“What’s right with America?” the 24th Legislative District lawmaker asked rhetorically in a recent luncheon of the civic club. “Tennessee is what’s right with America.”
Earlier in his remarks, the veteran legislator — who was sent to Nashville by Cleveland area voters in 2006 — conceded his Tennessee views don’t always gel with those of his Washington, D.C., counterparts.
“I might not be the best person to speak on what’s right with America as a nation,” he said. But one of the country’s strengths, he added, is its people and its founding legacy.
“... As a nation, we are one nation under God,” and the state legislator honed in on this point from a Tennessean’s perspective throughout his brief address.
“I can tell you a lot about what’s right in Southeast Tennessee,” Brooks stressed. “God has blessed us and continues to bless us ... better roads and better bridges are just the beginning.”
He pointed to a recent report by the Tennessee Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations that showed in 2012 the Cleveland Metropolitan Statistical Area — comprised of Bradley and Polk counties — led the state’s 10 MSAs in strongest job growth.
For the year, according to the TACIR findings, Cleveland employment grew by 5.6 percent compared to 1.4 percent statewide. TACIR is a state agency that serves as a forum for discussion and resolution of problems among various levels of local and state government. Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland serves as the organization’s vice president.
Again alluding to the state’s strengths, Brooks pointed to Tennessee’s recent designation in a new analysis published by U.S. News & World Report as the nation’s top state for retirement. Consumer finance site Bankrate.com compiled the list. Data considerations that went into the findings — that is, amenities that are often attractive to senior citizens — included climate, tax rates, cost of living, access to health care and crime rates.
Tennessee, which years ago was ranked among the worst in the nation for retirees, now leads the retirement pack. Rounding out the Top 10, according to the Bankrate analysis, are Louisiana, South Dakota, Kentucky, Mississippi, Virginia, West Virginia, Alabama, Nebraska and North Dakota.
The South and the upper Midwest dominated the list of favorites.
Traditional retirement hot spots like Arizona, California and Florida plummeted. Their Bankrate rankings respectively were 33rd, 48th and 19th.
Brooks linked Tennessee’s top ranking to the state’s focus on lowering, or altogether eliminating, certain taxes. In the recently completed session of the 108th General Assembly, state legislators enacted Senate Joint Resolution 1 which specifies that the Legislature, as well as counties and cities across the state, will be prohibited from passing an income tax on Tennessee residents.
Legislators also took action to reduce the state sales tax on groceries from 5.25 percent to a flat 5 percent mark. The bill, recently signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, is expected to save Tennessee taxpayers about $25 million.
State lawmakers are also continuing work to completely phase out Tennessee’s so-called death tax by 2016. According to published summaries of General Assembly actions, the Legislature’s Republican “super-majority” argues the death tax “... breaks up family farms and small businesses, forcing families to make tough decisions during what is often the most difficult times in their lives: the passing of a loved one.”
Proponents of phasing out the death tax say Tennessee families are “... faced with selling off parts of farms and land or closing a small, family-owned business in order to pay the tax bill.” The full repeal of the death tax is expected to represent a $94.6 million tax cut, according to published reports out of Nashville.
Brooks supported each of these tax reductions or eliminations. He told Cleveland Lions Club members he held similar views on the Hall income tax — imposed on income derived from interest on bonds, notes and stock dividends — which generates about $186 million used to help local city and county governments. However, because of the cuts’ negative impact on local governments, Brooks could not see the bill through to its maximum. State legislators will further work the Hall income tax in future sessions.
Brooks defended his decision to back off the Hall income tax for now by quoting a former colleague, Dewayne Bunch, a Cleveland Republican who served as state representative and senator, who once advised the 24th Legislative District representative to “Do no harm” while serving in Nashville.
“You don’t want to hurt jobs, you don’t want to hurt your constituents ... you don’t want to hurt Tennesseans’ income,” Brooks said. “As it is in now, I could not run that bill (Hall income tax) because it would have done great harm [to local governments, including Cleveland and Bradley County].”
Describing himself as “never politically correct,” a feature for which he is identified by those who know him best, Brooks told Lions members, “I am unapologetically a man of faith.” He said his legislative service to Tennessee residents is made possible by his employer — the Church of God International Offices — which allows him to split his time between his Cleveland-based duties and his Nashville responsibilities.
For the past couple of legislative sessions, Brooks has served as assistant majority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives. One of the position’s roles is to serve as direct liaison between the state House and the governor’s office. The duties have given him the chance to work closely with Haslam and his administration.
He referred to the governor using a code name, “RD.”
“It stands for Real Deal,” Brooks said. “That’s what his staff and I refer to him as because he is the Real Deal. I can’t tell you how astonishing it is to serve under such a governor. He makes decisions that are right ... and that are not politically correct. Sometimes they’re not too popular, but he does it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Brooks also praised the work of Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, who he said committed to wrapping up legislative sessions earlier. In past years, legislators have still been on the job in Nashville in May and June, and one year it extended into July, Brooks said. This year, Harwell pounded the gavel to close the House session on April 19.
“It is wonderful to be part of an effective Legislature in an effective state that has good, godly men and women,” Brooks said.
Tennessee is also what’s right with America because of companies like Whirlpool, Wacker, Amazon and Volkswagen that have chosen to make their homes here, Brooks said.
He also pointed to last week’s actions in Nashville by Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer who signed the awarding of two major road projects in Bradley County that have led the way in local headlines for the past year and beyond.
Long-sought improvements to the Interstate 75 Exit 20 interchange — one of the state’s latest so-called “malfunction junctions” — were given their biggest boost yet when the TDOT leader awarded a $12 million contract to Simpson Construction Co. of Cleveland. Work is expected to begin within the next few weeks, and Brooks is elated.
The project will include the rebuilding of the APD 40 bridge across the interstate.
“It will be six lanes across ... bigger than the Hamilton Place bridge,” Brooks told Lions. “It will be phenomenal. I am so excited.”
The TDOT commissioner’s authorizing signature also included the widening of the growingly congested Durkee Road between Highway 64 and Benton Pike. The narrow connector road has become even busier with the opening of the Whirlpool Cleveland Division manufacturing plant and Factory Distribution Center near the junction of Benton Pike and Michigan Avenue Road.
In a brief Q&A, Brooks fielded a question that is often the centerpiece of discussion in describing the relationship between the states and Washington, D.C.
A Lions Club member asked if states could combine their respective strengths as leverage in forcing congressional leaders to operate in a more fiscally responsible manner; that is, to balance the federal budget and to require it consistently by way of a constitutional amendment.
“We (states) continue to send our resolutions to Washington urging them to balance the budget ... to add a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget,” Brooks replied. He admitted, “ ... but it’s difficult.”
The reason is because by their very nature constitutional amendments are difficult ... because they involve the Constitution, Brooks explained. He used a Tennessee example: House Joint Resolution 126 which, if enacted, would make abortions illegal in Tennessee. HJR 126 has been debated for seven years without a resolution yet, he said. That’s because it involves a constitutional amendment, Brooks noted.
Of America’s, and Tennessee’s, frustrations at the growing federal deficit, the Cleveland legislator called on individual citizens to join the cause in getting the message to Washington.
He said spending habits in the nation’s capitol won’t change, “Until Clevelanders ... then blow that up to Tennesseans ... then blow that up to Americans, realize the importance of their participation — not just at the ballot box but lending your voice, letting them hear from you.”
Brooks added, “They need to know that you are fed up with the status quo ... that we will no longer accept that as an excuse.”
Although the state legislator’s message sometimes veered from “What’s Right With America,” Brooks pointed to the irony: that it is Americans’ frustration, and their right to voice themselves, that is a strength to this country.
“Americans are fed up,” he acknowledged. “I hear it. It’s astonishing how many people stop me [to voice their concerns].”
Yet, in an odd twist, the right to vent and the ability to demand better from government leaders is “What’s Right With America,” he suggested.
But defining that right starts with the individual whether it’s in Cleveland, Nashville or any corner of the United States ... or in Washington, D.C., Brooks stressed.
Paralleling his role as state legislator to a postal carrier, Brooks said he once told a young student in an area school in answer to her question about his state lawmaking job, “I take your letters, your notes and your phone calls, and I deliver them to Nashville.”
The same is done at the national level by U.S. Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, and U.S. Reps. Chuck Fleischmann and Scott DesJarlais, Brooks said. But before they can understand the message of their constituents, they must receive the same kinds of letters, notes and phone calls that state lawmakers receive, Brooks stressed.
And when this happens, and provided it happens consistently, then that’s “What’s Right With America,” he suggested.