Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, January 20, 2017

Watson takes reins of powerful committee

State Sen. Bo Watson isn’t taking on the post of Senate Budget & Finance chairman wet behind the ears. He knows the panel holds awesome power.

“That is the area where you have to say no to members on their budget amendments, and I think the committee will continue to treat members respectfully. We’ll continue to treat all bills respectfully,” the Hixson Republican says. “But at the end of the day the committee’s ultimate responsibility is to maintain the financial strength and stability of the state’s treasury, and I think we will do that regardless of the legislation, regardless of the member.”

Watson, who served the previous two years as speaker pro tempore under former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, netted the budget leadership position from new Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who previously chaired the budget committee.

In a decade on the finance committee, he notes he had “great mentors” in McNally and former Democratic Sen. Douglas Henry, now chairman emeritus of the panel, in addition to serving as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Appropriations for the last few years.

In other words, he’s not inexperienced when it comes to leading the committee where bills go to live or die.

“Our responsibility is above the member, it’s to the institution, and we’ll continue to maintain the tradition,” Watson says. He adds that senators largely understand the budget process and as long as they’re treated with respect they can accept defeat when budget requests fail.

Gassed up

Watson is prepared for a “robust debate” on a proposed fuel-tax increase expected to be proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam to put a dent in a $6 billion backlog of road and bridge projects.

It’s expected to be one of the hottest topics during the 110th session of the General Assembly, and though Watson says his district in Hamilton County has seen numerous road projects over the last six to eight years, including the $126.3 million U.S. Highway 27 widening, growth always demands more.

The greatest “outcry” is coming from northern Hamilton County where people want a bridge over the Tennessee River to connect Soddy-Daisy to Ooltewah, according to Watson. It isn’t high on the Tennessee Department of Transportation priority list, but it’s his district’s “biggest need.”

In addition, Watson is working to create a transportation corridor between I-75 and a McKee Foods plant that is “making great progress” but needs another section and could benefit from “enhanced funding for transportation.”

The newest improvements run from I-75 to Ooltewah Ringgold Road and the next phase to a Little Debbie plant in Collegedale, then on to Apison Pike until it connects with East Brainerd Road. The work would create a loop that comes out on I-75 at the Volkswagen exit, he says.

Ooltewah Ringgold Road and Apison are being loaded with “residential growth, not business growth,” Watson points out. “I think when you open up that Apison Pike corridor, that’s gonna blow up, and that’s going to carry over into Bradley County right next door.”

Seat-belt bills

Legislation expected from Chattanooga Reps. Gerald McCormick and Joanne Favors requiring seat belts on school buses in the wake of the crash that killed six children will face financial questions as well, Watson says. Neither House member has filed a bill yet.

Police have said bus driver Johnthony Walker was driving 50 mph in a 30-mph zone and was using a cell phone, which is prohibited, when the crash occurred. Walker is charged with vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving in connection with the deadly crash.

Meanwhile, Hamilton County School Board is trying to decide how to handle the matter of seat belts on buses and other safety aspects of transportation. The school system contracts with Durham School Services and several independent contractors for bus service.

Watson points out the recent crash “raises the debate to another level” after several years of discussion on seat-belt safety in the General Assembly.

Still, he says, “There is a cost the Legislature has to consider for that, not just in light of state costs, but what does that do at the local level. So I think there’s going to be a lot of dialogue between local governments, local boards of education that have to fund some of this and the state and what can the state do to help with that.”

The technical aspect of whether seat belts improve safety on school buses is another factor, he says. The National Transportation Safety Board has changed its tune of late and says seat belts on buses would save children’s lives.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.