By Sam Stockard, Daily News Journal, Sunday, March 17, 2013
SMYRNA — Mike Sparks was a bit of a maverick as a Rutherford County commissioner, and he’s taking that same philosophy to the Tennessee General Assembly as a state representative.
The Republican from Smyrna contends he doesn’t look at legislation through partisan eyes and he’s not afraid to go against his counterparts or to gig Gov. Bill Haslam, if necessary. Sparks sat down with The Daily News Journal Friday to discuss the legislative session and some of his bills.
Q: You voted against the wine-in-grocery-stores measures when it failed (by one vote) last week in the House Local Government Committee. Why not let voters decide in a referendum?
Sparks: These liquor store owners have invested much of their life savings in their stores. They’re only allowed to own one store statewide. It imposes strict, strict regulations on these guys. The towns place place even more strict, stringent requirements on them. In my opinion, they would have had to close up shops. The mom-and-pops can’t compete with the Walmarts and the Krogers. Kroger was up lobbying two weeks ago, had many employees up there handing out wine bags.
The mom-and-pops, you know where they are? They’re too busy running their stores. They don’t have the lobbying effort. I was the deciding vote, and I’m proud of that.
Q: The liquor stores don’t have a strong lobbyist behind them?
Sparks: Both sides do. But what I’m saying is how does one mom-and-pop (compete), when there is a multitude of Krogers and managers and employees swarming up on the Hill and visiting everybody … There’s a liquor lobby on the other side, too, that wants to sell more wine in grocery stores, to bring it to the marketplace even cheaper than the mom-and-pops. But I’m saying they’ve played by the rules the state has imposed on them, and now we’re going to change the rules in the spirit of convenience? I don’t think that’s fair.
Q: What if the liquor stores were able to sell more things like cigarettes, beer and chips?
Sparks: I’ve said that, and I’ve told Speaker (Beth) Harwell they need to come to the table, in my opinion, both sides. … Give the liquor store owners time to transition, if you will. They can’t even sell a corkscrew. They can’t even sell a bag of potato chips. That’s how strict it is, and I believe it should be that strict, when you’re dealing with something has a price, whether it’s jails or the ER (emergency room) and alcohol being more accessible to young drivers.
Q: You’ve introduced a bill designating any place where drug paraphernalia is sold to be considered a nuisance. But if it’s a pipe for tobacco and they sell it as that, isn’t that legal and who makes the determination?
Sparks: It is legal, and it’s tough. I walked into a market in Smyrna, one of the discount beer and tobacco stores, and took pictures with my cell phone and I called police.
But immediately when I brought it to the owner’s attention, he immediately got all of the pipes out of there. Why would he do that if he didn’t know it was illegal. He knew exactly what he was doing.
Many of these guys, they don’t care. It’s all about the dollar, that almighty dollar. For them to make a profit, somebody else is paying the price, and that’s you and me as taxpayers … We’re facing a drug epidemic, and this isn’t a new song and dance…
Now that I’m at the state, I don’t think it’s falling on deaf ears anymore. I wear the governor out on these things. He used the term ‘drug epidemic’ at the State of the State address, and I was really proud of him.
Q: Another bill you’re sponsoring would allow written and oral driver’s tests only in English. Is this not a worn-out piece of legislation, since we’ve got German and Japanese businesses in Tennessee? (It is to be heard in a committee this week.)
Sparks: I’m getting calls for and against, but this is my argument: People need to assimilate in our community. What area other than language strengthens the country. I think it’s an issue of public safety and assimilation to learn the language. I met with the Department of Safety. I got a letter from the governor.
He’s not for it. Economic and Community Development is not for it. Several committee members have told me they don’t really want to vote on it. I still want a fair hearing.
We’re going to have a hearing Wednesday at Transportation (subcommittee). … I think after hearing from the Department of Safety, I was more comfortable.
They told me if someone cannot speak any English, the safety instructor does not get in the car with them. If they don’t know their left from their right, and they don’t know the word “caution,” they’re not getting in the car with them.
Q: You want better oversight of places that give cosmetic surgery. Can you explain that?
Sparks: That’s an extremely tough bill for Sen. (Jim) Tracy and myself (sponsors in the Senate and House). That was brought to us by a constituent. My predecessor, Kent Coleman, had started working on that piece of legislation. You have the Tennessee Medical Association, the nursing boards, all these other various entities pushing back or wanting to carve out the legislation on their own. I don’t want to destroy any jobs that are doing it in a safe manner, that’s doing it right. But that was brought from a constituent who was born. She had some scarring, and it’s permanently damaged her. And there’s others out there. … Those lasers are pretty powerful. When you’re getting into someone’s skin and altering their appearance, that needs some oversight.
Q: You are vice chair of House Transportation. Is there anything good coming up for Rutherford County in the way of roads?
Sparks: We’ve got (West) Jefferson Pike that we’re widening.
We’re in the right-of-way acquisition phase, which is further than we’ve ever come. … Jefferson Pike, I will argue, is one of the most dangerous roads in Rutherford County. I was out there in 2002 when I was first elected a county commissioner when a Mona lady hit one of those poles that are real close and the child came out of the restraint and went through the windshield.
Unfortunately, the child died. That little area right there, I pushed to get a turning lane. We did get some safety improvements and want to thank TDOT for at least getting some safety improvements there. But those telephone poles, they need to be moved. There’s been at least five deaths in that area.
Q: Well that stretch is not in this project.
Sparks: I’m asking them and I’m telling them, at least go up to that spot (at Mona Road) and get a turning lane in. They’re telling me that they’re re-evaluating it now and trying to get it up there. That’s the most dangerous element of that whole road.
Q: You’re not afraid afraid to criticize your own party. What kind of reception have you gotten in Nashville because of that? Sparks: I think you have some people out of touch with certain areas. I worked on an assembly line. I know what it’s like to be laid off. I know what it’s like to raise kids. I know what it’s like to run a business. I know what it’s like to go through tough times. Coming up, I was on the free and reduced lunch program. I can relate to those folks. Many of the people in my party may not be able to relate. I think I’ve made some impact with the governor. I don’t think he would use the term “epidemic” if it wasn’t for me.
Contact Sam Stockard at 615-2785165 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@Sam_Stockard.