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School-Voucher Bill Moving Forward in Legislature

The debate on school choice is underway in Tennessee Legislature and one measure, supported by Gov. Bill Haslam, is working its way forward.

Last week the Senate Education Committee approved the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act, sponsored by Chattanooga Republican Todd Gardenhire, on a vote of 8-0.

Senate Bill 999 would provide scholarships for private-school tuition to low-income students in the state’s worst-performing public schools.

The total number of vouchers the state would award would gradually increase from 5,000 available scholarships in the 2015-16 school year to a peak of 20,000 from the 2018-19 school year forward. The fiscal note on the legislation indicates a cost of $125,000 for the Department of Education to implement the policy.

The House companion legislation — HB1049 — sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, also easily cleared the House Education Planning & Administration subcommittee last week on a vote of 7-1, though not without debate.

Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a Rock Island Democrat who is also a teacher, said the “gains and strides” made in education the last few years would be endangered by potentially removing $70 million from local school district. Dunlap said he’s “very, very concerned about the future of public education” as a result.

Rep. Dunn said critics of school vouchers, like Dunlap, appear more interested in protecting the status quo and putting “the emphasis on the system” rather than focusing on academic achievement outcomes.

“I’d like to put emphasis on the student,” said Dunn.

The Tennessee Education Association, many local school officials across the state and most Democrats in the Legislature have steadfastly opposed enabling parents to spend public monies on private education for their children.

“You’re taking away funding from an already underfunded school and putting it in vouchers. I don’t think it’s productive for public schools or private schools,”said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh told the Memphis Daily News in February.

A February 2013 MTSU Poll found that while 46 percent of Tennesseans oppose vouchers, 40 percent favor the idea and 12 percent were undecided at the time.

Dunn’s legislation is scheduled to be heard in full Committee next Tuesday. Gardenhire’s Senate bill is assigned to the Finance Committee, but has not been scheduled for a hearing yet.

Another school choice proposal, sponsored by Germantown Republican Brian Kelsey, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has not received as warm a welcome.

Both Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey have said that Kelsey’s legislation is unlikely to be funded, even if it passes the Legislature.

Haslam told reporters during a press conference last week that Gardenhire’s proposal was in line with what he’s indicated the administration would be willing to fund, and as such, he intends to fund that legislation rather than Kelsey’s more expansive plan.

While both Kelsey and Haslam are supporters of vouchers, they have clashed over the scope of such legislation in the past. In 2013, Ramsey pointed the finger at Kelsey as to why the voucher bill failed in the Senate. Kelsey had indicated earlier that year that he wanted to amend Haslam’s proposal to extend it to more Tennessee students.

Responses to Gov. Haslam’s State of the State Address

Press release from Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville; February 9, 2015:

Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) made the statement below following Governor Bill Haslam’s State of the State address:

“Governor Haslam has delivered yet another outstanding State of the State address setting an agenda that will continue to make Tennessee the best state in the union to live, work and raise a family. Four years of conservative governance has brought Tennesseans more jobs, lower taxes and smaller and more efficient government. We have accomplished much together in the past four years, but there is still much left to do. I particularly appreciate Governor Haslam’s continued focus on education reform building upon Tennessee’s strong record of improvement. I look forward to working with Governor Haslam as we reward good teachers and lift our expectations up to a true Tennessee standard that challenges and prepares students for the high quality jobs of the future.”

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; February 9, 2015:

Sen. Yarbro confident Insure Tennessee will be reintroduced

NASHVILLE – Members of the Senate Democratic Caucus released the following statements in response to Gov. Bill Haslam’s state of the state address:

“Making health care affordable for everyone is the most important issue facing our state,” Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro said. “We need the governor and common sense legislators of both parties to come together around a plan. I am confident that Insure Tennessee will be reintroduced during this session.”

“Our state is making extraordinary gains in education, and I would be very troubled to see that progress stop over one party’s partisan political objections,” Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris said. “We need to continue to support the highest standards for our students and keep up the progress we’ve made.”

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; February 9, 2015:

Looks for more middle-class outward approach

Nashville, TN: House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley) issued the following statement following Governor Haslam’s State of the State speech:

“Though I am pleased to hear our teachers are finally getting the raise they were promised last year, I didn’t hear much about helping the working people of our state just a week after this body denied them health care. We’re still not talking about paid family leave, overtime compensation, and parental involvement in schools. Democrats think we need a more middle-class outward approach and that’s what you’ll see from us over the next few weeks.”

 

TNDP: In ‘Overt Snub’ to Haslam, Ramsey Rigged Health Committee to Kill ‘Insure TN’

Press release from the Tennessee Democratic Party; February 9, 2015:

Ongoing Power Struggle Between Ramsey and Gov. Haslam Threatens Tennesseans’ Lives

Nashville, Tenn. (February 9, 2015) – In an overt snub to Governor Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey stacked the State Senate’s Health and Welfare Committee with “no” votes to kill Insure Tennessee, the Governor’s proposed health care plan.

Rather than working with his own party’s Governor on his top legislative priority and providing hardworking Tennesseans with access to quality, affordable health care, Ramsey rigged the Senate Health and Welfare Committee by removing three health care professionals and the bill’s sponsor and replacing them with hand-picking vocal opponents of Insure Tennessee [see attached graphic]. If he had allowed the duly appointed standing Health and Welfare Committee to remain intact and rule on the proposal, Insure Tennessee would have likely passed by at least a 6-3 vote. Ramsey’s crass power play ensured the death of Insure Tennessee.

The result of Ramsey’s rigged committee:

  • The lives of approximately 280,000 working Tennesseans are now in danger as they will continue to go without health care.
  • Billions of dollars of taxpayer money will be lost – money that hardworking Tennesseans have already paid in taxes will now flow to other states to pay for their health care.
  • As many as one-third of the state’s hospitals remain in danger of closing, resulting in thousands of lost jobs and endangering rural Tennesseans, who will have to drive several counties away in order to receive emergency care.
  • Businesses will avoid those regions of our state where there is no hospital.

Also to be noted is that six of the seven Republican senators who voted to kill Insure Tennessee accept and benefit from health care coverage provided to them by their employer – the state of Tennessee.

It is the height of hypocrisy to not only accept taxpayer-funded health coverage while denying it to others, but also to pretend that the legislative process was fair when it was rigged from the beginning.

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Senate Health & Welfare Comparison

Ramsey: Senate Couldn’t Approve ‘Mere Verbal Agreement’ with Obama Administraion

Statement from Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville; February 4, 2015:

Lt. Governor Ramsey made the statement below following the defeat of SJR0001 in the Senate Select Health Committee:

“Governor Haslam’s hard work and passion on Insure Tennessee has been made clear this week. While many questions have been answered during this special session, several questions remain unanswered. Ultimately, the absence of a clear, written agreement between the federal government and the State of Tennessee made passage impossible. Tennessee has always been a well-run, fiscally-responsible state. We could not in good conscience put our stamp of approval on a mere verbal agreement with the Obama administration.”

Ramsey Announces Extraordinary Session Committee Memberships

Press release from Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville; February 2, 2015:

Download (PDF, 34KB)

‘Insure TN’ Brouhaha Brewing Between House, Senate?

Disagreement appears to have developed between the Republican-dominated chambers of the General Assembly over how to handle Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Insure Tennessee” proposal scheduled for discussion in a special session beginning Feb. 2.

On Thursday, leaders of the Tennessee Senate’s GOP supermajority indicated the upper chamber will be holding off on committee votes on the issue until the House approves a resolution authorizing Tennessee to sign up for the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion funding.

But that doesn’t seem to sit well with some Republicans in the House.

“Apparently, there was a Senate Republican Caucus meeting yesterday where it was fantasized to the effect that we would go through this process on Insure Tennessee through several committees before they even considered it in the Senate, and I would like to dispel that silly notion that they had in that Senate Republican Caucus meeting,” Majority Leader Gerald McCormick said Friday morning on the House floor.

“That will not happen,” said the Republican from Chattanooga, who is expected to attempt to guide the governor’s Insure Tennessee plan to approval in the House.

Haslam’s Medicaid expansion plan — the centerpiece of which is a system of Affordable Care Act-financed vouchers to allow the purchase of private-sector health insurance by lower income Tennesseans — has been met with skepticism by many members of the Republican Legislature, even as GOP leaders have pledged to keep an open mind about the expansion.

According to an emailed statement Friday from the office of Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, the lower-chamber leadership was under the impression “that the House and Senate would each run the resolutions concurrently. “

House Will Get First Crack at Haslam’s Medicaid Expansion Plan

It looks as if the Tennessee House of Representatives will take the lead on deliberations over Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to expand state Medicaid eligibility using federal Obamacare dollars.

The General Assembly is scheduled to go into an “extraordinary session” beginning Feb. 2 to approve or reject the Haslam administration’s “Insure Tennessee” plan, the centerpiece of which is a system of Affordable Care Act-financed vouchers for lower income residents to purchase private-sector health insurance.

The “vehicle” in the Legislature for discussing Insure Tennessee will likely be a “joint resolution” originating in the House that’ll be carried by the chamber’s GOP majority leader, Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga.

Before it gets to the full floor of the 99-member chamber, though, the joint resolution will have to win approval from several committees and subcommittees, among them the House Insurance and Banking Committee, the Health Committee, the Finance Committee and the Calendar and Rules Committee, a spokeswoman for Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, told TNReport.

McCormick indicated this week that the vote-count within the House GOP caucus appears very tight at present. There are 73 Republicans and 26 Democrats in the House. Fifty votes are required to pass a measure out of the chamber.

Although the Senate will likely hold hearings and discussions about Insure Tennessee while the resolution is working its way through the House, upper-chamber Republican leaders said Senate committee-votes won’t be taken until after — and only if — the resolution clears the House.

“If it fails in the first House sub(committee), we’re done,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who presides over the Senate, told majority-party lawmakers during a caucus meeting Thursday afternoon.

Both Ramsey and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris estimate that as many as three-quarters of their caucus remains undecided on the Haslam plan. Among them are Jack Johnson of Franklin and Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, who chair powerful committees that will likely handle the resolution.

Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Senate by a tally of 28-5. It takes 17 votes to pass a measure in the Senate.

“We have members who are outspokenly opposed to the proposal,” Norris said at the Senate GOP caucus gathering. “There are other members here supportive of it. But most members are just in the middle with open minds.”

Norris, who has himself voiced reservations about Haslam’s plan, said he’s hopeful there’s a full and robust discussion about all facets of the proposal. He described Insure Tennessee as “very complicated” in the way it touches on numerous aspects of state and federal law, the Internal Revenue Code and previous developments in the history of TennCare, the state’s program for administering the federal Medicaid system.

“All those things interrelate,” said Norris, a lawyer from Collierville. “Regardless of which side of the issue you may find yourself on, all these issues could be very important, whether you are against it, whether you are for it or whether you are unsure which way to go.”

He added, “What we are trying to do is lay out a timely and orderly process to get everyone through it in the best way possible, so that you can truly say that you are representing your constituents.”

Norris said one of the goals is to avoid the accusation of passing legislation “and not knowing what is in it.”

“Nobody wants to be in that situation,” he said.

Insure Tennessee has been offered by the administration as a two-year pilot program, and it includes incentives for healthier lifestyles. It is designed to enable the state to draw down Medicaid expansion funding through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to cover people making up to 138 percent of the poverty level — which could translate to more than 450,000 potentially eligible Tennesseans.

Ramsey Congratulates Constitutional Officers on Re-election

Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey posted the following two statements to his official Facebook page January 14, 2015:

In regard to the re-election of Justin P. Wilson as the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury: 

Congratulations to Justin Wilson on his re-election as Comptroller of the Treasury. Tennessee’s strong financial position is due in no small part to the work of Justin Wilson. As Tennessee’s money cop, Justin Wilson keeps watch every day to make sure Tennessee taxpayer dollars are being allocated efficiently and that any waste, fraud and abuse is identified and reported. I am extremely grateful that Tennessee will continue to benefit from his expertise, integrity and commitment to service.

In regard to the re-election of David H. Lillard, Jr., as the Tennessee Treasurer:

Congratulations to David Lillard on his re-election as Tennessee’s Treasurer. Tennessee’s retirement system is fully-funded and consistently ranked among the best in the nation. This isn’t just a matter of luck. It is due to the hard work and management skills of David Lillard. The state of Tennessee is extremely fortunate to have David at the helm at the Department of Treasury. I commend my colleagues for returning yet another resounding vote of confidence in his performance.

Ramsey Re-elected Speaker of the Senate

Press release from the office of Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey; January 13, 2015:

(NASHVILLE, TN), January 13, 2014 — The State Senate re-elected Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey today as Tennessee’s 33 senators met at noon on the first organizational day of the 109th General Assembly. This will be Ramsey’s fifth two-year term as Tennessee’s Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the Senate.

“Thank you for placing your trust in me,” Ramsey told senators and onlookers after being elected. “The people of Tennessee have placed great trust in all of us. They have called upon us in election after election to use our power wisely — and we have.”

“We made hard choices, just like any Tennessee family would have to, and balanced our budget. And when we have had to borrow money, we paid it back — promptly and in full,” Ramsey continued. “That is the Tennessee way.”

“This stands in stark contrast to the ways of Washington. As our federal government continues on a path into the economic abyss, Tennessee stands apart — committed to fiscal discipline and sanity,” Ramsey explained.

“Tennessee truly is the best state in the nation in which to live, work and raise a family,” Ramsey concluded. “As long as I am speaker, I will fight to preserve that reputation and continue our record of accomplishment.”

Tennessee’s conservative leader, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey is the first GOP Senate Speaker in Tennessee in 140 years and the first from Sullivan County in over 100 years. In the 2008 elections, Ramsey led Tennessee’s Republicans to a gain of three Senate seats and a solid five seat majority. Under Ramsey’s leadership in 2010, Republicans both increased their majority in the Senate and elected a Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1969.

After picking up an astounding 6 seats in 2012, the Ramsey Senate achieved an unprecedented 28 to 5 supermajority in the 2014 elections, a feat unmatched by either party in modern Tennessee history.

Slatery Joins Challenge to Obama Immigration Executive Order

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, appointed to the position in September, took a step this week that is sure to win him popularity points with the Republican supermajority-controlled General Assembly.

Slatery announced Monday that the Volunteer State would be joining with 24 other states to sue President Obama over his recent executive order on immigration. “However frustrating and painstakingly long the federal legislative process may be, making law is the prerogative of Congress, not the executive branch,” Slatery said in a press release. He added that while Congress could “resolve” all of the issues raised by the executive directive by “timely enacting legislation,” the state shouldn’t “sit on the sidelines of this case.”

While the executive action was about immigration, Slatery said the lawsuit is “more about the rule of law and the limitations that prevent the executive branch from taking over a role constitutionally reserved for Congress.”

The executive order conflicts with existing federal law and replaces “presecutorial discretion” with a policy of “unilateral nonenforcement,” he said.

“Asking a court to review this issue is the prudent choice, especially when state resources will be taxed under the directives to provide benefits like unemployment compensation and health care,” Slatery’ statement said.

The executive order would affect about 4 million undocumented immigrants by halting the deportation of undocumented parents of citizens or permanent residents who have been here more than five years, as well as allowing immigrants over the age of 30 who were brought to the U.S. as children to qualify for deportation deferrals. Additionally, the action beefs up border security, allows for more visas for foreign investors and STEM degree holders and changes federal immigrant detention procedures.

In November, following the president’s announcement, state Rep. Andy Holt and state Sen. Mae Beavers filed a joint resolution to call on Gov. Bill Haslam to sue the president over his immigration action. However, at the time Slatery was hesitant to commit to joining other states in seeking legal action against the president, but said he would consider it.

Tennessee Lt. Gov Ron Ramsey praised the decision to challenge “the president’s unconstitutional action on immigration” made by Slatery, who was Haslam’s chief legal counsel prior to his appointment by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

“Barack Obama tossed aside not just  public opinion but key tenets of our constitutional democracy when he bypassed Congress to grant illegal immigrants defacto amnesty,” Ramsey said, and added he was “proud” Tennessee was joining the lawsuit.

Likewise, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick agreed Slatery was correct in his decision to join the lawsuit on “the constitutional question of whether the president should have acted without congressional authority.”

When Obama visited Music City earlier this month to promote the new policy, he explained that he picked the Tennessee capital in part because the city has “one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the country.”

Speaking at the Casa Azafrán community center in Nashville, the president said the action he took was “a middle-ground approach” that “will make our immigration system smarter and fairer.” According to Obama, his action “isn’t amnesty or legalization or even a path to citizenship,” and only applies to a specific group of undocumented immigrants.

“What we are saying is that until Congress fixes this problem legislatively — and you have deep ties to this country and you are willing to get right by the law, and do what you have to do, then you shouldn’t have to worry about being deported or separated from your kids,” Obama said. He invited Congress to be involved in the process, as long as they “pass a bill that addresses the various components of immigration reform in a common-sense way.”

The GOP members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation have released statements sharply critical of both the president’s visit to Nashville earlier this month and his executive action, while the state’s federal Democratic representatives were more supportive.

One criticism many Republicans had for Slatery’s predecessor, Robert Cooper — legal counsel to former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen prior to his appointment in 2006, was that he had declined to join a multi-state lawsuit against the federal government over the legality of the Affordable Care Act. In fact, one reason members of the GOP wanted to see the three Democratically-appointed state Supreme Court justices unseated this August was to hold them accountable for Cooper’s decision not to join the Obamacare lawsuit.

However, while McCormick acknowledged to TNReport that Slatery likely had more conservative inclinations than his predecessor, he took his decision to join the lawsuit as “more of a constitutional question” than a sign of a difference in politics.

While the ACA actually passed Congress, McCormick said the president’s directive was different in that it “was just an executive action taken right after election day without the consent of the the people or the elected representatives of the people.”