This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
It’s been 12 years since Tennessee last hiked its sales tax, and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam says he intends to extend the streak four more years in his second term that starts Jan. 17. “You’ll never hear me proposing raising the sales tax,” Haslam said last week during a Times Free Press interview in his state Capitol office. With a state tax of 7 percent and up to 2.75 percent more tacked on at the county level, Tennessee has among the highest sales taxes in the nation. Raising it higher could put Tennessee at a competitive disadvantage with other states, he said. But, Haslam acknowledged, not increasing the tax will keep pressure on his administration and the Republican-led Legislature to continue making cuts that some fear have already gone too far.
Gov. Bill Haslam had a banner political year in 2014, but might be facing his biggest challenges ever in 2015. Early in 2014, the governor successfully deflected several efforts in the legislative session to undermine executive authority — reducing his power to appoint members of boards and commissions, for example, and requiring legislative approval for state employee layoffs — and came up with a nationally-praised plan to provide free tuition for all Tennessee high school graduates. Late in 2014, he won reelection by a landslide — 88 percent of the vote in the August primary and 70 percent in the November general election — with only token opposition. Then he won national attention again as colleagues chose him as chairman of the Republican Governors Association and a Vanderbilt University poll found him with a 70 percent approval rating, up from 58 percent in May.
Rutherford County legislators are mulling Gov. Bill Haslam’s Medicaid expansion proposal to see if it meets “conservative” standards as the 109th General Assembly approaches in January. State Sen. Jim Tracy said at first glance the governor’s Tennessee Plan covers concerns Republican lawmakers have with the federal Affordable Care Plan. “It provides coverage for uninsured Tennesseans without creating new taxes on our citizens,” said Tracy, a Bedford County Republican. “I like the fact that it is a market-based solution rather than government-imposed.” After two years of negotiating with the federal government, Haslam recently released his proposal, which could cover about 200,000 low-income, working Tennesseans who don’t qualify for Medicaid but can’t afford health insurance.
The announcement by Gov. Bill Haslam addressing testing, evaluations, local control and teacher input was a much-needed statement, as Tennessee is heading into the 2015 legislative session. Keeping in mind that each branch of government has a distinct and separate role, it is appropriate for Governor Haslam to identify changing priorities. As always, the key is in implementation of policies. Many policies sound good. They simply have to be executed correctly. It is always good to step back and put some political philosophy behind the policy. However, the real message educators need to hear from elected leaders is that they are trusted. We need to start a fresh conversation on evaluating how we assess our educators, which may mean a change in the way we measure engagement.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey expects the new crop of Democratic senators to create a feistier chamber this session. That new crop of Democrats also presents an interesting scenario for the Blountville Republican when it comes to their new Senate committees. “Here’s the dilemma you have there: Do you regard their leadership positions or do you regard their seniority?” Ramsey told reporters during a media availability earlier this month. Democrats continue to lose seats in the 33-seat Senate, dropping to five after the recent election. Of those five, three are new: Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville and Memphis Sens. Lee Harris and Sara Kyle. They succeeded Senate veterans Douglas Henry of Nashville and Ophelia Ford of Memphis. Kyle succeeds her husband, Jim Kyle, who’s serving as a judge.
A post-election poll found most Tennessee voters approved of their state Legislature’s performance in 2014 — a stark contrast to overwhelming disapproval of Congress — although the same poll found the 108th General Assembly was out of sync with voter thinking on several issues. In an overview, the polling might indicate general voter content with what the Tennessee Republican Legislature’s supermajority did not do as much as with what it did do — perhaps again in contrast to national polling indicating unhappiness with Congress over continuing conflict and partisan gridlock. The Vanderbilt University poll results released in early December showed 55 percent approval for the Tennessee Legislature and 23 percent approval for Congress. Tennessee’s Legislature has no partisan gridlock.
An unsuccessful effort this spring to raise Johnson City’s hotel-motel tax is back on the table, and the issue likely will be among those discussed Monday when city commissioners confer with state legislators. In April, city commissioners approved a first reading of an ordinance to raise the local hotel-motel tax from 5 percent to 8 percent on lodging costs charged by operators. It turned out, however, they could take that want no further without a change in state law, and the matter was — temporarily — pulled from view. The increase would have generated between $400,000 and $450,000 a year, according to officials. On Thursday, commissioners unanimously voted to approve a resolution requesting the Washington County legislative delegation sponsor a bill that allows municipalities to raise the rate.
State Sen. Bill Ketron will face another legislative session soon after his mother died and he’s having to start treatment for Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. “It will all come to pass,” the Murfreesboro Republican said. “Time will heal.” Ketron agreed to sit down for an interview for The Daily News Journal at his family’s Universal International Insurance business office off South Church in Murfreesboro: What are you doing to cope with difficult circumstances with your illness and the death of your mother? Ketron: First of all, it’s surrounding yourself with family, friends, all the emails and text messages and phone calls from all of those conveying prayer and love offerings. It’s been overwhelming.
Former state Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville has ended her candidacy for chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party. Johnson notified members of the party’s state executive committee in an email Friday afternoon that she is withdrawing as a candidate to succeed Roy Herron, who is not seeking another term when the committee meets Jan. 10 in Nashville to choose a new chairman. The chair is a full-time position, managing the state party office in Nashville, serving as the party’s chief spokesman, and traveling the state to recruit candidates, raise money and build campaigns. Her withdrawal leaves Knoxville lawyer Terry Adams, Nashville businessman Larry Crim, party activist Mary Mancini of Nashville and accountant Lenda Sherrell of Monteagle in the running.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker has golfed with President Barack Obama, dined with him at a fancy restaurant and called him possibly the worst president in modern history. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has broken bread with the president at the White House, squabbled with him on national television about health care, accused him of Nixonian tendencies and blasted him for acting like a king. The two Tennessee Republicans’ sometimes-amiable, sometimes-argumentative relationship with Obama and his administration has at times read like a Facebook relationship status. It’s complicated — and about to get even more complicated when the senators become chairmen of two high-profile committees in the new GOP-led Congress.
Just as millions of people are gaining insurance through Medicaid, the program is poised to make deep cuts in payments to many doctors, prompting some physicians and consumer advocates to warn that the reductions could make it more difficult for Medicaid patients to obtain care. The Affordable Care Act provided a big increase in Medicaid payments for primary care in 2013 and 2014. But the increase expires on Thursday — just weeks after the Obama administration told the Supreme Court that doctors and other providers had no legal right to challenge the adequacy of payments they received from Medicaid. The impact will vary by state, but a study by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization, estimates that doctors who have been receiving the enhanced payments will see their fees for primary care cut by 43 percent, on average.
One of the niftier aspects of Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to expand Medicaid is that the feds will end up paying the state’s share of the expansion. So far, Republican legislators have lambasted expansion, which would provide health insurance for those too poor to buy coverage on the new exchange but too “rich” to qualify for TennCare. One objection has been the eventual cost to Tennessee. Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government bears the full burden of the expansion — but only for so long. Starting in 2017, the state would have to absorb part of the expense, paying 10 percent of the bill by 2020. Now Haslam has come up with a way to take that issue off the table. The maneuver is a variation on a strategy in use since 2010. That year, while still reeling from the Great Recession, the state wanted to save money by cutting TennCare benefits and reducing reimbursements to health care providers.
In a recent conversation, a political junkie friend pulled out a copy of a book, pointed to a quotation from Teddy Roosevelt’s pre-presidential days as a state legislator in New York more than a century ago and asked if his observation would hold true today in Tennessee’s Legislature. The quote from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Bully Pulpit” — a recommended read, along with anything else by that gifted compiler and writer of historical politics — basically says the legislators Roosevelt knew during his era could be divided into three categories. There were “the very good men,” said Roosevelt, those who were reform-minded with a broad public interest at heart. There were the “very bad men,” who were essentially owned by various business interests and subject to corruption. The third group was the majority, who were “neither very good nor very bad, but went one way or the other, according to the strength of the various conflicting influences acting around.”
As the year draws to an end, Americans are not only preparing for a new year, but also a new Congress. In the November midterm election, the American people voiced their opinions and voted for a Republican majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives. With President Obama still in the White House and Republicans controlling Congress, our nation faces new challenges. Yet, we also have new opportunities for reform. This type of government, in which one party controls the presidency and the other party controls one or both houses of Congress, can produce historic results. In fact, many of America’s greatest accomplishments have occurred in a divided government. President Ronald Reagan achieved our nation’s last significant tax reform during a divided government. With Democrats in charge of the House of Representatives, Reagan worked across party lines to pass the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which successfully lowered tax rates and closed loopholes to simplify our tax code.