This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam wants to help veterans seeking a higher education. He has formed a task force to evaluate how to best serve those seeking a certificate or degree beyond high school. The task force is part of the governor’s initiative to raise the number of Tennesseans with a certificate or degree beyond high school from where it stands today at 32 percent to 55 percent by the year 2025. Members of the panel will speak to higher education leaders, veterans, advocacy groups and others and present recommendations to the governor in June.
The federal government’s serious financial challenges haven’t put a damper on Tennessee’s economic success over the last several years, a fact that was showcased during official meetings with the nation’s three major bond rating agencies last month. The meetings, which took place in New York in mid-October, were led by Gov. Bill Haslam, state constitutional officers Justin P. Wilson, Tre Hargett, and David H. Lillard, Jr., along with House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.
Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee describes it as “trying to thread a needle from 80 yards.” Mr. Haslam is only the latest Republican tailor trying to figure out whether to expand the state’s Medicaid rolls as prescribed by President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. In his case, it involves trying — so far unsuccessfully — to balance some sharply conflicting concerns: struggling hospitals, local business groups, dwindling state resources and fierce conservative opposition to the new health care law. And it has left him hanging out there, with no resolution in sight, while almost every other state has made a decision, and with many of his impatient constituents wondering how long it is going to take.
A Nashville man who has mental impairments has sued state prison officials in federal court, charging that he was beaten bloody while jailed near Kingston, Tenn. Attorneys with the Disability Law and Advocacy Center of Tennessee filed the lawsuit Thursday on behalf of 25-year-old Kyle Kirchner, charging that his rights under the U.S. Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act were violated in a Nov. 16, 2012 attack. A spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Corrections declined to comment on the pending lawsuit, which names the department, Commissioner Derrick Schofield, Morgan County Correctional Complex Warden Tony Howerton, and two former guards, Arron Silviera and Jonathan Edgemon.
Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools officials say they’re under financial siege from rapidly multiplying charter schools. And the state’s three other large school districts — including Hamilton County — fear they’re next. So all four are clamoring for changes in the state’s education funding formula, calling charters a “tipping point” for broader concerns about inequities toward large school systems. School board members from the “Big Four” — Hamilton, Knox and Shelby counties and Metro Nashville — want Gov. Bill Haslam and state lawmakers to provide new funds to account for the growth in charter schools, which they say state policies are driving.
While U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., runs for re-election as a problem-solving conservative interested in “getting results,” his GOP primary opponent, Joe Carr, claims he’s gotten Alexander to follow his lead on some issues dear to tea party voters. Carr, a state representative with what so far is an underfunded and underdog campaign, points to recent public stances ranging from calling on U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to resign to urging Alexander to co-sponsor legislation banning abortion after 20 weeks.
Tennessee’s largest health insurer says it plans to extend coverage for plans that were deemed invalid under the federal health care law. The decision by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee comes after President Barack Obama said companies can continue providing coverage for a year under policies that do not comply with new requirements of the beleaguered law. However, the option would only apply to existing customers of those plans and would not be extended to new customers. That left insurance companies and states to determine how to respond to the president’s decision.
Before President Obama announced that he would stand by his words and people could keep health insurance plans deemed substandard by the Affordable Care Act, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee five months before had carefully prepared 66,000 customers to give theirs up. “Starting in 2014, the health care law requires plans to offer standardized benefits and more coverage,” said a letter sent to the BlueCross members last June. “Your current plan does not include these added benefits. This means you will need to switch to a new plan with benefits and coverage that meet the law’s requirements,” said BlueCross, which planned to offer new options to customers whose policies expired throughout 2014.
San Antonio has several things in common with Memphis — including widespread poverty (nearly 20 percent in San Antonio) and below-average rates of educated residents (fewer than one in five adults have college degrees). Some Memphis leaders hope that, after Thursdays’s vote on a sales-tax referendum to fund prekindergarten programs, Memphis will have something else in common with San Antonio. Over the summer, the Texas city opened two pre-K centers funded by an eighth-of-a-cent sales tax hike voters approved a year ago.
Knox County Schools received straight A’s on its 2013 student achievement report card released last week by the Tennessee Department of Education. This marks the first time the district has aced all performance measures in mathematics, reading and language arts, science and social studies. The scores are evidence that an emphasis on accountability for educators and higher standards for students combine to produce better results in the classroom. Superintendent Jim McIntyre and the Board of Education cannot be satisfied and will have to build on this success, but it is evident the school system is headed in the right direction.
While it has become a political cliche to call for running government budgets like family budgets, it is submitted that most frugal families would not voluntarily cut back on their income while expenses are increasing — and that’s the path Tennessee state government seems to have taken. Gov. Bill Haslam began department-by-department budget hearings last week by noting that spending on education and TennCare will have to be raised next year, an increase in expenses that state government has no more control over than a family does over the cost of school supplies, college tuition or medical care and insurance costs.
The state of Tennessee did the right thing. It took more than a year, cost both sides gobs of money and required a lawsuit that is still going on. But, finally, the Department of Children’s Services is posting on its website documents that detail internal investigations of deaths and near deaths of the state’s littlest citizens. Because, when all is said and done, it was always about the children. Now, anyone will be able to go to www.tn.gov/youth/childsafety/data2012.html and see what happened in the cases of children who died from suspected abuse or neglect. The names of the children have been redacted to protect privacy.
Tick, tick, tick … another month has passed, 120 days in total, and still no decision from the special supreme court on Hooker vs. Haslam. But that does not mean there hasn’t been a lot of conversation outside of the deliberations. The idea that the Tennessee Plan makes our judiciary nonpolitical took a bonk on the nose this month when Chief Justice Gary Wade and Charles D. Susano Jr., presiding judge of the Court of Appeals, weighed in on the preliminary recommendations of the Tennessee Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, which gave initial negative recommendations to three appellate judges who face retention elections next August.
Seasoned baseball fans get a little misty when they talk about Sulphur Dell. They remember the Vols minor league team that called the park home. They can recall famous major leaguers and Negro League stars who played in the park, torn down decades ago. By contrast, Greer Stadium, while it has had its moments, seldom is spoken of in such glowing tones. Its team, the Sounds, is hoping to capture that glow by moving to a new ballpark that Metro would build on the ground where Babe Ruth once trod. Such dreams are hard to make tangible in these times of strained budgets and stagnant economies, but by combining private and public investment, Metro, the Sounds and quite a few partners are going for it.
Is it easier to find a unicorn or a HealthCare.gov success story in Memphis? Last week, I asked friends to help me find either and people who work in community health care to point me to the latter. Within minutes, a friend sent me a photo of what’s called “Asian unicorn,” even though the saola has two horns. It took a little longer to find Anna Mullins, executive director of The Cotton Museum. She’s one of the 26,000 Americans (and the only Memphian I could find) who bought insurance through HealthCare.gov in October, a fraction of the number the administration had projected. The White House has promised the site will be much improved by the end of this month.
Some years ago, driving among pawn shops and boarded up homes, I saw a small sign nailed on a telephone pole. “Buy Health Insurance,” it touted, with premiums of $25 a month. I was tempted. Health insurance, for me and for most Americans, is essential because a few days’ hospitalization costs $10,000 and medical bills for a major illness can soar. So it is no wonder that Obamacare — that is, the Affordable Care Act, or ACA — has created anxiety among many Americans. And, without doubt, the ACA has sent the health insurance market into upheaval, with a nonfunctional healthcare.gov website, insurance cancellation notices, and now a proposed “fix” by President Obama. So let me try to put things in perspective. The ACA is really a “Health Insurance Reform Act.”