Eggs & Issues: Maury County representatives tackle growth, traffic, state budget
Story by Jay Powell – The Daily Herald
Local legislative leaders say they are hopeful for the potential of the region’s progress in 2020, namely within better developing its workforce, education and criminal reform systems.
The annual State Eggs & Issues Breakfast is a chance for city, county and state leaders to gather early on a Friday morning and discuss the State Legislature’s upcoming agenda, all over a plate of gourmet breakfast food. This year’s panel once again included comments by State Reps. Scott Cepicky (R-Columbia), Michael Curcio (R-Dickson) and State Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald).
“We work very hard to make sure we stay close to the elected officials, to the different organizations and the different nonprofits down here so that when there is a need for Maury County, we know about it,” Cepicky said. “You depend on the camaraderie that you build through these different representatives and senators, and that you pool your information to make the best decision possible, and not just for Maury County that I represent, but to the 6.5 million Tennesseans out there.”
Hosted by Maury Chamber & Economic Alliance and the Columbia Breakfast Rotary, the State Eggs & Issues event is one of many “starting points” for local governmental entities to work alongside state leaders in continuing Tennessee and Maury County’s progress, while bringing to light some of its top issues.
These issues range from traffic problems along U.S. Highway 31 and Bear Creek Pike to the county’s educational system, rural developments, health care and criminal offender reform.
Few conversations regarding the county’s growth go without discussing traffic, road projects and how leaders plan to handle the oncoming need for better infrastructure, and how to fund it.
Reducing the number of accidents and fatalities along U.S. Highway 31 between Columbia and Spring Hill was one concern brought up by Friday’s audience. Cepicky said one solution will be the upcoming I-65 interchange at Bear Creek Pike, that also includes widening the road to four lanes.No claims, save money.Ad by Allstate See More
“Roughly 37,000 cars drive north on 31 per day, and only about 11,000 travel east on Bear Creek Pike. There are more opportunities for us to give people access to the interstate, and probably a more safer way if we can get Bear Creek expanded to four lanes, and take some of that pressure off of 31 North,” Cepicky said.
″[Tennessee Highway Patrol] spends a lot of time in Maury County, and they’re here because they are trying to promote safety, but Maury County does have an issue with traffic accidents. They advise people to slow down, wear their seatbelt, stay of their cell phone and just focus on driving. I think if we all take a conscious effort with that … I think we’ll see a less need for those Tennessee Highway Patrol police cars roaming around Maury County, and I think all of our lives will be a little bit safer.”
Cepicky added that the completing the Bear Creek expansion is testament to the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s upcoming I-65 interchange project, because the road needs to be prepared to handle the extra interstate traffic. It will also have an enormous economic potential, as the roads will be used by drivers to get to higher paying jobs, he said.
“I think we’re going to see, with that happening, how important four lanes at Bear Creek is going to be not just for Maury County, but Southern Middle Tennessee,” Cepicky said. “When you start to choke off that one access point, it’s going to put a lot of pressure elsewhere … If we can get Bear Creek four lanes to the interstate, I think we will transform Columbia to even greater heights of economic growth to where our tourism will open up even more and our job opportunities will open up more.”
Criminal justice reform
During last year’s State of the State address, Gov. Bill Lee called for Tennessee to rewrite its sentencing guidelines to confront an inflating prison population.
This included investing more into things like “behavioral health” treatments in jails to help divert more people out, while reducing the inmate recidivism rate and expanding services for inmates released from incarceration.
Curcio, who served on the state’s Criminal Justice Reform Task Force’s Education and Re-entry Workforce Development Sub-Committee, said the goal is to focus more on programs with the potential to truly “rehabilitate” inmates, that it is not about sentencing them to time served, but giving them the opportunity to make a real, lasting change.
Rewriting certain sentencing laws is another part of the project, Curcio said, since much of the recidivism rate tends to be former inmates who violate parole or probation based on certain technicalities.
“This year, we’re going to be laser-focused on some of the sort of ‘shovel-ready’ aspects of this project. The thing that we’re absolutely honing in on this year is the statistic that … we have a 50% recidivism rate, with every two people leaving one of them comes back,” Curcio said. “What we want to do is think long and hard about that, think about how 95% of the folks that are in our state prisons are getting out, and who they are when they get out has just as much to do with the types of programing we allow them to engage in, as it does with their own desire to get better.”
There is also discussion about changing sentencing for certain crimes, such as charging theft of a firearm as a felony. As of now, state law classifies theft of firearms as personal property based on monetary value, similar to other household or personal items. This classification, Curcio said, needs to change because unlike a TV or jewelry, guns are likely to be used on potential victims in future crimes.
“Right now, a theft of a firearm is treated like any other theft, and so it relates to the percentage of value of the object … but it’s very lethal,” Curcio said. “There will be some targeted things like that, as far as a complete overhaul of adult sentencing.”
The Maury County School Board has had its share of setbacks and issues over the last year.
This includes its decision not to renew Maury County Superintendent Dr. Chris Marczak’s contract, as well as issues regarding teacher salary pay and student testing curriculum. Education is a topic discussed each year at State Eggs & Issues, with the state working to create a new curriculum, reevaluating its testing and the types of trade schools it would fund.
Lee’s proposed budget includes $600 million for education, which includes increases in teacher pay, training, as well as a $250 million trust fund focused on mental health in schools. The budget items have not yet been finalized, and Hensley said the $250 million could be used on other projects, since counseling and mental health are already being funded.
“All of those have not been determined yet … but I really think we can use that trust fund money for other projects, because we’re going to be tying up $250 million for mental health issues. We’ve put other money in the budget to pay for more school counselors, because we do see the need for mental health in the schools,” Hensley said. “When the governor proposes a budget, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to approve the budget, and this is one item that I’m not so sure about. I think we can spend this money better on a lot of other things.”
Cepicky and Hensley both sit on the House and Senate’s Education Committees,
With the proposed increase in education funding, Cepicky said he believes there should be a sharper focus taken on early K-3 education. To him, it is the place lifelong habits can be fostered, resulting in higher literacy rates throughout the rest of a student’s schooling.
He is also an advocate for increasing teacher pay, and making sure when the state approves more money for teachers, they better well receive it. Last year, a bill was passed requiring local school boards to report to the General Assembly in June about exactly how its allocated funding is spent.
“The governor allocates money for teacher’s pay year after year, we approve it and the teachers never see it. The intent is for teachers to receive more money, but somewhere between Nashville and the local school boards it gets lost in translation,” Cepicky said.
“We’re trying to close that loop on when we increase the instructional line for our teachers in the budget, we really mean for that to go to teachers’ salaries. We’re losing some of our best teachers to other states, and we have to drill down on this, and make sure teachers are paid appropriately for the work they are doing, and the degrees they have.”
Expanding health care and broadband services to rural communities has been a major topic for years, with one reason being it’s an issue which takes a lot of resources, namely time.
In January, the Unite States Department of Agriculture awarded Maury Regional Health with a $362,087 federal grant to implement tele-health and remote patient technology to rural communities.
Lee’s budget called for more funding for broadband expansion, but the issue was meeting the priority demand in an ideal timeline, which has been slow. Curcio said he has met with several regional electric cooperatives, and admits that progress should be moving at a swifter pace. The problem, he said, is that it can be very expensive work.
“It’s all about uptake, because we all say we want access to broadband, but these companies are going down a country highway wondering how many folks are going to take that service. They’ve got to, obviously, have an adherence to their bottom line,” Curcio said. “As we look at this moving forward, it is right that government commit the resources and fund to this, because the private companies are just not going to be able to get it done in the rural areas.”
Hensley added that $100 million has been proposed for rural expansions, which if approved would see Columbia receive about $450,000, Spring Hill $450,000 and Maury County $650,000.
“I would like to see that increased, because we certainly see the need in local governments for money all the time for different projects. With broadband, we put $25 million in the budget, and have put money in over the last few years, for co-ops to be able to provide broadband, and many of them are.”