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Journalists, public ask questions of local legislators

12:52 AM, Jan 27, 2013   |    comments
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Journalists and the general public took advantage of an invitation this Saturday to rub elbows with local lawmakers.

With many of the members in attendance also serving as committee chairs, the public got to ask questions of some of East Tennessee's heavy hitters.

The first question came from Vivian Shipe who wanted to know what lawmakers intend to do to help East Tennessee's homeless and mentality ill.

The discussion prompted both Representative Ryan Haynes (R-Knoxville) and Senator Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville) to comment on the closure of Lakeshore.

It's a move Haynes called "innovative," elaborating that Lakeshore cost $900 a day per patient. He estimated local service providers could fulfill a similar need for about $400 a day, allowing the same amount of money to help more people.

Duncan Massey says it's local legislatures responsibility to ensure that $500 difference stays in East Tennessee.

"The Governor and the commissioner made a commitment to leave that money not just in Knox County but in East Tennessee," Duncan Massey.

Duncan Massey echoed Haynes point that the closure will ultimately allow providers to help more people, and promoted funding a Knox County 'Safety Center.'

Knox County Sheriff 'JJ" Jones proposed building a new safety center as an alternative to incarceration for mentally ill, or substance abusing inmates.

The conversation led in to the next debate over the potential expansion of Medicaid.

Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) cautioned the group that expanding the program, which provides health insurance for low income individuals, could mean the state would have to play by the federal government's rules.

 "We want to keep the program stable and predictable," says McNally. "Partnering with the federal government on expansion certainly adds a level of unpredictability."

Rep. Bob Ramsey (R-Maryville) says the debate is a "time for caution."

He says the plan has "merit" but fears it could lead to a "bottomless pit."

Ramsey says public testimony and input should be an important part of the decision making process.

Rep. Joe Armstrong (D-Knoxville) recounted stories of witnessing patients being treated in ambulances for lack of room in emergency rooms.

"We need preventative care," said Armstrong. "The Affordable Healthcare Act does that."

He says expanding TennCare "only makes sense," because helping people prevent illness with access to regular healthcare costs less than treating subsequent diseases.

Each member in attendance also had an opportunity to tout their priorities for the current legislative session.

Rep. Art Swann (R-Maryville) says he wants to expand passenger and freight railways. He also intends to reintroduce legislation dealing with term limits. He also intends to propose a bill to compel the Department of Economic and Community Development to spend up to half of it's funding on small businesses.

Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville) says he will continue to work to ensure every child has the opportunity to be prepared for a secondary education, or a career. He hopes to help teachers afford more supplies for their classrooms.

Rep. Ryan Haynes (R-Knoxville) says he'll propose a bill to ensure public notices will continue to be filed in newspapers and include a provision requiring them to be posted on their websites as well. He says he was elected he's changed his views on the judicial selection process. He says he used to support a popular vote election for all judges, but now wants to create a "merit based" system.

Rep. Bob Ramsey (R-Maryville) says he wants to standardize the Financial Management Act of 2013 for every county. He's also working with Senator Doug Overbey on the 'Step Up' Bill which would provide lottery funded secondary education scholarship money for intellectually challenged Tennesseans.

Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) says he wants to tighten up drug laws. He says the system currently does too much to protect criminals, especially their assets, citing a case where a defendant was awarded an indigent defense attorney despite having millions in assets.

Senator Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville) says since her election she's met with all but four state commissioners to foster "working relationships." Shes says she plans to continue her "keen passion for vulnerable populations."

Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) says he wants to get assisted outpatient care facilities funded in both Knox and Shelby counties. In addition to the 'Step Up' Bill, he also wants to help college students by removing the 120 credit hour cap on the HOPE scholarship. He says students should be able to use their scholarship to pay for a full four years of college, regardless of how many credit hours they take.

Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) says she'll work on her "Scenic Vistas" bill which would banning mountain top removing, as well as reaffirming her commitment to supporting education.

Rep. Joe Armstrong had to leave on an urgent personal matter before his opportunity to speak.

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