This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
With Halloween come and gone, we have also passed the deadline for high school seniors to apply for the Tennessee Promise scholarship. More than 8,500 mentors and 53,000 of Tennessee’s 71,000 seniors signed up. These are incredible numbers that send a strong statement about the importance of higher education in Tennessee. Crissy and I traveled back to Knoxville last Wednesday to take advantage of the early voting period. We truly appreciate all of the support we have received during the last four years, and if you didn’t get a chance to vote yet, please take the time on Tuesday to cast your ballot for the candidates you believe will move Tennessee forward.
Home health care for people on ventilators, which can cost more than $20,000 a month per person, is an optional Medicaid benefit, but those who need it say it’s a vital service. Tennessee is a state that will pay for private-duty nurses to maintain ventilators and monitor the people who use them in their homes. However, TennCare has coverage limits just as most state Medicaid programs do that offer the service. Austin Elrod of Cookeville lost around-the-clock care this year after turning 21 and aging out of coverage. Angela Hibbitt qualified at age 54 because she relies on a different type of ventilator, but TennCare cut her benefits after determining it would be cheaper if she lived in a nursing home. The rules are hard to understand, the appeals process is tricky, and the reality is harsh when people reach the coverage limits.
Noting Tennesseans’ recent support for no state income tax, state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, is renewing a push to repeal the state’s investment tax. Kelsey pre-filed a bill Thursday that would repeal the Hall tax, a 6 percent tax on investments. After 66 percent of voters supported Amendment 3, which changed the constitution to include language that officially forbids a state income tax, Kelsey said the time is ripe to remove the Hall tax. “I am glad that an overwhelming majority of Tennesseans voted to ban a state income tax and local payroll tax with Amendment 3,” Kelsey said in a news release from state Republicans. “Now it’s time to eliminate the Hall tax.” The tax isn’t popular among Republicans, who have a supermajority in both chambers of the state legislature.
Rick Womick has called Gov. Bill Haslam a “traitor.” He’s led the chorus for Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman to resign. And he’s demanded that the next chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party not be an ally of the Republican governor. But now he’s taking his biggest swing yet. The Rutherford County tea party state representative, re-elected to a third term last week, is challenging Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell for her leadership position in a contest that should test loyalties among House Republicans. His move is a long-shot for sure. But the outcome will nevertheless be telling. Harwell is seen as a popular speaker, one who many speculate could have ambitions to run for governor four years from now. Her chamber, though, has some tea party Republicans who haven’t always agreed with the direction of her and Haslam.
Two days after dominating the District 27 State Senate race with 60 percent of the vote, Ed Jackson wasn’t making phone calls or knocking on doors. Thursday morning, he was at home in Jackson on his hands and knees, trying to fix a leaky kitchen sink. Like the sink, Jackson’s new Senate district has been missing opportunities to hold onto a number of things. Jackson based much of his campaign on finding jobs for West Tennesseans, a region that hasn’t had “a place at the table” in quite some time, he said. Some believe the state will begin to pay better attention to Jackson-Madison County because Ed Jackson is a Republican, and the Republicans have a supermajority in Nashville. That means Republicans control the House of Representatives, the Senate and the governor’s office.
In politics, the next election begins when the last one ends. So with newly re-elected Gov. Bill Haslam unable to seek a third consecutive term, it’s time to start an early scorecard on potential candidates to succeed him in 2018. No serious gubernatorial wannabe will publicly confess to it four years out. But that doesn’t mean some haven’t started laying the groundwork — meeting with campaign professionals and fund raisers, exploring the lay of the land outside their immediate bases — before going public about two years from now. “I would not expect much publicly to unfold until after the 2016 presidential election is over. But there will be a lot of quiet campaigning by all those interested, which started the moment the polls closed,” John Geer, the chairman of Vanderbilt University’s political science department, said Friday.
Women — strong, sensitive, educated women — stand on both sides of Tennessee’s Amendment 1. Wohar and O’Neill are two. They are impassioned women with compelling viewpoints on the abortion measure that passed in Tennessee on Tuesday. In some personal ways, they are consonant. They are college-educated professionals, self-directed women who now lead their respective businesses. They are long-time Nashvillians, native to someplace else but committed to the city in which each has resided for more than a decade. They are childless and plan to remain so. And somewhere, braided between scripture and the Petticoat Party, they are both activists for choice and change. But here is where they divide. Wohar voted yes on Amendment 1. O’Neill voted no.
Awash in green with a few specks of gold, the map of Tennessee representing the vote on Amendment 1 gave rise to an easy conclusion: The state’s urban counties went ‘No’ (gold); the state’s rural counties went ‘Yes.’ The urban-rural split on the social issue of abortion was significant. But so was this: Urban-rural divides have always been a part of voting in Tennessee. “I would agree with that entirely,” said Marcus Pohlmann, a political science professor at Rhodes College. “And it was predictable.” John Geer, who teaches political science at Vanderbilt and coordinates its respected statewide polling, also said the split was un-surprising. “It’s another measure of partisanship,” he said.
A group of eight prominent Amendment 1 opponents, including one from Memphis, make up the list of plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit late Friday seeking to block Tuesday’s vote results approving the measure. Among the plaintiffs is Rev. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., pastor of New Olivet Baptist Church in Memphis. He is joined by two Vanderbilt University law professors, Tracey E. George and Ellen Wright Clayton, who is also a professor of pediatrics at the university’s medical school; Dr. Deborah Webster-Clair, a Brentwood obstetrician and gynecologist; Meryl Rice, a social worker and small business owner in Whiteville; Jan Liff, a registered nurse in Nashville; Teresa M. Hallaran, a Meals on Wheels volunteer coordinator in Franklin, and Mary Howard Hayes of Gallatin, the former director of public health in Sumner County.
After a seven-year battle, wine will officially hit Tennessee grocery store shelves in 2016. Voters overwhelmingly supported the referendum in 78 cities and counties this week, prompting grocery stores to hit the ground running to figure out what they’ll stock and how. Some liquor stores already have been busy for months with preparations, making way for the sale of beer and other items. And then there are the wholesale liquor distributors. “Their business model (has) gone to hell,” said Bob’s Package Store owner Bob Gilbertson, whose father founded Beverage Control but sold it in 1971. Liquor and wine distributors service hundreds of liquor stores and bars, but adding thousands of grocery stores, many of which don’t want to stock large inventories, could unduly burden those that are not prepared.
If gay marriage were legalized in Tennessee, some estimates say as many as 5,000 same-sex couples would marry within the first three years. So far, 32 states have legalized same-sex marriage. Couples in Oklahoma, Utah and three other states celebrated appellate court decisions that allowed them to wed this summer. It seemed inevitable that Tennessee would follow. And Tennesseans were preparing. More than 200 people across the state planned mass weddings for “Day One” of same-sex marriage. Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, said speedy marriages help anchor the institution in the case of future legal battles. “But we don’t have a Day One yet,” he said. A ruling issued Thursday by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals bucked the judicial trend by upholding gay marriage bans in Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky.
Gordon Ball tried. So did Bob Tuke (2008), Bob Clement (2002), Randy Tyree (1982), Jake Butcher (1978) and — you ready for this? — Ray Blanton (1974). But regardless of the effort they gave, they couldn’t do one thing: beat Lamar Alexander in Shelby County. Last week’s win for Alexander over Ball was slim, sure, but it ran up his record to 6-0 here. That’s no small feat for anyone in the state’s largest county, let alone a Republican whose ballot bids date back 40 years. And this even includes 2008, when a surge of Democratic voters swelled turnout in Shelby County in favor of Barack Obama. Still, Alexander won by some 16,000 votes. It also stands in the face of U.S. Sen. Bob Corker’s performance in Shelby County, losing both times he ran (2006, vs. Harold Ford Jr., and 2012, vs. Mark Clayton, whose own party disavowed him).
The voters have spoken, and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann won his third term with 62 percent of the vote in the Nov. 4 election. But his campaign is still being criticized for its bookkeeping. On Thursday, Chattanooga resident Dennis E. Norwood mailed a complaint to the Federal Election Commission saying Fleischmann’s campaign has “continuously and egregiously violated FEC campaign finance laws” and asking that the FEC investigate the Ooltewah Republican’s books. The complaint criticized Fleischmann’s campaign for getting repeated FEC inquiries, saying “Mr. Fleischmann’s record shows a propensity of violations … so much so that there is an appearance of an intent to commit campaign finance fraud.” The campaign has received six inquiries in 2014, records show. It also criticizes the Fleischmann camp for reportedly receiving excessive contributions during the primary election, and for distributing a mailer with a photo altered to show primary challenger Weston Wamp burning a U.S. passport.
People have less time to select a health plan and risk paying much more in tax penalties for going without medical coverage as the second year of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate rolls around. The penalty, which was just $95 for a single person this tax year, will more than triple in 2015. Single people and families face penalties of up to 2 percent of their household income unless they qualify for hardship exemptions. That’s the stick. The carrot is subsidies to help people with purchase prices. Open enrollment begins Saturday and ends Feb. 15. Volunteer organizations have lined up a series of sign-up events in Nashville and throughout the state to help people navigate healthcare.gov.
Tennesseans will have more choices as they shop the online marketplace for individual health insurance during open enrollment this year. In addition to more plan options, a new carrier, Assurant, has been approved to sell on the federally-run insurance exchange that was created by the Affordable Care Act. Assurant joins BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Cigna, Community Health Alliance and Humana. All but Cigna will offer individual health insurance policies in the Knoxville service area, which includes Knox and 15 surrounding counties. While BlueCross was the only statewide carrier last year, Community Health and Assurant will also offer plans in every county in the state. Health plans on the exchange are ranked by metal levels that give consumers an idea of how much will be covered: bronze, silver, gold and platinum.
This year marks the first year people who don’t have “minimal essential coverage” health insurance will pay a penalty. They’ll pay the fee on the federal income tax return they file for that year. People filing their 2014 returns this year will pay either a flat fee of $95 per person ($47.50 per child younger than 18, with a maximum of $285 per household), or 1 percent of their yearly household income — whichever is higher. The maximum penalty is the same amount of the national average premium for a bronze plan in the Affordable Care Act Marketplace. You won’t pay more for the penalty than you would for the cheapest insurance that would meet the requirements.
Hold on to your hats folks. The 2014 elections were a third consecutive blowout by Republicans in Tennessee, extending the party’s supermajorities in both houses of the legislature, handing the governor an historic margin of victory, and expanding the constitutional powers of both the governor and the legislature. The legislature is wasting no time in flexing its mandate. Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, was quick to outline how the legislature would implement restrictions on abortion clinics authorized in Amendment 1. The amendment, which passed with 53 percent of the vote, stripped the constitutional guarantee of privacy for Tennesseans as it relates to abortion and gave the legislature the power to expand regulation of the how and where abortions were provided.
Hamilton County needs a vocational school. And county school officials need to back away from requiring a college-track high school curriculum for all of its students. Are we advocating a dumbing down of schools? Absolutely not: Anything but that. All students do not want or need to go to college. Some students simply can’t perform the full college track, but they can learn valuable skills, skills that will allow them to be welders, plumbers and carpenters. Those with higher academic skills can be the programmers or technical repair persons for the touchscreens and high-tech inputs that run the machinery of modern factories. Right now, without a vocational track and a vocational-technical high school for these youngsters, we are dooming hundreds of Chattanooga’s young people who will not or cannot graduate high school with the skills they need to get a middle-class job. Hamilton County’s graduation rate is 82.6 percent. That means almost one in five high school students here doesn’t get a diploma. Can we afford this?