What can the state do to grow jobs in this economy?

Hank Hayes • Oct 15, 2018 at 8:30 AM

KINGSPORT – Unemployment in Tennessee is at an historic low. Investment and job creation are rising.

So what could the next governor do to boost a state economy that is clearly growing?

Republican Bill Lee and Democrat Karl Dean got to address that question during their Kingsport debate last Tuesday before about 1,400 people at the Toy F. Reid Employee Center at Eastman.

Lee is a Williamson County businessman and cattle farmer. Dean is a former public defender who as Nashville mayor presided over that city’s economic boom beginning in 2012.

Here are their thought on business issues facing Tennessee and Northeast Tennessee.

The regionalism push in Northeast Tennessee

Lee: “I think regionalism is the key to accelerate the transformation of this region … job creation and population growth have lagged in this region relative to areas like Nashville and Chattanooga and Knoxville ... government will not solve the economic woes of any region … the private sector and non-profits, in partnership with government, can do that.”

Dean said that during his mayoral tenure, he formed a Middle Tennessee mayors’ caucus. “Regionalism is the central and key thing to development around our state,” he said. “ … The state has a role to play in that. From my experience as mayor, the county mayors can only go so far to work on cross-county solutions … that doesn’t mean the state pays for everything, but it does mean the state has to make those things work and that includes the planning, design and helping with funding mechanisms.”

Workforce development

Dean: “I think the biggest challenge Tennessee is going to face in the next 10-15 years is going to be workforce development. We’re going to attract the jobs because of our tax structure that is business friendly, but we’ve got to have the people to perform. That means having the best educated college graduates who have technology and vocational education programs. We need to attract the cutting edge businesses of the future … having technology workers is going to be key … young people are going to go where it is friendly, where talent is appreciated.”

Lee: “We do very little in our public education system toward workforce development, particularly for the four out of 10 kids in our state who do not go to college.”

Lee noted he started a trade school within his company 10 years ago. “We need to have that kind of approach in high schools across the state,” he said. “When we have a skilled workforce, we will attract the kind of businesses into this community who will keep the talent here.”

The Ballad Health merger

Dean: “I think the merger was the right idea … when you think about your next health commissioner, the issue to me … is the need for Tennessee to become a healthier state … we’re in the bottom 10 (in health categories) … Virginia has this past year decided to do Medicaid expansion … they’ll be getting far more Medicaid dollars … and doing more for their citizens.”

Lee: “I think the Ballad Health merger has been extremely important to this community … the next governor will work to enforce the certificate (of public advantage) … I think one of the things that’s important about this merger … it’s a change, and that’s what we have to do in health care and that is continuously looking at change … the next health director not only has to be an expert, but innovative and creative in their thinking … Tennessee has some of the brilliant health care minds in the world. We have some of the largest health care companies located in this state. If any state can transform the health care model, we can do that.”

Economic incentives

Lee: “I do think attracting businesses … is really important. We need to do that. I think the way we do that … we especially need to have transparency, at least on the backside of those transactions so Tennessee taxpayers know how much they actually paid for the jobs we brought into this state. Every deal needs to stand on its own … we need to make sure every incentive deal is a good deal for Tennesseans.”

Dean: “I think it always needs to be reviewed. One of the fundamental things you do in government is you need to look at all of the programs and make sure they are working … you ask departments to come in every year … with a cut budget showing where they might cut 5-10 percent … I think we need to be aggressive in economic development. We need to focus our energies on those parts of the state that need help.”

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