Guber forum: Harwell and Boyd clash on ECD grants; Fitzhugh criticizes Dean

In a gubernatorial candidate forum Tuesday, House Speaker Beth Harwell promised, if elected, to reject any state-funded financial incentives for businesses moving into Middle Tennessee, reports The Tennessean. Fellow Republican candidate Randy Boyd, a former ECD commissioner, rejected the idea.

On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh criticized his primary opponent, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, on his handling of federal relief funding after a 2010 flood hit the city.

Harwell said that instead of providing state grants to the booming Nashville area, she would as governor focus on providing financial benefits to companies locating in rural areas.

Harwell’s answer came in response to a question about whether the state should do more to help the less populated areas of Tennessee.

The other candidates, which also included Knoxville entrepreneur Randy Boyd and Williamson County businessman Bill Lee — both Republicans — and Fitzhugh and Dean, all agreed rural areas need more help from the state.

Lee said the state’s rural areas are at risk of “losing a way of life” without action by the next governor, while touting a plan he introduced earlier in his campaign.

Fitzhugh said he would like to ask students what it would take to bring younger generations back to Tennessee.

In a follow up interview, Boyd said he completely disagreed with Harwell’s plan to halt incentives for businesses looking to move to Middle Tennessee

“A company that’s looking to open a thousand person office in downtown Nashville isn’t choosing between downtown Nashville and Ripley. They’re choosing between Nashville and Atlanta,” he said. 

Harwell doubled down, saying the state didn’t offer incentives to businesses to come to Nashville while rejecting the notion that such a policy would prevent a company like Alliance Bernstein, which last week announced it was relocating to Nashville, from coming to the Volunteer State.

Harwell said the company decided to come because lawmakers changed the tax code, which she said was different than offering incentives. (The company also is receiving $17.5 million in state incentive money. Previous post HERE.)

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, was the lone top-tier candidate to not attend Tuesday’s forum.

… Among the few differences between Dean and Fitzhugh came when Fitzhugh said he was “shocked” when he read that federal money was used to pay for an outdoor music facility.

“That’s where we lose the public trust,” Fitzhugh said.

Dean said the minority leader was wrong.

“We went through a natural disaster after a great recession and this city came together in a way and perhaps he can’t understand but we got back up on our feet,” Dean said to rare applause from the audience.

Note: The Fitzhugh campaign also sent out a news release on Dean and the flood money. Here it is:

Nashville, TN – At tonight’s televised gubernatorial debate, Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh called on former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean to explain his administration’s decision to divert $7.4 million in federal disaster relief away from 2010 flood victims and toward the construction of the Ascend Amphitheatre in downtown Nashville.

Earlier this month, WSMV (Nashville NBC affiliate) reported on an investigation in to how the Dean administration diverted $7.4 million dollars from the HUD Disaster Relief fund toward the construction of a new downtown amphitheater along the Cumberland River. The WSMV report shared the story of flood victims who never got the help they needed and exposed how the Dean administration diverted millions in disaster relief by apparently misleading Metro Councilmembers about the intended use of the funds.

Official Statement from Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh

“With all due respect, building a riverfront attraction with disaster relief does not fit my definition of fiscal responsibility,” said Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh. “I was disappointed to hear how the Dean administration abandoned flood victims in order to divert over seven million dollars in disaster relief to corporate cronies, contractors and consultants who had cozy relationships with the administration.

“These funds were specifically designated to help 2010 flood victims with down payment assistance, rehab assistance and neighborhood clean-up. 52 counties across West and Middle Tennessee were declared federal disaster areas, including rural areas like Lauderdale County where I am from. There were homeowners who needed help and didn’t get it, people who drained out retirement accounts waiting for help that never arrived.”

“Taxpayers deserve to know their tax dollars are being used as intended, not diverted off to political cronies. As your next governor, I will insist on full transparency when it comes to spending your tax dollars, because I know who pays the bills. You deserve a governor you can trust, plain and simple.”

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