As Williamson County residents prepare to head to the polls Wednesday for early voting, Democratic candidate for the State House of Representatives Jenn Foley spoke with the Home Page about increasing affordable housing, expanding Medicaid and more legislative aspirations.
Foley is challenging Republican incumbent Sam Whitson for his seat in the State House representing District 65 (Franklin and western Williamson), and has campaigned on removing money from politics, expanding access to health care, and funneling more money into public education.
A native of Massachusetts, Foley moved to Nashville in the early 2000s to pursue a PhD at Vanderbilt, and later moved to Spring Hill after starting a family with her husband.
About one in every 10 Tennesseans have no health care coverage or insurance. If elected, what would you do to help ensure more Tennesseans have access to health care?
I think [expanding Medicaid] is an important issue that, honestly, probably doesn't affect most people in Williamson County, but I think it's important that we all consider this in terms of making our state healthier overall and that our neighbors are cared for.
So I would definitely support Medicaid expansion; it would mean that, by some accounts, about 300,000 Tennesseans who currently don't have health care would be covered. When they have that coverage, they're able to get preventative care, cancer screenings, prescriptions for chronic illnesses... if they're [not] getting treatment, [these] become a greater crisis that end up costing the state more.
Also, it will keep our rural hospitals open because they'll be reimbursed for coverage that they usually have to write off. That keeps jobs in those counties that don't have a lot of industries.
My philosophy is that when everyone's doing better, we all do better. To me, it just seems like common sense.
What [not expanding Medicaid] means is that we've been leaving federal dollars on the table - we've been losing out on about $1 billion every year that we've refused.
When the offer first was made during the Obama presidency, the federal government would have funded the expansion by 100% and we wouldn't have had to pay anything, but that was several years ago. It's kind of like a sliding scale, and so each year that we wait, it's going to end up costing a little bit more from our budget.
But I think the overall benefits of having a healthier population... that's a wise investment in our taxpayer dollars. Some studies show [too] that expanding Medicaid actually frees up spending in state budgets, because, for example, treatment programs for mental or behavioral health. [Those] would be covered under Medicaid, so programs that are currently funded by the state would then be funded by federal dollars.
Getting people who have private insurance to care about it is a challenge. They don't see it as a relevant problem in their lives, but our health care costs, our premiums, our deductibles are rising every single year.
Some studies show that the states that have expanded Medicaid have seen a reduction in private insurance costs because the overall risk pool is improved. So I would hope in the next legislative season that there would be some bi-partisan discussion about the feasibility of expanding Medicaid, and if elected, I certainly would side on voting for it.
Given that police and criminal justice reform has been a highly discussed topic as of late, are there any types of these reforms that you support?
I see it as two interrelated issues. One is criminal justice reform to reduce our Tennessee prison population. I've read that our prison population is 10% higher than the national average, which I find just astounding. And then also looking at policing reforms.
So starting with criminal justice reform, that's actually something that Gov. [Bill] Lee was a supporter of when he was running for election, and something that I would support as well.
Some studies that have come out recently show that those higher [prison] populations are stemming from sentencing in East Tennessee in drug related offenses and nonviolent offenses. Some experts looking at the East Tennessee situation say that that's directly related to the opioid crisis.
So again, this ties back to Medicaid expansion and health care in my opinion — if we had more programs that were working on drug addiction counseling, we wouldn't have to be putting people in prison for it.
Regarding education, what would you do if elected to ensure Tennesseans have access to the best education available? Any areas you feel that could use improving in our current education system?
My whole life has been dedicated to achieving a high quality education and wanting to help other people achieve higher education. Education enables and helps people to pursue those goals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and so I think it's one of our greatest ideas and assets.
To me it's just very frustrating that every year, we see budgets cut for the public education system. Raises for teachers - I know Sam Whitson is seen as an advocate for public education because he opposed the voucher system, which is great, he's one of the few Republicans to stand firm on that, but he also votes for the budgets that have cut funding for schools and for teacher raises.
I would definitely fight for more funding - I think the first step is to finally address the BEP (Basic Education Program) formula, and the problems with that. From what I understand, it was created in 2007, and think of all the changes in our educational system since then.
Previous administrations have talked about revising it, Lee has even talked about revising it, but it's just a problem that gets kicked down the road. It's going to only get worse unless we actually tackle it, so I would really push for that.
It's frustrating to me that we have over $1 billion now in the rainy day fund and yet we're starving our public school systems. I think we need to reallocate some of that funding.
Could you name a specific example of how you being sent to the state legislature could better the lives of Williamson County residents?
A lot of Republicans seem to think that Democrats are against the economy, [that] we just want to spend money, but that's not true. We understand that brining businesses to Tennessee helps our economy. But, we need to balance that and make sure that our taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely and [that] everyone is benefiting from them.
So these tax incentives these companies are receiving... let's make sure that some of the working families are also going to benefit from that. For instance, maybe [we] offer better incentives for companies that are willing to build a daycare center within their new facility, or are willing to pay for paid family leave for their employees.
Have a certain percentage of positions that are able to be telecommuting positions so that we have less traffic congestion on our interstates... those are just some of the things I think that we can work together with Republicans who are focused on the economy. There's ways that the economy can be helping working families too.
What issues in particular will you aggressively tackle if elected?
[One] thing that I'm really concerned about is affordable housing, and that's becoming a crisis here in Williamson County. I think the average house cost is $388,000, which for families living on a single income, especially when you look at our teachers, our law enforcement officers, our firefighters, people in our workforce in retail and service, you can't afford to buy a house here.
Many people might not be aware of this, but the Republican-led legislature banned inclusionary zoning in 2018 — [Glen] Casada was the sponsor of the bill in the house, and Whitson voted for it as well. Eric Stuckey, the Franklin city [administrator], he mentioned that the state legislature had taken away one of the tools that the city could use to create more affordable housing.
When people think of affordable housing, they might think of public housing. We're talking about single-family or multi-family units that can support middle class families, so I think we need to address those problems. I don't think our state government should be [stifling] our local governments who want to create ways to help their citizens.
That's something that I would really want to focus on too at the state level.
Why do you feel you would better represent Williamson County in the state legislature than your opponent?
I think I would not necessarily be a better representative, but I would be more representative of the population here in Williamson County. We all know that families of young children who want to attend public schools are what's driving the growth of our population, and we don't have representatives right now who have the same concerns.
Mr. Whitson is retired, his children are grown — he's not in the nitty gritty of funding our public schools and dealing with all of the fundraisers that our public schools have to do to make up their budget shortfalls.
We don't have any female representatives in our legislative body right now from Williamson County, so I think first of all, I would represent the needs of women, children and families more than our current representatives. But also, just looking at my academic background, I think I have the research and analytical skills to really look at legislation carefully and consider the long-term repercussions of the bills that we're going to pass.
I think also being from Spring Hill, I bring a different perspective — all of our legislative members right now are from Franklin and Brentwood, but people who live in Spring Hill and Fairview — especially in the rural areas - experience Williamson County much differently than people who live in Franklin.
So I think it never hurts to have more ideas, different ideas brought to the table. Our House of Representatives is supposed to represent the people — all of the people - and I think we just need a little bit more diversity in that representation.