This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
For the past 18 months, Gov. Bill Haslam has been working with the federal government and various stakeholders to hammer out a different kind of plan that would use federal Medicaid expansion dollars under the Affordable Care Act to extend health coverage to as many as 200,000 Tennesseans. The result announced last week — Insure Tennessee — has been a long time coming, say supporters of Medicaid expansion. “It’s exciting times. This is something the governor has been working on for quite some time,” said Craig Becker, executive director of the Tennessee Hospital Association, which has been working behind the scenes in an effort to find a solution on the issue.
An increasing number of Tennesseans have gotten the flu this season, and the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) notes it could be serious. “Early indications suggest this could be a more severe flu season than we have had for some time,” TDH commissioner John Dreyzehner said in a statement. “Vaccination is likely to reduce the risk of severe illness even if not all strains are matched to the vaccine throughout the season.” The organization also notes very young children, pregnant women and the elderly are at more risk to get the disease because of weaker immune systems. “We recommend annual flu vaccination for everyone over the age of six months,” Tennessee Immunization Program director Kelly Moore said in a release. Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body ache and fatigue.
The University of Tennessee plans to establish in Nashville a six-acre health science center site, but it will not sap strength from the 103-year-old medical campus in Memphis, a top administrator says. Though no funds are allocated yet, the UT Health Science Center is negotiating to buy 6.3 acres west of Downtown Nashville for construction that could start in a year on a $40 million first phase. The site is large enough not only for a six-story, 120,000-square-foot academic building, but for two more structures of similar size that UT would eventually build there. At first blush, the project could appear to be yet another economic edge for Nashville over Memphis.
A push is mounting for Tennessee’s first gas tax increase in a quarter-century, buoyed by growing interest from Gov. Bill Haslam and Republican legislative leaders who have historically opposed tax hikes of any sort. The intrigue at Capitol Hill comes as more than 40 Middle Tennessee mayors have called on the governor to find additional revenue for transportation projects that have piled up across the state. And in a flip from recent years, the politically powerful Tennessee Farm Bureau no longer includes opposition to an increase in Tennessee’s gas tax among its legislative priorities. An updated policy statement approved at its annual meeting in Franklin this month now says that “good highways, roads, and bridges are of vital interest to agriculture and to rural people.”
Tennessee’s upcoming legislative session will be one of the most consequential in the 10 years he’s spent as a state lawmaker, state Sen. Jim Tracy said Saturday morning. “There are going to be big issues, and they’re all going to be important,” the Shelbyville Republican said during his annual toy drive and pancake breakfast in Murfreesboro. Around 200 of Tracy’s supporters packed the DoubleTree Murfreesboro Hotel ballroom with gifts in hand to take part in the event. After being sworn into office in early January, state lawmakers are set to consider issues ranging from health care and abortion to education policy and tax cuts and hikes, Tracy said. Legislation is expected to deal with education standards, school vouchers, the Hall tax and abortion tied to the newly passed amendment to the state Constitution, Tracy said.
Three years ago, Eduardo Vianna, a professor at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, had a student who passed an entire semester without speaking in class. Like many others, the student, Mike Rifino, had come to LaGuardia requiring remedial instruction. But the following semester Mr. Rifino turned up in Dr. Vianna’s developmental psychology course. This time he took a seat closer to the front of the room. Taking that as a positive sign, Dr. Vianna asked him to join a weekly discussion group for students who might want to talk about big ideas in economics, education and politics, subjects that might cultivate a sense of intellectual curiosity and self-understanding among students whose backgrounds typically left them lacking in either. “The group met on Friday afternoons,” Dr. Vianna said, “and Mike’s friends were asking him why he was wasting his time; the students who came weren’t getting any credit.”
Hamilton County’s public school teachers didn’t get a raise this year. Leaders, including the county teachers’ union president, the county school superintendent and Tennessee’s governor, agree teachers deserve a pay hike. The average pay of teachers in Hamilton County — the fourth most-populous county in Tennessee — ranks as low as 31st in the state or as high as 10th, depending on how it’s calculated and whether benefits are factored in. Annual pay for the Hamilton County Department of Education starts at $36,044 for a teacher with no experience and a bachelor’s degree and tops out at $63,247 for a teacher with 25 years’ experience and a Ph.D. The state teachers union wants Gov. Bill Haslam to budget a 6 percent raise next year to fulfill last year’s pledge to make Tennessee the fastest-growing state for teacher pay.
We believe Gov. Bill Haslam took a bold step last week when he proposed Insure Tennessee, a plan that could provide health insurance to more than 200,000 working poor in Tennessee. It was bold because it will be unpopular with some members of his party, which has a majority in the state legislature. It was bold because he went beyond simply criticizing anything that is remotely related to the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. It was bold because Haslam offered an alternative that aligns with conservative principles. It was bold because he did the right thing, when doing nothing would have been easier. Now it is time for Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and the state legislature to be bold, as well. It is time for them to go beyond knee-jerk political rhetoric and do what is best for Tennessee.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam finally has come up with a proposal to expand health care insurance to the state’s poorest citizens. We have used this space to criticize the governor for not expanding the state’s Medicaid program — TennCare — under stipulations spelled out in the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. So, it is only fair that we give him a pat on the back for working with federal officials to come up with a plan that we hope will be approved by the General Assembly during a special legislative session early next year. Two things struck us about the deal Haslam worked out with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell: A lot of Republican politicians, including many in the Tennessee General Assembly, have taken a rigid stance against Obamacare and expanding Medicaid under the law’s guidelines.
For some time our Knoxville Chamber membership has been concerned about the health care of the underemployed population in this community. These are people who go to work every day at a job but earn too much to qualify for TennCare and not enough to afford private insurance or lack access to coverage through an employer. At the same time, many of our members have been skeptical of a Washington-driven health care plan that would simply expand traditional Medicaid in our state. Our members have understandably advocated for more market-based solutions that would address the needs of the working poor while at the same time fitting Tennessee’s needs (and affordability), rather than Washington’s. So when Gov. Bill Haslam announced the Insure Tennessee plan last week, it caught our attention and earned our support.
Tennessee Education Commissioner-designate Candice McQueen’s appointment received an extraordinarily warm welcome that united the political parties. The Left and the Right applauded Gov. Bill Haslam’s pick to replace Kevin Huffman, who served for the last four years, often implementing policy, even successful ones, in a polarizing way. The early accolades are well deserved. They reflect McQueen’s experience as a classroom teacher and higher education administrator at Lipscomb University. She’s also seen by colleagues in academia as grounded, knowledgeable and politically savvy in an environment that has become contentious because of terms like Common Core, standards, teacher accountability, and choice, mainly, charter versus traditional public schools. “She’s pretty well positioned to navigate this, personally and professionally, in terms of her experience,” said Barbara Stengel, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.
In announcing Tennessee’s next Education Department commissioner, Gov. Bill Haslam said he wanted someone already familiar with Tennessee. This in high contrast to what he had in outgoing Commissioner Kevin Huffman, whose background was with a Washington, D.C., law firm and the Teach for America program. Not exactly a hometown boy. That distance may have contributed to the throttling Huffman took from multiple fronts in recent years: from Common Core opponents, from teachers unions, and from local school superintendents. Despite Tennessee’s continued progress in vital education benchmarks, Huffman was unable to appease his critics. If Tennessee roots can do anything to re-grow those relationships, the next commissioner will be well-planted: Candice McQueen of Nashville is senior vice president of Lipscomb University’s College of Education and has been credited with overseeing the rise of one of the nations’ top education programs.
Back in March, state Sen. Brian Kelsey declared in a press release that “Tennessee placed the final nail in the coffin of Obamacare Medicaid expansion when Gov. Haslam signed my Stop Obamacare Act.” But come December, we find that Haslam has brought forth — from the coffin? — some sort of creature that bears a passing resemblance to the deceased Obamacare Medicaid expansion. Or at least some folks thought so, though the governor and his team of spokespeople explained that is not the case at all. “We aren’t expanding Medicaid,” Haslam spokeswoman Laura Herzog pitched Politico after last week’s announcement. “We unveiled Insure Tennessee.” Everybody is employing euphemisms and/or hyperbole here. And it’s not the first time this has happened in preparation for the 109th General Assembly, which will convene in three weeks. Also on the agenda for squabbling in the session will be conservative legislators’ efforts to repeal Common Core education standards