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VOL. 37 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 12, 2013




Legislature’s legacy: Fixing things that ‘aren’t broken’

By Robert Sherborne

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State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh

As the state legislature moves toward completion, state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley) offers his assessment:

“This is no way to govern.”

Fitzhugh, the House minority leader, says the Republican-controlled legislature has needlessly rushed through its business without due deliberation.

“We blew through critical bills,” he says. “We are moving so fast on so many issues we have had no time to vet them.”

With a 69-29 majority in the House, and a 26-7 majority in the Senate, Republicans are intent on changing things, Fitzhugh says. But too often, he adds, “they have been offering solutions in search of problems. We’re changing a lot of things that simply aren’t broken.”

On a wide array of issues, Fitzhugh sees Republicans acting as though the Democrats who ruled the state for decades were “wild-eyed liberals.”

“We’re not,” he says. Democrats placed the state in an enviable financial position before losing power, he adds.

Fitzhugh, who is now in his 19th year as a lawmaker, grew up in a political family. His father and grandfather both served as mayor of Ripley, a small town about 50 miles northeast of Memphis.

As a child, Fitzhugh recalls watching the 1956 Democratic convention that nominated Adlai Stevenson. As a teen, he remembers placing campaign signs for Lyndon Johnson in neighbors’ yards and working as a congressional page for his local congressman.

But Fitzhugh’s foray into elective office did not come until years later. After earning his law degree from the University of Tennessee, he practiced law until 1992, when he became chairman of the Bank of Ripley.

Two years later, Fitzhugh ran for the state House, and won.

State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh (D)

Represents: District 82 – Lauderdale, Crockett and Haywood counties, including the towns of Brownsville and Ripley

First elected to the General Assembly: 1995

Personal: Born in 1950, Rep. Fitzhugh is married (wife Pam) and has two children. He is a Baptist and works as a banker/lawyer. He obtained his B.S. in finance, as well as his J.D, from the University of Tennessee. 

Contact: (615)741-2134, rep.craig.fitzhugh@capitol.tn.gov

In the following years, he says, he focused his attention on the state’s finances and education issues. He was elected Democratic leader of the House three years ago.

As a businessman, Fitzhugh says, he firmly believes in profits. But, he says, lawmakers “also have to consider the effect on people.”

“You don’t just lob a grenade.”

Take the state’s retirement plan, Fitzhugh says. The plan showed “slim returns on investments for three or four years” because of the recession, he says. But, Fitzhugh believes the plan is fundamentally sound and changing it now is premature.

Yet, the Republican majority wants state employees and teachers who participate in the plan to pay more and get less.

“This will hurt the quality of the workforce” in the years ahead, Fitzhugh predicts, as fewer highly qualified people seek jobs as teachers or state employees.

Or, he says, take workers compensation, an insurance plan funded by businesses that provides financial assistance to workers injured on the job.

Republicans want to pay these workers less and move disputed claims out of the courts and into a new administrative framework. Republicans say these changes are needed to make Tennessee business costs more competitive with surrounding states.

But, Fitzhugh says, the Republican proposal does not consider Tennessee’s higher medical costs, which are the underlying cause of the higher rates.

Instead, he says, “it sets up a new bureaucracy. It’s growing government when it doesn’t need to grow it.”

Or, Fitzhugh says, take online education. Republican lawmakers are supporting a plan to team the state with an online university based in Utah. The goal is to boost the number of Tennesseans with a college degree. It will cost the state $5 million.

Fitzhugh lauds the goal. But, why, he wonders, were Tennessee universities not allowed to bid on the proposal.

Any number of state schools might be interested in developing such an online program, Fitzhugh says. If they could put together a competitive program, it would keep the money and jobs in Tennessee.

But they weren’t offered a chance to bid.

“It’s a slap in the face” to every Tennessee university, Fitzhugh says. “I think it’s a very bad precedent to set.”

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