Public service keeps Ralph Cole moving forward

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Public service and the completion of several new projects in Carter County and Elizabethton continue to stoke the political fire of incumbent state Rep. Ralph Cole.
   "I've tried to treat everyone equally whether they're rich or poor, black or white," said Cole, 77, who is seeking his seventh term in the 4th District of the state House of Representatives. "My favorite job in office has been helping a constituent who has no one else to help him."
   A member of the House Finance Committee and Budget Subcommittee, Cole said he'd spent years trying to craft a responsible revenue plan with fellow lawmakers. He felt the "Cooper revenue plan" passed by the General Assembly to fund the state in the 2002-2003 fiscal year was "irresponsible."
   "The revenue plan that was passed by the General Assembly was the worst thing that could've been done," said Cole. "The state sales tax was already too high, which results in sending Tennesseans into the eight border states to purchase goods."
   Cole has been taken to task by Republican challenger Jerome Cochran for his support of an income tax.
   However, Cole has maintained that flat tax on personal income coupled with a wide reduction in sales tax would shift the state's tax burden away from low-income and working class families that make up the largest percentage of Carter County.
   "The plan I supported took the sales tax off food, clothes, non-prescription drugs and the Hall income tax," said Cole. "With a flat tax, it transfers the tax burden to the urban rich of Memphis and Nashville.
   "I do not believe it is fair for someone in the Belle Meade section of Nashville earning $170,000 a year to pay only 1 percent of their income in state tax when a person living in Carter County earning $20,000 a year pays 15 percent of their income into state taxes.
   "The new revenue plan is projected to bring in $900 million, but you can write down that Ralph Cole said that because the sales tax is so high, the result will be the revenue plan will bring in only about $700 million," he added.
   "The hole that the next governor is going to be facing will be considerable because of an irresponsible revenue bill that will not fund the services that the people of Tennessee need," Cole added.
   The bill also raised the excise tax from 6 percent to 6.5 percent and upped small business taxes as well, said Cole.
   "In 2003, the state will lose $2.5 million in sales tax to Internet sales because federal laws do not permit sales tax to be collected on those purchases," said Cole. "Tennessee is trying to operate on a 60-year-old, outdated revenue system based on sales tax."
   The state's budget decisions also had placed an undue burden of skyrocketing tuition costs on students attending state universities, added Cole.
   Cole said there were four projects he hoped to see completed if he was elected for another two-year term: Completed construction of the Northern Connector highway project, construction well under way on the Gap Creek Road improvement project, the establishment of a new facility of the Northeast State Technical Community College in Elizabethton, and development of a campground area on state land adjoining Sycamore Shoals State Park.
   He said funding for the construction and right-of-way acquisition of the Northern Connector had been provided and right-of-way acquisition funding for the Gap Creek project was in the Department of Transportation's budget.
   "I've got to stay on top of both of those projects," said Cole. "The Tennessee Board of Regents has approved a new building for Northeast State in Elizabethton.
   "The governor provided $400,000 four years ago to purchase land along the Watauga River and I was successful in getting (Environment and Conservation) Commissioner Milton Hamilton to authorize building a campground. But, the budget was limited and the property remains owned by the state but undeveloped."
   Cole would not say if this would be his final campaign if he wins the nomination and November election, but did say, "I think I can get those four projects in the next two years."
   He also defended the embattled TennCare program citing independent surveys that found the program to be among the most cost-effective state health insurance programs in the nation.
   "Many people don't realize Tennessee had lobbied Washington for six years for TennCare waivers, but those measures were not approved," Cole said. "However, the Bush administration approved those waivers, and TennCare is a much improved system."
   Although not endorsing one particular candidate, Cole felt Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Henry would make an excellent choice for governor.
   "The state is divided now, and Jim Henry is a uniter like Congressman (James) Quillen and Gov. Ned McWherter," he said. "But whoever the next governor is, I'm going to be their friend because that's what is best for the people of Carter County."
   Cole and his wife Dolores have three children. He retired from the automobile dealership business in 1988 and was appointed as state representative by the Carter County Commission in 1990.
   He graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and is a veteran of the U.S. Navy.