The proverbial gloves came off almost immediately during the League of Women Voters state candidate forum Tuesday night.
Once again the candidates for the Tennessee State Senate were in the middle, but this time a third candidate threw some verbal barbs.
The League of Women Voters hosted the event, which last two hours and was held at the Blount County Public Library. More than 80 people showed to listen as candidates introduced themselves and answered questions from a moderator and then from the audience.
But it was the first round of comments from the State Senate candidates where the comments were pointed from the start. State Sen. Raymond Finney, State Rep. Doug Overbey and Dr. Ira Lapides from Gatlinburg were on hand for the forum.
Rep. Overbey took issue with a comment made by his opponent, Sen. Finney, at the Republican Women’s forum in June.
“In a previous forum,” said Overbey, “Sen. Finney said all I did was join clubs.”
Overbey went on to describe the different work he did in the community through various volunteer and charity organizations.
Overbey then took Finney to task for his comments and vote regarding the Basic Education Plan 2.0 when State Senators voted 32 to 1 in favor of a bill, a part of which benefited other school districts such as Memphis more than it Blount County. Overbey took aim at Finney for saying his vote “didn’t count” because of the overwhelming vote for the bill.
“When you’re one of 33 senators in a state of 6 million people, it’s incumbent to make your voice heard and count,” Overbey said.
Finney responded during his first question with his clarification of his comment on Overbey joining clubs.
“What I said was that you were putting as part of your qualifications as belonging to those clubs. I said I didn’t have that experience. I was busy working 12 and 14 hours at the hospital,” said the retired doctor. “I don’t have a big roster of joining clubs because I worked very hard at the hospital. I make no apologies for the statement,” Finney said.
Finney then defended his vote regarding BEP 2.0. “On the BEP 2.0 vote, it passed 32 to one. If I voted the other way it would have been 31 to 2. I didn’t change the outcome. You’re vilifying me for a vote,” he said. “BEP had five parts, four of which helped Blount County. He (Overbey) voted against a number of issues (in the BEP bill) that were important to education. When we vote on bill, we vote for all parts or none of it.”
Lapides explained that he is a PhD from Gatlinburg running as an “Inde-publican,” which he described as “a very conservative Republican who has lost his party” because conservatives don’t limit business and don’t impose law upon choices.
“I stand before you as a lonely Republican. I am on ballot in November and look forward to a good campaign. I will keep it a fair campaign,” he said.
Lapides said he taught 10 years at the University of Tennessee and then went into private business after some experience in local government.
“I know how government works, and I know it’s broke,” Lapides said. “These are the gentlemen who brought you that.”
League of Women Voters president Susan Ambler asked the senators the three most important issues facing the people of Blount County, what they would adopt as priorities and what actions would they propose.
Finney said education should be a priority, particularly solving the problem with physical capacity as how it relates to the BEP funding formula. “It’s tiresome to keep dwelling on this one vote.
“The second thing is health care. Make it effective and accessible,” he said. “We also need to preserve our environment and heritage.”
Overbey said education funding is the most important priority. “We need to send someone to the state senate who will stand up and be counted. I spoke out against that bill of sending $13 million from our county to other parts of the state,” he said.
Overbey said he could work with colleagues in the Senate as he has in the House and proven himself to be effective. “That’s what I’ll do so you won’t have to make up the difference in loss of funding that has gone to other parts of the state.”
The former state representative said he’s also concerned about job growth. “These are tough economic times,” he said. “We had good news with the announcement that VW was going to Chattanooga. But we’ve had bad news of industry cutting back.”
Overbey said the third issue on everyone’s mind is fuel prices and that he worked hard this past winter to ensure people didn’t pay sales tax on kerosene.
“As far as I know I’m only one who, on Christmas Eve, was talking to the Commissioner of Revenue to make sure people didn’t have to pay sales tax on kerosene for heating,” he said.
Lapides said that the biggest problem with the political process has become the politicians.
“How are you going to create jobs and take care of health care? As a PhD in economics, I have the ‘hows.’ It will take time,” Lapides said. “We can not use emergency rooms for regular physician calls. We have a broken education system beyond funding.”
Lapides said because of his PhD and his background he can bring better arguments for getting BEP funding back to what it should be. “I’ve been cautioned by Dr. Finney there is nothing you can do, you must have seniority before you can do anything,” he said. “You can go in and upset the apple cart. The time for Tennessee and this nation to change is here.”
The senators were asked about the possibility of one day enacting a state income tax if other taxes were lowered.
Finney said the problem with such a plan is that often both taxes begin increasing. “We would have to have an iron clad way to keep tax creep from happening in both. Politicians aren’t disciplined in taking in money and spending it,” he said. “The proper thing is not to reduce taxes but eliminate it all together. I think all of us would want to see the proposal. In general, both taxes would probably creep up in time, and we’d end up with more taxes. No, I’m not in favor of an income tax.”
Overbey said he was in the General Assembly in 2001 and 2002 when the debate was going on with the state income tax, and he voted against it. “I stayed true to that commitment. My position has not changed. My position is I think citizens prefer a consumption tax over an income tax. One thing I’ve learn is a tax policy should promote savings,” he said. “We can do what families do, tighten belts, reduce spending and live within our means.”
Lapides commended both lawmakers. “As a professor of economics both gentlemen get an A-minus. They did quite well on that exam,” he said.
Lapides said the program he would suggest would be radically different and would change the way the state spends money. “The tax picture would be different all together. There’s only so much in taxes people will accept. There are other ways to raise revenue such as licensing fees for restaurants that allow for smoking,” he said. “You lost $58 million because of tobacco taxes. It’s time to redesign how we do things. It is time to do that now.”
The trio also was asked what they planned to do to help deal with high fuel prices.
Sen. Finney said the only thing the state has control over is its fuel taxes. “The only thing the state could do would be stop paying those, but we’re supposed to have those in order to fund repairs for roads and bridges.”
Overbey said one way to deal with high fuel prices would be to “stick together” and oppose a bill that Finney filed that would require every car in the state to meet California emissions standards, a move Overbey said would’ve added 34 cents to each gallon of gasoline.
“There is not a member of General Assembly who wants to harm the environment, but even if we had that law and it raised the price of gas, it wouldn’t accomplish anything,” Overbey said.
Overbey said the legislature could urge Congress and the U.S. Senate to work for an energy policy to free the country from being dependent on foreign oil. “That ultimately will be how we bring down the price of oil - show the assertiveness to be free of foreign oil,” he said.
Finney called Overbey’s comments a distortion and said he sponsored the legislation for a friend in the State House who needed a Senate sponsor to a bill that would urge the state to go toward California emissions standards. “Then he came back to me and said it was too expensive,” he said.
Finney said he requested the bill be moved to committee where it died. “It was an action I was doing as a favor for a friend,” he said.
Overbey countered, “One thing I’ve got to say, nobody makes you sponsor or file a bill. Don’t file bills that are not good for folks you represent,” Overbey said. “If you file one you can ask the clerk to re-file it. You can file a motion to withdraw. That bill was never withdrawn.”
Lapides said he remembered the gas crisis in 1970 and how officials said then the solution was 10 years away. “We’ve done nothing since,” he said.
Lapides said he had a way to gain more jobs and help with the nation’s energy problem by bringing forth a green initiative involving the University of Tennessee, Oak Ridge National Laboratories and TVA. “We could become leaders in alternative energy considerations. It would create jobs. It is done not in one day, but it didn’t take one day to get here,” he said.
Lapides said the two lawmakers were wasting money with commercials and lawn signs running against each other. “I can guarantee the $150,000 these gentlemen are spending on commercials and lawn litter … we’re wasting a lot of time and money doing the wrong thing continuously,” he said.
District 20 House race
In the State House of Representatives District 20 forum, the candidate included Blount County commissioner Steve Hargis, Tona Monroe-Ball, Jim Melton and Blount County commission chair Bob Ramsey.
Hargis said he was a fourth generation Blount Countian and a three-term commissioner with 10 years in office. Hargis’ district encompasses 50 miles and because none of that area is incorporated, he and another commissioner, David Graham, are the only representatives of local government for their constituents. “I listen. I work for people and I’m fast about it,” Hargis said.
Ball said she was the only candidate with experience on a state-level working on issues such as stopping toll roads and working to ensure paper ballots are again used throughout the state. Ball said she’s walked neighborhoods speaking to voters. “I’m the only candidate in this race to knock on the doors of 4,000 voters and listened to what they have to say,” she said.
Melton said he grew up in Blount County, graduated Alcoa High School, attended Hiwassee College in Madisonville, served in the U.S. Army and currently works in finance as a commercial credit manager. “I’m an Eagleton Village boy trying to be a public servant,” he said.
Ramsey said he was a native of Blount County, graduated Maryville High School, University of Tennessee in Knoxville and in Memphis and he opened his dental practice in 1976. He was elected to the commission in 1990, has served five terms and on two occasions served as county mayor - for six months in 1992 when Charlie Powell died in office and for nine months in 2006 when Beverley Woodruff was unable to complete her term.
Ramsey said he felt he’s seen most of the processes and experiences with relation to state and local government. “I’m a firm believer the best government is local government. You’re instantly aware of the conduct of what to do to the community,” he said.
Susan Ambler, League of Women Voters president, was pleased with the number of people who attended, which was much greater than she expected. “I was very pleased with the participation on the part of citizens to ask questions of the candidates,” she said. “I thought some of the questions were of good quality as well.”