The political season began to come into focus Monday with two forums that showcased contestants in the state races being decided in August.
The first event, sponsored by Leadership Blount, was held at the Blount County Chamber of Commerce and brought together candidates for the State House of Representatives and State Senate races.
The second event was held Monday evening at the Blount County Library and was sponsored by the Blount County Republican Women. It featured State Sen. Raymond Finney and challenger, State Rep. Doug Overbey.
In the morning event at the Chamber, State Senate candidates included incumbent State Sen. Raymond Finney, Dr. Ira Lapides of Sevier County and State Rep. Doug Overbey. For the state House of Representatives, candidates Dr. Tona Monroe-Ball, Blount County Commissioner Steve Hargis, Jim Melton and Blount County Commission chairman Dr. Robert Ramsey are vying for District 20 House of Representatives seat while Rep. Joe McCord is running unopposed for the seat in District 8.
Each candidate was given time to introduce themselves and talk about their platforms. That was followed by questions from the audience.
On Monday evening, Sen. Raymond Finney and Rep. Doug Overbey faced a group of approximately 40 members of the Blount County Republican Women and friends. The two candidates were introduced, made some comments and then took questions from the audience.
At the Chamber: District 20 House of Representatives
Tona Monroe-Ball said the reason she’s running is to advocate government accountability. “On all levels of government, people are frustrated. I keep seeing a lot of surveys and studies. People are really fed up. They don’t feel government is listening. It’s too big and invasive. I talk to people who say you have to jump through so many hoops to do anything associated with government,” she said.
Monroe-Ball said she would work to ensure government spends money wisely.
“I’m going to do my best to be a voice for those who are fed up with the way things are. People need to know where their money is being spent and why it’s being spent,” she said.
Hargis said while he’s lived in Blount County 57 years, many things have changed. Hargis said if he’s elected, he’ll work with the Republican caucus to help work get done. Being a county commissioner will serve him well in Nashville because he’ll know how to get things done.
Hargis criticized Gov. Phil Bredesen for a $13 million bunker under construction under the mansion while Blount County schools suffered. “Blount County schools came up three quarters of a million short on B.E.P,” he said.
Jim Melton said he is now working with 21st Mortgage where he is a commercial credit manager. “I think state government should be more open to constituents. I’d like to see more things. I would support ethics legislation. I will try to incorporate into ethics legislation a posting of legislative expense reports and votes online,” he said.
He said his idea would be to create a system similar to C-Span. “We can name it Tenn-Span. I’d like to see legislature sessions live and as many committee meetings as could be filmed and seen live,” Melton said.
Melton also advocated the election of the state treasurer and the attorney general. “Those two now are appointed,” he said. “Those need to be watchdogs.”
Ramsey said he’s lived in Blount County his whole life, first got elected to the county commission in 1990 and has served there ever since, with two stints as interim county mayor added into the equation.
“I’m interested in the operations of local government, and I become interested in operation of state government though seeing how they have a tremendous effect on us,” he said. “Knowing Doug (Overbey) had given up his seat, I felt there was a void in leadership. I’m not running against these candidates but running for this office.”
Ramsey said there is an economic crisis in Nashville. “It’s already here. We certainly cannot burden the tax-paying public with more taxes,” he said. “It will be my job to be a watchdog to make sure the county’s faring well.”
During a question/answer period, Ramsey was asked about his answer on a League of Women voter’s survey in which he admitted to supporting a wheel tax. The questioner asked if that meant he would support new taxes on the state level if he made it to the State House of Representatives.
Ramsey said that locally he would still support the wheel tax because the revenue would be dedicated totally to highways.
“That million would have made us eligible for $4 million from the state. Whenever one dollar gets you four, it’s great,” he said.
Melton said he believed schools should not be burdened with unfunded mandates from the state but should be 100 percent funded. “Education should not be cut,” said Melton. “Those kids are our future.”
Hargis said the budget for Blount County Schools this upcoming year is $77 million. “There’s not enough money in the world to fund education,” Hargis said. “Every year they’re needing $9 or $10 million more.”
In terms of a no-tax pledge that Monroe-Ball and Finney signed, Monroe-Ball said the pledge is important.
“The pledge says you’re pledging to your constituents,” Monroe-Ball said. “I’ve already demonstrated that by signing the tax pledge.”
Hargis said that for the last 10 years on commission, he has opposed all property taxes but he supported an adequate facilities tax. “I’m not going to make a commitment I’m going to not support taxes,” he said. “If there’s no taxes, we’re not going to operate the state of Tennessee. I say I oppose them but if an emergency comes up we will have to raise taxes.”
Melton said he was definitely against state income taxes and signed a pledge to that effect. “The only way I vote for any tax increase will be if people vote on it. When you get into my pocketbook, you better ask,” he said.
Ramsey said he is never one to say never. “But if we could increase revenue stream source where the user pays, that would be a positive,” he said.
At the Chamber: District 8 House of Representatives
State Rep. Joe McCord, who is running unopposed for state representative in Maryville and Sevier County, said in his opening remarks that the races needed to be civil, regardless of what the issues are.
“Why can’t we agree to disagree with civility? It’s not worth losing our civility. It’s nice to see differing opinions. It just puts things in perspective. Thank you all for running. Everybody brings something to the table. I know how difficult it is. Thank you for caring,” he said.
McCord said some lawmakers on the state level come from districts where constituents aren’t involved. “This community holds you under a microscope, and it makes our job easy because people tell us what they want,” he said.
At the Chamber: Tennessee State Senate, District 8
Sen. Raymond Finney, who is nearing the end of his first term in the Senate, said he has worked hard to represent Blount and Sevier counties. “All I can promise is, if re-elected, I’ll continue the next four years as I have in the past, staying in close contact and trying to represent what is in the best interest of the people of the community,” he said.
Ira Lapides said he has a PhD in economics from the University of Tennessee. “I will tell you the body of politics is broken and sick. Our education system is faltering. Tennessee is 49th in income growth. The criminal justice system has become a business, and we’re producing more criminals with the criminal justice system, and it needs reform,” he said.
Lapides said the next big crisis is the healthcare crisis. “When the baby boom bangs, our health system, already taxed, will totally collapse,” he said. “Unless we start planning today for that, we’ll be in the same situation we’re in now with energy.”
Rep. Doug Overbey, currently a Republican State House of Representative challenging fellow Republican Finney for the senate seat, said having options at election time is what elections are all about. “That’s why I offer myself as an option for the 8th District Senate seat,” he said.
Overbey said one of the major issues facing lawmakers is state funding of local schools because the new Basic Education Plan 2.0 decreased the amount given for local schools in Blount County.
“It’s important that your representative in Nashville stand up for and protect and defend state school funding and that we change the formula to make it more fair for counties like Blount County and Sevier,” he said. “The state does not need to have policies that punish communities that are putting a lot of local effort into school funding.”
The candidates were asked their position on the Basic Education Program and increasing funding for local systems in light of decreased state and county revenues.
Finney said the B.E.P. started during the McWherter administration with a complicated analysis that was hard to understand for all involved. With the new B.E.P. 2.0, Sevier County was especially hurt, he said.
“Every school district was increased in money but not to the degree they would have under the old formula,” he said.
Finney said Sen. Jaime Woodson and Comptroller of the Treasury John Morgan told him that B.E.P. was a work in progress. “In the end, I voted for B.E.P. 2.0. It passed 32-to-1. My vote really didn’t matter. We weren’t allowed to vote for parts we liked,” he said. “I’ve been criticized for that. In essence, I voted for the entire education package. It has not hurt anyone.”
Lapides said there needs to be an appraisal factor to make the B.E.P. model work.
“Otherwise, Sevier and Blount counties are going to take a beating,” he said.
Overbey said what was done with the B.E.P. 2.0 was inequitable. He said when former Maryville City Schools director Mike Dalton came out of a meeting in the governor’s office regarding the new schools plan, Overbey said he knew how he would vote.
‘All of us saw immediately that the change was going to have a bad effect on our four local school systems,” Overbey said. “When Dr. Dalton scratched his head and said ‘I don’t understand,’ that galvanized me as to the proper vote to take. Your legislative delegation in the House all opposed it because it was the right thing to do for our community.”
Overbey said he did propose basing the B.E.P. 2.0 on not just the sales tax and property tax base of a system, but also an income base, then the four school systems would have been helped.
Overbey referred to Sen. Finney’s comment that his vote didn’t matter because the BEP 2 passed the senate with such an overwhelming majority. Said Overbey, “I know this isn’t a debate, but if anyone thinks their vote doesn’t matter, they should just stay home and mail it in,” he said. “Your job is to go to Nashville, and, even in losing cases, stand up and fight for the people we represent, especially when it comes to education and schools.”
In terms of a no-tax pledge, Overbey said he never signed it. “I think I’m beholden to the voters to exercise my judgment and not be beholden to anyone other than the voters and not an organization based out of state,” he said.
Republican Women forum
During the evening forum at the Blount County Library and sponsored by the Republican Women of Blount County, the tenor of the discussion was much more like a debate.
Overbey began by talking about his commitment to the community, to the Republican Party and an ability to be an effective lawmaker. “Community involvement informs what you do as a legislator,” he said. “I’m a dyed in the wool Republican who has helped get other Republicans elected to office across the state.”
Finney wasted no time in criticizing his opponent. “While he was out joining clubs, I was at Blount Memorial Hospital. I would go in at 5 in the morning and come home at 6 at night. I ran a busy department of pathology,” he said. “There are different ways to serve the community. You can do ‘Ra-rah-rah’ things or work hard to improve the health of this community.”
Finney said Overbey is known as a Naifeh Republican for his ties with Democratic House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh. “Three times in 2003, 2005 and 2007 he went against his party, the Republican Party you’re here to support, to vote for Jimmy Naifeh,” he said. “There’s a cancer on the Republican Party and he’s part of it.”
Finney criticized Overbey for his record. “Effective conservative leadership - give me a break. Consistently you vote for Jimmy Naifeh and call yourself a conservative. Be proud of what you are,” he said. “Don’t be Nashville Doug doing one thing and Back Home Doug doing another.”
“Rep. Overbey wants you to fire me. You know why he want this job - there’s only two reasons a incumbent senator should be fired,” he said. “One is for moral failure. The second reason is incompetence. I’m not incompetent. I’m not immoral. I ask that you support me.”
Overbey was asked why he supported Naifeh and he said he didn’t do anything differently than Sen. Carl Koella, Rep. Art Swann or former Rep. Bo Henry did.
“No one questioned their reputations, and I resent anyone for questioning mine. I would challenge that. I learned at knee of Jimmy Quillen. I have worked hard for this party, even while building a practice. No one questioned their reputations, and they have no right to question mine,” he said.
Overbey then asked Finney why he ran against former Sen. Bill Clabough if moral failure and incompetence were the only two reasons for challenging an incumbent.
“I ran against him for his vote on the income tax and his votes on abortion,” Finney answered.
Concerning his vote for Naifeh, Overbey said when he arrived in Nashville, he was advised by elder Republicans in the caucus to act in a bi-partisan manner to get more accomplished. “Until we take control of the House, we can’t name who is the speaker,” he said. “I have worked hard to have a majority in the House.”
Overbey said he wasn’t going to beat his breast about his integrity or honesty. “You’ve elected me to various offices since 1982. You either know who I am or you don’t. I simply offer it to you,” he said.
When asked why he would risk losing his seat to a Democrat, Overbey said the seat was never at risk. Comments heard from the audience included, “The demographics are changing,” and “It could happen.”
Finney said since he assumed office he has worked hard to communicate with constituents. “I have tried as hard as I can to stay busy in the community finding out what they want and I will continue to do so,” he said.
Former Blount County commissioner J.C. Franklin asked Overbey what else would he be able to accomplish in the State Senate he couldn’t accomplish in the State House of Representatives.
“If we can accomplish this much by being minority member in the House, think what we can accomplish by being member of the majority party?” he said. “ I will stand up and be there and be counted just as I have been on the floor of the House. I think that’s very, very important.”
Then someone asked if Overbey thought Finney had stood up for the county. Overbey said, “I don’t think he did it on the education issue. He told the Chamber today that your vote doesn’t count. Maybe it doesn’t, but you can espouse what’s best for the county.”
An audience member said, “That’s what people thought about your vote for Naifeh.”
Finney said that one vote was not enough of a reason to fire him.
“If I had voted against it, it would’ve passed 31 to 2. He thinks that’s enough for people to fire me. Much of it is good for Blount County and Sevier County. One part was bad,” Finney said.
Overbey was asked if his stance on Secret Safeplace is a reflection of his commitment to life. “Yes, it’s a reflection of my commitment to the unborn, newborn and those born with disabilities,” he said.