The Republican candidate for governor spent her free time Wednesday visiting local officials and businessmen at the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce, where she fielded questions and discussed an array of governmental issues.
Although she ultimately voted for it, Harwell did oppose some parts of the IMPROVE Act when it was first introduced, and she is still concerned about some parts of Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature legislation today.
For one, Harwell thinks expediting the phase-out of the Hall Income Tax was unfair to some municipalities and local governments, especially in her district.
“By speeding that up, I thought it was unfair to a lot of the cities I represent. And I voiced that to the governor. He disagreed,” Harwell said. “So ultimately he won, but I do think we need to maybe go back in and evaluate how we're phasing that out.”
She also said the reduction of the grocery tax cut into the state’s most reliable source of income.
“I thought that was taking money away from our general fund. That's OK to do when times are good, which we're in good times now. When times aren't so good, you really rely on that sales tax of food. It's the most reliable source of income coming into the state,” Harwell said.
“I’ll tell you once you do away with a tax, especially like a food tax, you will never get it back.”
Increasing the gas tax was also not favored by Harwell, who said she would have looked for another dedicated source of revenue to fund the state’s infrastructure needs. One example, she provided, was increasing the sales tax on new cars.
While the income from the gasoline tax increased 8 percent over the last seven years, Harwell said sales tax collections on cars is actually up around 29 percent during the same period.
“That was an alternative that we put forward in the House. It was defeated. So at the end of the day, I don't feel like we could ever be like Congress. You don't sit on your hands (and say) 'I didn't get my way, therefore I'm not doing anything,’” Harwell said.
“You come to the table and you compromise. Compromise is not a dirty word in the political arena. It's the only way you ever get anything done.”
School Funding Disparity
As of late, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge has harped on the funding disparity between county and city schools.
At Wednesday’s roundtable, Assistant Director of Washington County Schools Bill Flanary asked Harwell if she believes the legislature will address it during the upcoming session.
“(Funding disparity) is an ongoing struggle and battle in the legislature. Let me tell you that there are six counties that actually pay more into the state than they get out, and they are the high-growth areas. So I hear constantly from Sevier, Williamson and some of the others,” Harwell said.
The House speaker ultimately said school funding is a balancing act, due to the extra resources needed in heavily populated urban school systems.
Medical Cannabis Legalization
Before leaving town, Harwell commended the work completed by the Joint Ad Hoc Committee on Medical Cannabis, a task force she appointed in August to study the feasibility of legalization.
Last week, that task force met for the final time and co-chairman Rep. Jeremy Faison teased that he will soon release legislation for the upcoming session that would legalize cannabis for patients with certain ailments.
“I think it’s going to be a realistic proposal,” Harwell said.
“I’m waiting to see (the bill) myself, but as I’ve said before, I think there is some merit if its well-regulated (and) very restricted for medical marijuana. So I’m open to what they came up with.”
So far, Harwell is the only Republican candidate for governor to say she was “open” to legalizing medical marijuana.