David Plazas Nashville Tennessean
Published 10:00 p.m. UTC Aug 3, 2018
The August primary election is behind us now and Tennesseans have narrowed their choices for senator, governor, and federal and state legislators.
The general election candidates may be tempted to pick wedge issues to drive their turnout.
However, if they are really committed to public service and the greater good, they should address those things that affect Tennesseans’ daily lives.
They should also be able to explain to voters how they can and will do something about it.
Issues like immigration have dominated news coverage, and a June Gallup showed Americans consider immigration the No. 1 problem facing America.
However, remember, the U.S.-Mexico border is 1,000 miles from Nashville.
That is why the people running to lead Tennesseans ought to focus on the critical issues closest to home.
Here are a few topics for candidates to consider:
Fight against tariffs and for business growth
Our leaders need to ensure that Tennessee’s economy stays strong.
That means ensuring access to jobs, a climate that will be inviting to business relocations and opportunities to benefit from a global economy.
Bipartisan groups of elected officials agree President Trump’s tariff policy is detrimental to segments of our economy, like Tennessee farmers or auto manufacturers.
Agricultural production generates more than $3 billion annually, per the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.
Eighty-seven of Tennessee’s 95 counties have auto operations. Nearly 1,000 auto suppliers are in the state and 135,000 Tennesseans work in the industry. Exports approach $6 billion annually.
Our leaders must also finally make progress on the Memphis Regional Megasite.
Another important factor for leaders to consider is Tennessee’s environment, its rivers, mountains and green spaces, which make it such an attractive tourism destination. This is also good for the health of the economy, residents and visitors.
Reverse trend of record number of rural hospital closures
Nashville is the private hospital capital of the United States, but Tennessee has some of the worst health outcomes in the nation.
In fact, Tennessean children are now the heaviest in the nation.
Tennessee also has the second highest level of prescriptions per capita in the nation, and the fatalities from overdoses grow every year.
Earlier this year, the Tennessee General Assembly passed Gov. Bill Haslam’s $30 million investment in opioid regulation, law enforcement and treatment.
It is a good step, but that only starts to address the scope of the problem.
In 2017, President Trump declared an opioid emergency, and our members of Congress need to make sure Tennessee is getting the money and assistance to address this crisis.
Another emergency is that Tennessee now has the highest per capita rate of rural hospital closures in the country.
McKenzie Regional Hospital near Jackson will become the latest casualty.
Tennessee legislators have refused to expand Medicaid in the state, but they have pursued no other alternatives to this problem, and our vulnerable residents need access to quality health care.
Build upon foundation of education innovation
Despite excellent schools across the state like University of Tennessee Knoxville, Vanderbilt University and University of Memphis, too few Tennesseans have a degree to place them in the jobs of today and tomorrow, which require more skills and training.
We are making progress through programs like the Tennessee Promise, Tennessee Reconnect, and the Drive to 55, which make a community college or technical school education virtually free. College graduation and participation rates are rising, but there is still a long way to go.
However, the disparities between low-income and higher income students create barriers to access.
While Haslam has increased teacher pay and investments in public schools, local districts say it is not enough, which is why Metro Nashville Public Schools joined a lawsuit with Shelby County schools to sue for more money.
Invest in infrastructure for more growth to come
A landmark success for the Haslam administration was getting the bipartisan IMPROVE Act passed, which raised the gas tax and is building needed road projects in the state.
That will help address the backlog, but there are future needs.
As Tennessee as a whole continues to grow in population – at a rate of about 0.86 percent a year, residents and businesses need to build infrastructure to deal with that growth.
Investments in roadways, transit, sidewalks and communities will go a long way.
Full circle to immigration
While immigration was identified as the top concern for Americans in the Gallup poll, it is worth reminding candidates that foreign-born residents make up 5 percent of the state population. Moreover, they represent 6 percent of the workforce.
They are overrepresented in several job sectors like construction, agriculture and technology, according to the Partnership for A New American Economy.
They are not our enemies. They are neighbors in our urban centers and our rural towns.
Our leaders will do a great service if they model behavior that unites residents and encourages them to respect each other.
We need leaders for all of Tennessee not just pockets of the state.
Opinion and Engagement Editor David Plazas wrote this editorial on behalf of the USA TODAY NETWORK Tennessee.
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