BRISTOL, Tenn. — Tennessee Speaker of the House and gubernatorial hopeful Beth Harwell told about a dozen business leaders Friday that it’s critical to keep Tennessee fiscally sound, develop a skilled workforce and find an answer to the opioid crisis.
Harwell, a Republican, held a roundtable discussion at the Bristol Chamber of Commerce. She said that last year the state was one of 11 in the nation with a AAA bond rating — and it also has no debt.
In 2016, Standard and Poor’s upgraded the state’s credit rating from AA+ to AAA, with an outlook of “stable.” The state’s rating with both Fitch and Moody’s has been AAA for several years.
“If we don’t keep our fiscal house in order, nothing else matters,” Harwell said. “Because when finances are in order it frees us up to do a lot of good things.”
Tennessee is the third lowest tax and debt state in the nation and there is no debt on the state’s road projects, which Harwell said “is the best gift Tennesseans can give to their children and grandchildren.”
One of the first things she did as speaker was eliminate the inheritance tax, said Harwell, adding that the move was critical to the needs of small businesses and family farmers.
“Now they can pass those businesses on to their children without penalty,” she said. “And the farmers are the ones who thank us the most.”
Next on Harwell’s critical list was bringing the workforce up to 21st century standards through education.
“We’ve worked hard on putting high standards in place for education and our teachers and school systems have lived up to the challenge,” she said.
Although the state is one of the fastest improving states in the nation where education is concerned, improvements still need to be made, she said.
“Employers across the state are asking for two things,” she said. “Soft skills to be taught in the schools and there needs to be more of a focus on 21st century learning.”
Examples of soft skills are looking people in the eye, showing up on time and dressing appropriately, she said. As for 21st century learning, she said that if an auto mechanic can’t run a computer, he can’t work on today’s cars.
“College is not right for everyone,” Harwell said. “Technical schools are more flexible and can be geared to what the companies coming to Tennessee say they need. The world’s largest ice cream factory is in Covington, Tennessee, and the product is never touched by human hands — all the workers run the computers that do the jobs. The world has changed and we have to get the next generation prepared to be those new type of workers — it’s critical to me as we move forward.”
On the subject of the opioid crisis, Harwell said the state can’t incarcerate its way out of the epidemic. Instead, the legislature needs to think outside the box to come up with a solution, she said.
“Drug courts and faith-based recovery programs have been proven to work,” she said. “And putting someone in a correctional facility for drug use costs about $120,000 a bed a year and a rehab bed costs about $40,000 a year. This is not a problem we got into overnight and it’s not one we can fix overnight. But it’s something the state is going to have to address.”
Lottie Ryans, director of workforce initiatives for the First Tennessee Development District, said she was interested in Harwell’s remarks.
“I appreciated her perspective, both on education and the workforce and the progress that’s been made in Tennessee,” she said. “I was also glad to hear about her commitment to continue the progress for students.”
The election for governor is set for Nov. 6, 2018.