Gubernatorial hopeful visits town

By Stephen S. Glass
Star Staff

   Republican gubernatorial hopeful Jim Henry paid a second visit to local politicians Thursday in an effort to garner support for his upcoming campaign. Though Henry has yet to officially declare his candidacy for the governor's office, he feels he has begun to gain the backing necessary to give fellow candidates a run for their money when the time comes.
   While in Elizabethton, Henry spoke to the Star about the upcoming race, his chances of winning, and the "big issues" he believes the state now faces -- budget shortfalls, TennCare reform, and the influence of federal courts over state government.
   With talk in Nashville of legislators calling for a special session later in the year in an attempt to shore up a growing budget deficit -- possibly by making another pass at an income tax -- Henry declined to say whether or not he believed an income tax would be the best solution to the problem.
   "An income tax is certainly one solution, but I don't feel I have enough information right now to make that call," said Henry. "All I know is what I've read in the papers. But I will say this: When I was last here in Elizabethton, we were all talking about whether or not there was a [revenue] problem. Now we're all just wondering how big the problem really is."
   Earlier in the week, State Finance Commissioner Warren Neel announced that Tennessee is facing a shortfall of as much as $300 million this year. Neel estimated that the shortfall could be as large as $1 billion by next year if legislators don't do something by way of revenue reform.
   With division in Nashville between the house and senate, Henry said he believes Senate leaders like Minority Leader Ben Atchley are the "key to getting something done." A past opponent of the income tax, Atchley, along with a handful of other senators and Lt. Governor John Wilder, has been working this week on a compromise plan the group hopes will eventually pass muster in both the Senate and the House. The group's proposal is purported to include a 3.5 percent flat-rate income tax.
   "I think everyone in Nashville knows right now that they have two choices -- either increase revenue somehow or make tremendous cuts in services. It's a matter of one or the other," Henry said.
   When asked what he believes to be the root cause of Tennessee's budget woes, Henry cited the state's TennCare program and "interference" from the federal courts.
   "We're losing control of state government to the federal courts," Henry said.
   "We need to be doing a better job of balancing services and revenue before the courts have the chance or the need to get involved."
   Henry said that the courts had delayed much-needed TennCare reforms by freezing enrollments even as legislators sought to trim down the program.
   "I am not against TennCare," said Henry. "TennCare is a good program. The problem is that it's too good."
   Henry said that TennCare recipients now have better access to health care than those who are able to purchase insurance privately.
   "I don't believe that's right," said Henry. "TennCare should offer the same type of benefits you or I can afford. It's too expensive otherwise."
   A former senate majority leader, Henry has been "out of politics" for the past 12 years. However, he says he has spent that time honing business skills that could prove useful in the governor's office. His own business spans two states and employs 700 workers.
   "I don't see much difference between the responsibilities of the governor and those of a CEO," said Henry. "A good CEO knows how to work with people to get things done, and he knows when to make changes. I've had to restructure my own business twice in the past few years to keep up with market conditions. That's what I think government should be like."
   Though he has yet to go public, Henry says he believes his chances of making a showing in next year's election are already much better than when he first began talking about running.
   "I'm still out meeting people, though. I'm still working on building a good base of support."