings down costs,” the congressman said.
After the meeting, Duncan was asked what his main concerns were for Blount County. He cited health care and energy costs, adding that growth is important for a vibrant economy.
“Two-thirds of the counties in the United States are losing population,” he said.
When those counties’ populations aren’t growing, their economies aren’t expanding. “You want growth to have a good economy.”
Duncan said he is considering proposing legislation that would create a new Homestead Act. In the 1800s the Homestead Act gave 40 acres of land to individuals willing to move West. Duncan said he wouldn’t give Homesteaders 40 acres, but he would offer tax incentives to individuals willing to move into areas across the country losing population.
“We need to give tax incentives to people who are willing to move to counties losing population and spread growth out,” he said.