Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee wasn’t anywhere near Scott County last week, but a visit by a senior member of his cabinet — and the message carried with that visit — was a promising sign that the governor’s campaign pledge to invest heavily in rural Tennessee is being worked toward.
Labor Commissioner Jeff McCord held a town hall meeting in Huntsville on Tuesday, June 18 — one of a dozen such meetings he is holding across the state. His purpose, he said, was to listen — to local movers and shakers who make things happen from an employment perspective, with a purpose of taking the feedback to Nashville and developing the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development’s strategy going forward.
Not only did McCord show up, but he showed up with an entourage — and not just a bunch of suits intended to make him look more important than he really is, but a van-load of some of his top assistants from within the Department of Labor & Workforce Development. For an hour, they listened — many of them taking notes along the way.
Perhaps the most promising nugget from Tuesday’s town hall is that LWFD is preparing to return unemployment offices to rural counties. While assistant commissioner Rusty Felts, one of those accompanying McCord, said that he couldn’t guarantee full-time staffing at every center in the state, the move will be a reversal of a decision made early in the Haslam administration to close unemployment offices in many rural counties — meaning that people who lost their jobs and wanted to file for unemployment benefits in person had to drive out-of-county to do so.
McCord also touched on another issue that is near and dear to the hearts of economic development professionals in rural communities: incentives that are tailored for those rural areas. When asked by Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals for specifics, McCord said that one area being explored is a multiplier program that would allow an employer creating jobs in a rural area like Oneida or Huntsville to receive more state aid than an employer creating the same number of jobs in an urban area like Nashville. That is a much-needed approach that would help level the playing field between urban and rural Tennessee. Currently, the state offers the same economic development incentives in urban areas as it does in rural areas, which does little to help convince employers to invest in rural communities.
McCord relayed to Scott Countians assembled for last week’s town hall that Gov. Lee has given LWFD a three-pronged directive that will focus the department’s efforts on investment in rural communities, criminal justice reform and technical education.
As a long-shot gubernatorial candidate, Lee pledged last summer to support rural counties. In fact, his first policy plan was focused on rural Tennessee — touching on such issues as job creation, combatting the opioid epidemic, technical education and strengthening communities through faith and family.
It was disappointing to see the governor expend significant political capital and spend the entirety of his first legislative session pushing a school voucher program that would do nothing to positively impact education in rural Tennessee. However, it’s early in the game, and Lee has plenty of time to make good on his campaign promises to the state’s rural communities.
Commissioner McCord’s listening tour is a refreshing reminder of where this administration’s priorities might be directed. Of course, it’s much easier to pay lip service to rural areas than to actually implement policies and ideas that make a positive difference, but if McCord’s department can make good just on the first two changes he highlighted at last week’s town hall, it will be a major shot in the arm for rural Tennessee — a couple of very nice early steps towards leveling the playing field between urban and rural.