› Randy Boyd, R
› Karl Dean, D
› Craig Fitzhugh, D
› Bill Lee, R
› Kay White, R
NASHVILLE — Tennessee gubernatorial candidates generally agreed at a Nashville forum on Thursday to promote greater openness in state government, but differences arose over their views on state lawmakers' tendency to wade into local government affairs, as well as their stances on a West Tennessee industrial mega site.
The event was sponsored by the Tennessee Press Association, along with various watchdog or public policy groups from across the political spectrum, including the Beacon Center, a free-market think tank, and the American Civil Liberties Union Tennessee.
Participants included three of the five Republican candidates, Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd, Williamson County businessman Bill Lee and Kay White, a Johnson City Realtor. Both Democratic candidates, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley also took part.
All are running this year to replace term-limited Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican.
Boyd said in response to questions posed about government openness and accountability by Memphis Daily News Publisher and CEO Eric Barnes that as an entrepreneur and later during a two-year stint as commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, he worked to "tear down walls" that compartmentalized information.
He intends to take a similar approach to "make Tennessee the most transparent state in the country," the candidate said.
"We're here for the people," Boyd said. "The best way we can empower them as better citizens is to share information, and so that's what we intend to do."
Lee said said the public's distrust of government can be traced, in part, to issues like openness.
"Taxpayers of Tennessee deserve transparency," he said. "I would be deeply committed to transparency at every level of government. I think that one of the challenges that we face is people don't trust the government and part of the reason they don't is because we don't have access and transparency to the degree that we should."
Earlier this week, the state Comptroller's Office of Open Records Counsel released a report showing the number of exemptions in the Tennessee Public Records Act soared five-fold over the past 30 years to 538.
In response to a question about cities' and towns' complaints about the General Assembly's propensity to wade into their operations on issues like guns in public parks, removal of Confederate statues and education, Fitzhugh said, "I believe in local control" and put the blame on the Republican-run Legislature.
"It seemed to me that for many years, the Republican view was the best government was at the local level, but here recently at the Legislature, the majority party has taken it upon themselves to sort of get into cities' business and counties' business on various things. I think they had it right the first time."
Dean took a more nuanced view. Calling the education issue "complicated," Dean noted the state is a major funder of education and has numerous laws and regulations. The general rule, he said, is that local government "should follow the laws and rules of the state when it comes to education."
While Nashville mayor, Dean, a charter school supporter, backed Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's move to withhold $3.4 million from Metro Nashville Public Schools following its rejection of a charter school proposal.
But Dean was more critical over state lawmakers wading into the guns-in-parks issue, saying while he backs the First Amendment, the original law left the issue to decisions by local governments.
That flexibility was later taken away. Dean said that while lawmakers "probably" had the ability to do that, "the issue there to me is judgment, reason and being practical. Why take that away? It's always a balance."
Boyd later said as governor that his first question on such issues will be "Can the local community make this decision for themselves? If they can, then they should." Calling it "very ironic" that some local governments have hired lobbyists to press their cases at the state Capitol, Boyd said as governor he would create a deputy to be the "eyes and ears of local government."
White, a self-described "Christian Constitutional conservative" participating in her first forum, alluded to the number of wealthy candidates running in the GOP primary, noting, "an election can be won without millions of dollars."
She declared that if she were a multi-millionaire, she would "spend millions helping others."
In her campaign disclosure on Tuesday, White reported she had $458.08 in her campaign account.
Both Boyd, Lee and two GOP hopefuls absent from the debate, state House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., have all put at least $1 million of their own money into the contest.
The still-unfinished massive Memphis mega site industrial site also came up with Boyd and Lee taking different stances. The state still needs to put up about $70 million and Haslam, a Republican, is recommending using some $30 million in bonds for additional work.
Boyd, who spent two years as the state's chief economic recruiter, said the 4,000-acre site near Jackson will be the "best site in the entire U.S." and will be "worth the investment" when completed because of the estimated primary and ancillary jobs that could be produced with a major manufacturer.
Lee called the mega site a "great disappointment," because it wasn't ready when Toyota-Mazda was locating a massive new plant that ultimately went to Mississippi.
"We can have 10,000 jobs there, but we don't have a work force that's prepared for those jobs," Lee said.
Neither Harwell nor Black took part in the debate, with Harwell citing her duties in presiding over the House Thursdaymorning. Black's campaign said the candidate was in Memphis for a "long-planned" visit to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis to commemorate the 1968 deaths of two black sanitation workers that spurred Martin Luther King Jr.'s fatal visit to the city.
This story was updated Feb. 1, 2018, at 9:06 p.m.