VOL. 42 | NO. 28 | Friday, July 13, 2018
What statewide candidates have to say about rural Tennessee?
Like most of America, Tennessee’s metropolitan areas have prospered during the last eight years, while the rural areas have lagged in almost every measure. The state has 19 of its 95 counties classified as “distressed.” What can and should we do to give every Tennessean a chance to succeed?
Each of the major candidates for governor and U.S. Senate were asked to tell our readers about their views on rural Tennessee.
We Tennesseans have a lot of great choices in where we live and work. Some prefer cities or suburbs, but for many our rural communities are the perfect place to live and raise their families. I grew up in rural America and have a personal interest in seeing that good jobs are available everywhere.
We have long recognized here in Tennessee that infrastructure is key to the success of rural areas. In the 1930s, TVA began building electrical infrastructure throughout rural Tennessee. In the 1980s, Gov. McWherter greatly expanded the road system in rural parts of our state. In the 2000s, when I was governor, we acquired the land and started the planning and funding of utilities for a 3,800-acre industrial megasite in rural West Tennessee.
Today, there is another kind of infrastructure that is just as important – broadband internet access. I know from experience that when companies are looking at making investments, one of the first items on their checklist is the availability of robust internet service. In today’s world, that is fast becoming just as important as roads or telephones.
As you know, I am seeking to represent Tennessee in the United States Senate this fall. This will give me a strong platform from which to obtain federal help in extending broadband internet services to underserved rural areas in Tennessee. Gov. Haslam began important steps to improve access in 2017, but there is much more to be done.
It is in our national interest to provide essential services wherever our citizens live. The post office delivers mail even to the smallest, most remote areas. Over the past century, the federal government has ensured that telephone and electric power are available everywhere, and not just in the densest, most profitable areas.
It’s time to add fast, robust broadband service to that list of fundamental utilities that power communities across our state. This is something I will work on as senator – I’m applying for the job.
Your ZIP code should not determine your opportunity to create your version of the American Dream. The three areas that will have the effect of opening greater opportunity to rural Tennessee are: increasing access to high speed internet, improving access to quality education and encouraging job creation.
Closing the digital divide by expanding broadband access in rural areas will lay the foundation for positive change. Without access to reliable internet, children are unable to complete their homework assignments, and small businesses are unable to compete on a larger scale. As the chair of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, I am working with the White House and members of both parties to lead the effort to expand rural broadband and highspeed internet. You simply cannot have either a first world economy or opportunity for tomorrow with a third world internet.
Next, every student in Tennessee should have the opportunity to reach their full academic potential and attend schools that educate them for 21st century challenges and opportunities. When they graduate, they should be prepared with skills for life and ready for whatever path they choose.
Our children receive the best education when we empower those who best know what they need – parents, teachers, and local communities. Therefore, we must support state and local initiatives. Effective teachers should be rewarded, and school systems should be held accountable for poor performance. Gov. Haslam has been a strong leader in this regard, and we must continue to build on the foundation he has laid.
A proven formula for economic growth is: less regulation + less litigation + less taxation = more innovation and job creation. We must continue to cut taxes, as we did with last year’s historic Tax Cut and Jobs Act, so businesses can expand and create the jobs we so desperately need in our local communities.
Continuing our fight to improve broadband access, strengthening our education system, and creating jobs will help to ensure all Tennesseans, especially those in rural areas, have every opportunity to succeed.
I spent the first few months of my campaign spending time in each of our state’s economically distressed counties to hear directly from residents about their needs and concerns. As governor, I will continue to listen to residents, especially those who feel left behind and forgotten, as many in our rural communities do.
Tennesseans in all communities deserve access to the same opportunities. We need to remain focused on improving the basics.
We need to:
-- Grow the number of good-paying jobs throughout the state
-- Put more funding into public education, including career technical education and vocational training
-- Increase access to affordable, quality health care. Too many rural hospitals are closing in Tennessee because our legislature refused to pass Gov. Haslam’s Medicaid expansion plan
-- Additionally, we need to invest in rural infrastructure needs including county roads, highways and broadband in rural areas. Communities that feel like they’ve been left behind need to know their issues are going to be addressed as quickly as those in urban and suburban areas.
Just as I did as mayor of Nashville, I want to invest in the innate strengths of all 95 counties, both rural and urban areas. For many communities, agriculture tops that list. Our agricultural producers need better access to the capital required to establish themselves and grow their operations.
In many rural communities, when agriculture is doing well, the entire community thrives as a result. Our farms support a tremendous amount of local jobs, and annual farm income supports local businesses, which means investing in agriculture will help our rural communities overall.
For Tennessee to be a success, all 95 of our counties must be successful. Our cities are doing well, but our rural counties have not been as lucky.
One way to make sure our rural counties have a fighting chance is to have four-lane highways connecting every county seat to the interstate system. For nearly three decades, we have had this as a goal in Tennessee, and with the IMPROVE Act that we passed in the legislature last year, this will go a long way towards fulfilling this goal. While our urban areas need mass transit options because of their density, rural areas must have good roads and bridges to succeed.
Our rural areas have been disproportionally affected by hospital closures, a statistic that Tennessee leads the nation in per capita. If we had expanded Medicaid, we would have had $4 billion in funds to keep those hospitals open.
Hospitals are not just health care centers in rural communities; they are the economic lifeblood of small towns and the region surrounding them. They provide some of the highest-paying jobs in these counties and act as command centers in our war on opioids and methamphetamines, scourges that have decimated our small towns.
Rural broadband is a game changer. High-speed broadband is not a luxury; it is a utility, as important as lights and water. Broadband would improve educational and business opportunities in our rural areas, allowing small businesses and entrepreneurs to deliver their products around the world.
Former Gov. Ned Ray McWherter had an equation: roads plus education equals jobs. I put a 21st century spin on my fellow West Tennessee Democrat’s equation by adding broadband. While we have put some resources towards this on the state level, we must do more.
I spend a lot of time in rural Tennessee. Over half of the counties I represent are rural, and I can assure you, Tennessee’s history, values and traditions are inextricably tied to our state’s rural roots. The people I know in our rural communities love their way of life – and the next governor must help them keep it.
If we don’t do something to provide more infrastructure, our young people will move away, and our small towns will eventually close down. Investing in infrastructure means so much more to our rural communities than just smooth roads – it means a better economy, flourishing careers and more job opportunities for the next generation.
In every rural community I visit, I hear the same thing: We need broadband. I will remove the obstacles and make rural broadband a reality. Rural communities need broadband NOW – so I support whatever method brings broadband to rural communities the quickest.
We will have fast, reliable broadband and address other infrastructure needs, whether it be a road or a storm water system. That will encourage businesses to expand or relocate to our rural areas and provide jobs that turn into careers.
President Trump has announced a nationwide $50 billion plan for Rural Infrastructure, and I will work with President Trump, as I have before, to ensure rural Tennessee benefits from federal investment in infrastructure.
Every Tennessee community is unique. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Some places need infrastructure, some places need broadband, some places need workforce training. As governor, I want to be partners with our small towns and make sure they all have what they need.
While Tennessee has enjoyed unprecedented economic success, too many places in our state are still being left behind. As Commissioner of Economic and Community Development, I traveled to all 95 counties, most many times, and realized we are too often a state of “haves” and “have nots.”
In fact, when I arrived at ECD, there were 21 distressed counties in our state - designated because they are in the bottom 10 percent in the entire U.S. in terms of poverty, income and unemployment.
I believe we are only as rich as our poorest neighbor, so through the Governor’s Rural Task Force, with co-chairs including the commissioners of tourism and agriculture, and 120 leaders from across the state, representing organizations like the Farm Bureau, we quickly got to work developing real solutions for rural Tennessee.
Everything begins with education and building a trained workforce, so we will bring satellite campuses of our technical colleges to distressed counties.
Second, we must help them develop sites for businesses to thrive, like we did in Hancock County, that led to a new call center and 200 greatly needed jobs.
Third, expanding broadband is essential to rural success, which is why we led the charge to work with electric co-ops to offer broadband to 2.5 million more rural Tennesseans.
Fourth, we will do more to support entrepreneurs and small businesses in our rural communities. Fifth, we must encourage tourism with targeted grants to develop and leverage underutilized assets. Finally, we will strongly support agriculture through measures like the Ag Innovation Fund.
We have gone from 21 distressed counties in 2015 to 15 today. But our goal is to have ZERO distressed counties by 2025. As governor, I will double down on these initiatives. We are only the state of opportunity when there is opportunity for ALL.
In order to ensure prosperity in rural Tennessee, we must attract businesses and employers that provide high-paying jobs, continue our push for a better workforce, support our farmers, and expand broadband.
As I travel the state, one of the things I consistently hear is the need for a better-prepared workforce. We need to evaluate our higher education initiatives not on intentions, but results. We need to focus on apprenticeships and skills, so that the employers we attract can find highly skilled employees.
Tennessee has been very supportive of farmers, and I’ve had the opportunity to vote for updates to our Right to Farm Act as a state representative. Most recently in 2014, we added protections for agri-tourism businesses, so farmers can diversify operations. As governor, I will continue to make sure our Right to Farm Act is up to date and protects farmers.
Broadband infrastructure has become a vital part of our modern economy and ensuring that our rural communities have access to it needs to be a top priority.
Broadband accessibility is something companies evaluate when they are looking to relocate. We’ve made some progress under the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act, and the first round of rural broadband grants were just announced a few months ago – but we certainly need to do more.
We need to make sure that the tax dollars we are investing in broadband infrastructure are well targeted and that they help drive both increased connectivity and economic development in our rural communities.
Growing up and still living on our family farm, I know many of the issues that face farmers and rural communities.
Many of Tennessee’s rural communities are hurting and we need a concerted, consistent effort that builds for the future and reflects the fundamental values of Tennessee. That is why I was the first candidate in this race to announce a detailed Roadmap for Rural Tennessee. It includes four key areas I’ll focus on as governor to increase opportunities in rural Tennessee and address some of the most pressing issues facing the region.
First, we need to promote the dignity of work and economic independence and invest early in vocational, technical and agriculture education, knocking down barriers to work.
Second, we will support innovation and technology to improve economic growth, health care access and educational opportunities and reduce the tax burden for small businesses and bring more health care options to our rural communities.
Third, we need to attack the epidemic of opioid abuse and addiction and increase penalties for drug traffickers and put non-violent addicts on a path to wellness.
Finally, we need to renew our state’s commitment to faith, community and family by strengthening civic and character education in our schools and support strong families in our communities.
We are just a generation away from losing a way of life in small town Tennessee. If we don’t act decisively, we will lose it, and that’s something we can’t allow to happen.