Ketron, Matthews spar in Trib debate

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The candidates who want to represent Marshall County in the Tennessee Senate sparred Monday night at Marshall County High School over issues including jobs, education, how lawmakers are reimbursed and e-mails.

In one exchange, the Democrat suggested that if parents aren't involved in their children's education, then perhaps they should be fined. The Republican replied that sounds harsh and suggested more use of a charter school system such as one in Memphis.

Both, however, said employment is the top issue.

Columbia City Councilwoman Debbie Matthews, the Democrat challenging state Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), said his home county, Rutherford, got 50 percent more federal economic stimulus money than Marshall, Maury and Lincoln counties combined.

Ketron, who represents southwest Rutherford County -- Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) serves northeast Rutherford, Bedford and Moore counties -- replied that Mooresville Highway's widening is a federal project and he helped keep the University of Tennessee's Jersey herd at the UT Dairy Research and Education Center.

Unemployment is the most important question, Matthews said. Rutherford County received $90 million in stimulus money while the other counties, including Marshall, got $60 million, she said.

Ketron said he's spent more time on unemployment compared to other issues, adding that he's fought for all four counties in the district. He advocated smaller government and fostering conditions to make it easier for businesses.

Matthews won a coin toss to determine who would answer questions first, although that order changed when, for example, MCHS student Edgar Flores' question was directed at Ketron. Also asking questions were his classmates, Kathryn "Kat" Villanueva and Maria Carvajal. Taylor Clift is also a student in Daniel Batey's contemporary issues class. Clift volunteered to be an usher and help select questions.

Two well-publicized issues were explored during the debate. One is about expense accounts for lawmakers. The other is over use of an e-mail used during the campaign.

Matthews points to Ketron's use of expense account money to reimburse lawmakers, saying he accepted money for hotel rooms he didn't use. Ketron said he did drive home to sleep in his own bed, but per diem money can be spent on laundry, meals, tips and other expenses. Matthews said many things are technically legal, but that doesn't make it right. Ketron says he pays income tax on the money paid by the state to reimburse him for commuting to and from Nashville.

Ketron sued Matthews in Maury County Chancery Court where the chancellor granted a temporary injunction directing her and her campaign to stop using an e-mail address -- A court hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday in Columbia.

Those who received and opened e-mails from that free Google account were asked in the electronic message about Ketron's use of per diem money. There was also an appeal for contributions to Matthews' campaign.

People who falsely use a name for fundraising are civilly liable, Ketron said.

An "overzealous" staffer has been reprimanded, Matthews said. His pay was docked. He continues to work for her, she said. She defended the staffer, describing him as a military veteran who was wounded in Iraq. Matthews declined to name him.

Meanwhile, education is a national security issue, Matthews said citing CNN reports of foreign students "out-testing us."

School funding methods were explored. She advocates setting aside sales tax revenue for education and opposes an income tax.

A crisis was averted at the last minute in Maury County where schools were almost closed for lack of a budget. It's been seen as an embarrassment that was narrowly avoided here.

"Funding will continue," Ketron said. Leaders aren't going let school boards go out of business. "Cooler heads prevailed," he said and Matthews nodded in agreement.

Money has been spent to help students improve their test scores and apparently it's worked, but there's a lack of focus on the most important point, which is making sure teachers have tools they need, Ketron said. He's also pursuing information about scores that may not have been reported accurately.

Ketron has been in office eight years. And Matthews said, "thank goodness" Gov. Phil Bredesen insisted Tennessee participate in the Race to the Top... It is not necessarily throwing money at the issue. Parents need to be engaged with the children."

COMING FRIDAY: Candidates debate park restaurant, immigration, open society, health care, civil court case.

Tribune news staffers Karen Hall, Dean Fox and Clint Confehr contributed to this story.