Williamson, Inc. debuted its newly named Policy Talks discussion series Friday, sending the previous name, Legislative Update, to join its predecessors, Town Hall and Public Affairs Roundtable, though the recently retired title would’ve made a pretty fitting description for Friday’s event, which featured a panel of four state legislators.
State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, state Rep. Glen Casada (District 63), state Rep. Sam Whitson (District 65) and state Rep. Brandon Ogles (District 61) discussed Gov. Bill Lee’s agenda and policy that will affect Williamson County as the year goes on.
As senate majority leader, Johnson defines his title as the “senate sponsor of the governor’s legislative package, including the [$38.6 billion] budget.” He explained the major pushes in the package revolve around criminal justice reform, a topic the governor has emphasized as a main 2020 focus, education reform and the latest news to hit the stands — a new draft of the fetal heartbeat bill.
While the details are still being negotiated, the governor confirmed the bill, if passed, would ban abortions once a heartbeat is detected (as early as six weeks) and if the abortion is based on race, sex or a fetal abnormality and would require an ultrasound to be shown to a woman seeking an abortion. He confirmed the bill makes an exception for women whose lives are endangered by their pregnancy.
On the education side, Casada explained the state is treating the ESA voucher program, which provides state money to students in failing public school districts for private school enrollment, as a trial run.
“Let’s see if it works,” he said. “We picked two school [districts] — dismal, dismal test scores, very poor results. So, we’re trying something to help about 7,500 students out of the state’s population of well over 1 million students. … If it’s not successful, you’ll see us look at something else.”
He also said he expects the governor to continue to push vocational education and broadband expansion.
Ogles addressed the BEP funding for the county, explaining the district is disproportionately funded, but it’s difficult to funnel more funding into an area that’s already better off than most of the state.
“The numbers in Williamson County are the best of the state almost at every data point — highest income, highest test scores,” he said. “Every county in the state wants to be Williamson County.”
He explained the Tennessee school safety bill that dedicated $30 million to placing school resource officers in every kindergarten–12 school did not necessarily benefit Williamson County Schools, which already had an SRO on every campus, but, “sometimes to get something down the road, you have to work really hard and give first.”
“Be patient with us, and be grateful for the problem we do have in Williamson County, and that’s the fact that we are sometimes put in a bad position because we are so blessed,” Ogles said.
Addressing the needs of the campus where the panel met for the event, Johnson mentioned a fourth building for the Columbia State Community College Williamson campus is sixth on the list of building priorities, and he’s “cautiously optimistic” the funding will come through in this year’s budget.
Janet Smith, president of Columbia State, explained the design for this building is in the works, and it will usher in three new programs to the school: certified nursing assistant (CNA), licensed practical nurse (LPN) and graphic design. Should the state provide funding, Smith explained, the building process should begin and end all within 12 to 15 months.
Moving to criminal justice, Ogles described some of the reform pursued by the governor as a “realignment” of the system.
“That topic is getting a lot of press, but that does not mean we’re trying to let bad people out of jail,” he said. “People with drug addiction, failure to pay some fines, stuff like that, mental health, trying to get them help, get them help quickly, get them in the system, get them out. But that’s in an effort to focus our time on the hard criminals, people that are hurting you.”
Johnson noted, for drug offenders in particular, recidivism rates drop drastically when nonviolent criminals go through a court-supervised recovery program as opposed to a long prison term. The 21st District Recovery Court in Franklin touts a recidivism rate of 25% to 30% after its two-year program compared to a rate of around 80% for those who serve a two-year prison sentence.
Johnson mentioned there are at least five bills in the works revolving around criminal justice, and Ogles mentioned one of those would allow rape victims to defend themselves with lethal weapons.
Whitson, as a member of the Tennessee House Transportation Committee and chairman of the infrastructure subcommittee, discussed some of the transportation projects that are part of the state’s three-year plan.
Of course, the Mack Hatcher southwest extension is well underway and is set for completion late next year. Whitson said that a major project is the reconstruction of the Moores Lane and Interstate 65 interchange as well as continued work to widen U.S. 31 all the way from downtown Franklin to Duplex Road in Spring Hill. Additionally, Franklin residents will see the widening of state route 96 East from Arno Road to Wilson Pike.
Related to transportation, the conversation moderator, Dave Crouch, asked the legislators about the long lines at the driver service center due in part to those queuing up to get their REAL IDs. Whitson chuckled, saying he went to Maury County to get his.
More seriously, he emphasized that, after the nationwide deadline of Oct. 1, citizens’ old driver’s licenses will not expire; they will just not be enough to get one into a federal building or on a plane.
“If you have the passport, a passport card or a military ID, a retired military ID — any kind of federal identification — you can still get in on that plane, you can still get into that federal building,” Whitson said.
He also advised those visiting the driver service center to immediately check in at the kiosks no matter what anyone says. Johnson added that people should ensure they have proper documentation to receive a REAL ID, which can be found on the Tennessee state website.
Lee will discuss more of his legislative package at the State of the State Address on Monday, Feb. 3.
For more information on upcoming Williamson, Inc. events, visit williamsonchamber.com.