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Lee, Dean Talk Medical Marijuana, Raising the Gas Tax — and Health Care Once Again

Tennessee’s candidates for governor took the stage Friday night for the last time before Election Day, finding common ground on issues like enforcement of immigration laws, third-party investigations of fatal police shootings and the state’s involvement with companies supporting Colin Kaepernick.

Republican Bill Lee and Democrat Karl Dean, former Nashville mayor, faced each other for their third debate — the second in one week — this time held at Belmont University’s Troutt Theater.

In a race where few punches have been thrown and debates have remained civil, the nominees began the debate largely agreeing on the first question: as governor, how would they respond to making decisions about death row inmates scheduled to die.

The question came a day after Republican Gov. Bill Haslam granted a 10day reprieve in the scheduled execution of Edmund Zagorski, both answering that they would uphold and follow the law and evaluate the situation on a case by case basis.

On other questions, they agreed that the state should not get involved in public universities’ contracts with companies taking controversial stances, such as Nike, which used Kaepernick — an NFL player who protested police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem — in marketing materials.

They agreed that the state should enforce its law to revoke the business license of companies employing undocumented workers and that the state should consider requiring small businesses to also use the E-Verify system if it isn’t too burdensome on small business owners.

The two candidates said they were in favor of requiring that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation investigate all fatal police shootings.

Dean supports, Lee uncertain on medical marijuana

While both candidates said they were opposed to the legalization of recreational marijuana, Dean said he supported medical cannabis being made legal.

“If this will alleviate pain, if this will help somebody relieve their suffering, then the government shouldn’t stand in the way of that,” Dean said.

Lee said he wasn’t convinced that legalizing medical marijuana is the right approach.

“I think we’ve yet to fully search and fully utilize and fully research and expand on the use of nonaddictive, low-THC CBD oils in this state as a treatment for those conditions,” Lee said. “For me, the data is not substantive enough to show that medical marijuana is the right approach right now.”

Dean also said he was in favor of decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana, especially for first-time offenders — explaining that a conviction for even a small amount of pot on the record of a young person can hurt their career prospects and ability to find housing.

He raised concerns with the way black offenders are disproportionately targeted with the charge.

“There’s a lot of racial disparities in the way marijuana laws have been enforced,” Dean said.

Lee said he was in favor of using drug courts for low-level offenses, but remains against decriminalization.

Lee against raising gas tax, Dean says he’s willing

Asked about whether they would support Tennessee raising its gas tax again — as occurred last year under Haslam’s Improve Act, which restored the state’s depleted transportation fund for road construction — the candidates differed.

Praising Haslam, as he did multiple times, Dean said he would “always be willing to make those tough decisions, as Gov. Haslam did.”

The Improve Act raised the tax for the first time in 20 years.

Describing a “rapidly changing transportation industry,” Lee said he believed raising the tax wasn’t the right longterm revenue solution if fuel usage is set to drop amid technology improvements.

“Relying on fuel tax to fund the transportation of the future is not the direction we will be going,” Lee said.

“I think we have to find funding in other ways.”

Candidates agree: No quick fix on TNReady

On how to immediately address problems with TNReady, the state’s standardized testing program that has experienced a number of technical complications in recent years, neither candidate had specific answers on how to ensure the system is fixed.

Lee said he would do a “reset” and examine the system, while Dean suggested the state “listen to the voices of teachers” in developing a new standardized testing system Both called for the state to find a new vendor, but acknowledged that the improvement may not take place quickly, with Dean noting it may not occur before spring standardized this school year.

“I think you just have to recognize that we might not be ready this time,” Dean said. “It might not happen in April because of the scheduling. We get to come into office in January, and having this thing up and running in April, which hasn’t happened in three years, seems to me to be very optimistic.”

Lee also noted he believed there was no quick fix — and suggested the state may be issuing too many tests as it is.

“This process is not going to be solved all at once,” Lee said.

Dean receives applause on Medicaid expansion answer

The candidates were shown a clip of Middle Tennessee resident Kelly Gregory — a breast cancer patient who could only qualify for TennCare after being diagnosed with the terminal illness — and asked what they would do secure coverage for more Tennesseans.

Both candidates stuck to their usual health care talking points: Dean, who identified Gregory as a supporter of his in the race, touted benefits of Medicaid expansion in Tennessee to secure coverage for working people who can’t afford insurance.

He noted the billions of dollars in federal funding the state left on the table by declining to expand Medicaid, an effort Haslam led unsuccessfully.

“We turned down a proposal that Gov Bill Haslam worked hard on, that would have protected our state, that would have been better than most states have gotten, and the legislature said no,” Dean said. “But the most telling this that our legislature has no Plan B.”

When pressed by moderators on how he would accomplish expansion when state lawmakers have previously declined to expand, Dean said he would meet with them to find a solution, expecting them to acknowledge that voters will have spoken in favor of expansion by electing him.

“This is self-serving, but it’s the truth,” Dean said. “If you want Medicaid expansion, you vote for Karl Dean for governor.”

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