Legislators assure local road projects are not in danger

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Plans for major highway projects in Carter County are moving forward, according to two state lawmakers who represent Carter County in the state Legislature.
   "The Northern Connector is on schedule and it will be done," Rep. Jerome Cochran, R-Elizabethton, told members of the Elizabethton/Carter County Chamber of Commerce Friday morning. "The project is not in trouble, and as far as I know, nobody in Nashville is trying to kill it."
   Cochran and state Sen. Dewey "Rusty" Crowe, R-Johnson City, spoke at the chamber's legislative breakfast on Friday morning. The two legislators said all of Carter County's current highway projects are on schedule for completion. Crowe said funding had been approved for the state to purchase properties for right of way of the connector. The Northern Connector, Highway 91, and engineering studies for the Gap Creek Road improvement project have been funded by the state.
   The Northern Connector is a five-mile, five-lane highway project currently planned to extend from near the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post on West Elk Avenue to the Highway 19E and Highway 91 intersection. The highway will cross the Watauga River and include new construction of at least two bridges, including the bridge at Lynn Avenue.
   Construction on the estimated $28 million Northern Connector project is expected to begin next year.
   Crowe also told the chamber he believes the General Assembly is close to reaching a consensus on lottery legislation that would provide scholarships for eligible students to attend either public or private colleges. He added that the legislators did not expect students applying for admission at state-located private colleges such as Milligan and King to bolt for public institutions en masse.
   "We don't want a flight from our private schools to all of our public schools," he said.
   Cochran said House members currently are arguing about the role of a lottery corporation in managing the system's revenue. He also said he would prefer to see more revenue from a lottery allocated back to local schools systems.
   The two lawmakers also told the assembly that Gov. Phil Bredesen's proposed across-the-board cuts in state funding may not be a one-time cut. Cochran warned that the governor plans to use state-shared taxes to help balance his proposed $21 billion budget.
   "This may not be a one-time deal," Cochran said of the budget reductions. He also reiterated his belief that the governor and General Assembly needed to make TennCare reform a top priority rather than an afterthought. Bredesen told the General Assembly on Monday that the administration would begin a wholesale review of the embattled program this summer.
   "I think we are doing everything backwards," he said. "We need to address the TennCare problem now," Cochran said. He added that the state should consider returning to the Medicaid system.
   Crowe also said he believes it is time to scrap TennCare in favor of a new health care program for the needy.
   "We can't print enough money to keep TennCare going at this rate," he said. "We want to take care of the people of this state that can't take care of themselves."
   The two lawmakers also weighed in on Gov. Bredesen's order for most state departments to slash nine percent from their budgets. Crowe and Cochran said they would strongly advocate keeping those revenues coming back to local coffers, but Crowe added that the governor was determined to cut state-shared revenues.
   "The only areas that have been spared from the nine percent cuts have been K-12 education, corrections and mental health," Crowe said. "He's trying to be as fair he can across the board."
   Elizabethton City Manager Charles Stahl has said the city of Elizabethton stands to lose up to $275,000 in state shared revenues and shared revenues from the Hall income tax. Mayor Sam LaPorte said after Thursday night's City Council meeting that the city knew what was coming when the city's budget workshops begin in the coming weeks.
   "Our top priority is to try and not have any cuts in our city labor force," LaPorte said.
   Crowe and Cochran also told chamber members that they were pleased to see funds totaling $1.3 million to cover pay increases for teachers in Carter County. Crowe pointed out a problem with teacher equity revolved around sales tax revenues generated in cities and counties.
   "Where you spend your dollar is where your dollar stays," said Crowe.