The White House Area Chamber of Commerce kicked off the new year by hosting State Senator Ferrell Haile as the keynote speaker at its January luncheon last week.
With a host of local officials and business leaders on hand at the Billy S. Hobbs Community Center, Haile provided insight into what the Tennessee General Assembly will be working on in their upcoming legislative session.
“There is a lot of heavy stuff about to come before us in the General Assembly this year,” Haile said. “I thought you might enjoy hearing about that, and I feel like it will generate some additional conversation.”
One of the top priorities Haile hopes to address in the coming year is relieving interstate traffic congestion across the state, especially around large urban areas. He stated that based on Tennessee’s growing population, with the current number of interstate lanes, congestion statewide could more than double by 2045.
However, according to Haile, the state will need up to $26 billion to address the congestion. The annual budget for the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) is roughly $1.2 billion, with only $500 million of that new money.
“The difference here is the repavement of roads that takes place across the state,” Haile said. “You’ve got to maintain what you have, but it doesn’t leave much to build on when you’ve got this kind of need.”
Additionally, another issue concerning traffic is the lengthy amount of time it takes for new roads to be built. Pre-construction phases can typically take up to 10 years, with another five years to build, depending on the size of the project.
Several of the options the state has to raise money include imposing a gas tax, installing toll roads, reducing bridge and road maintenance, or using a disproportionate amount of funds for city areas at the expense of rural counties, none of which Haile is in favor of, along with a majority of Tennessee residents.
To avoid these options, the solution that Haile proposed consists of public-private partnerships to build new lanes on congested highways. These new laws would be considered “managed lanes” that drivers can access for a certain fee.
Governor Bill Lee recently invited Haile to make a trip to Texas to meet with state officials there, who have implemented similar managed lanes on their interstates.
“This is what the folks are using in Texas, which I find really interesting. It’s not a toll booth. You don’t throw money into it. They get your address off your license plate and send you a bill, and you’re obligated to pay that.”
Haile says the objective is to get roads on the books and built after a contract is signed within five years. He also pointed out that drivers will not lose any current lanes in any of their proposals. It will never be required to use these toll lanes, and the rest will continue to be free.
A second priority for Haile this session will be improving foster care and adoption, with over 9,000 children in Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) in the state.
“I’m an adoptive parent, and it’s been a passion of mine for a number of years. We’ve spent an enormous amount of time looking at that. What we want to do is make adoption faster, easier, and cheaper, and we think that we can do that.”
Haile believes that churches can play a more active role in the future regarding this issue. He mentioned that this year’s upcoming Tennessee Prayer Breakfast, hosted at David Lipscomb University in March, will be focused on adoption and foster care, as will similar prayer breakfasts across the state.
“We’re going to have a four-week sermon series that goes out to pastors and preachers from the different churches that attend these breakfasts, and hopefully we can grow these foster homes,” Haile said.
The senator is also working to create tiered age groups for foster children, allowing for a family’s preference to take in a child, as well as giving foster parents more of a say in court with what takes place in the future of a child’s life once they leave a foster home.
In addition, last year Haile carried a budget amendment to increase the salaries of DCS caseworkers. With a current 26% vacancy rate in open caseworker positions, he hopes that a pay bump can reduce turnover and allow for better trained staff.
“The commissioner, in her budget, requested this, and I’m meeting with her tomorrow to increase those salaries,” Haile said. “These case workers have got to be trained. They have a 50% turnover rate of new case workers, and that’s because of lack of training, which takes time. So, our problem is not going to go away today or tomorrow, but we’re going to work on it as best we can.”
A third issue the General Assembly will be looking at this year are statewide laws regarding abortion, after the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case last June overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade case and reverted abortion laws back to the states.
Haile was a co-sponsor of a trigger law signed last year, which was set to automatically take affect once Roe v. Wade no longer applied. However, he says there is currently a conflict in the courts between that trigger bill and the state’s heartbeat bill, which makes it illegal to abort an unborn child who has a heartbeat.
If the issues between these two bills are not resolved, Haile says the courts will most likely throw out the trigger bill, forcing the legislature to start from scratch on drafting new legislation.
However, despite being a co-sponsor of both the trigger and heartbeat bills, Haile did come out in favor of exceptions for abortion in certain instances, including if the life of the mother is threatened due to complications with her pregnancy.
“We also need to ensure that we protect and save the mother’s life. You can’t have a physician thinking ‘Am I going to be sued for this? What are the legal ramifications?’ We cannot do that to our physicians, to our mothers, and to our society. So, we are going to address that.”
Haile is also supportive of exceptions for victims of rape, especially among young girls, an issue which has continued to receive bipartisan support.
“I’ve always been pro-life, and I’ve always been anti-abortion, but I’m more pro-life than I am anti-abortion,” Haile said. “I have my personal opinions on what I think this leads to, but I want to protect life as best I can. Therefore, I will be a sponsor on the trigger bill. But life is important for those that have been born also. And so, for example, a 13-year-old girl that’s been raped, do we not need to show some mercy and kindness in a gray area we may not have absolute answers for? That’s where I’m coming from.”