January 11 TN News Digest

This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.

Editorial: It’s time to insure our fellow citizens (Jackson Sun)
A sad truth in our community, as well as our state and our nation, is that many people cannot afford health insurance. There are many Tennesseans working full-time jobs who still don’t make enough to cover premiums for health insurance. As the Tennessee Legislature’s special session to take up Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to offer medical coverage to hundreds of thousands of low-income Tennesseans draws near, and as debate heats up, it’s important to remember what we’re fighting for. Yes, we want the sick to be treated, and cured, but we also want our small rural hospitals to be able to afford to keep their doors open. We want to preserve jobs and services at our community’s largest employer, West Tennessee Healthcare.

Guest columnist: Insure Tennessee will improve citizens’ health (Tennessean)
Insure Tennessee, the innovative health insurance proposal Gov. Bill Haslam announced last month, will result in better health for our great state and its people. Providing coverage to hundreds of thousands of working Tennesseans, who today lack insurance, will increase access to physicians for preventive care and lead to improved health outcomes. Tennessee ranks a tragic No. 45 among all states in the health of its citizens. A decades-long trend of chronically poor health, including high rates of preventable conditions, is devastating to lives, expensive to treat and a big risk to our future. Improving citizen health is an imperative that must be supported by every individual and entity — public and private — that have a stake in the economic progress and quality of life in Tennessee communities.

Your guide to the start of the 109th Tennessee General Assembly (Tenn/Boucher)
Every law in Tennessee is beholden to the 132 people elected to represent the Volunteer State in the General Assembly. The group has immeasurable power: to change, amend or remove the measures that play an intimate role in the day-to-day lives of roughly 6.5 million Tennesseans. As the legislature prepares to start Tuesday, lawmakers face immediate challenges and opportunity. An extremely popular governor is ready to charge forward with a health proposal many people will hate. Teachers and education advocates are prepared to redefine the way Tennessee educates its children.

Long list of controversial issues for new General Assembly (N-S/Locker)
The new Tennessee Legislature opens its two-year run Tuesday with an agenda of controversial issues that would hit Tennesseans in their doctors’ offices, schools, workplaces and pocketbooks. That list includes fights over abortion restrictions, a possible gasoline tax hike, tax cuts, school vouchers and Common Core academic standards, guns, and Gov. Bill Haslam’s new health insurance proposal. The abortion issues come in response to Tennesseans’ ratification of a state constitutional amendment in November that removed abortion rights from the state Constitution and gives the Legislature authority to enact whatever abortion regulations are allowed under U.S. constitutional law.

The leadership: What to watch as the General Assembly convenes (TN/Boucher)
As the 109th General Assembly convenes, much of the spotlight will be on the governor and the Republican and Democratic leadership. Gov. Bill Haslam The governor is coming off one of the more commanding re-election margins in state history and riding a 70 percent approval rating. He’ll need that public support if he’s going to win the biggest fight of his political career: passing “Insure Tennessee,” his answer to Medicaid expansion in Tennessee. “I think it’s not going to be an easy session for the governor,” said Tom Ingram, a longtime Haslam consultant and well-known GOP adviser. “I think in some ways it’s going to be his first real test. The honeymoon’s over.”

5 issues to watch as the General Assembly starts (Tennessean/Boucher)
With lawmakers from around the state convening on Nashville for the start of the General Assembly, here are five issues to watch. Medicaid expansion Right out of the gate the General Assembly will debate a proposal that creates a new, almost entirely federally funded health care program for at least 200,000 Tennesseans. Conservatives blast the idea, saying the state will eventually need to pay for some of it and, by taking the money, it’s tacit support of “Obamacare.” Gov. Bill Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey are adamant the plan is not the Affordable Care Act, but passing the “Insure Tennessee” proposal is certainly the biggest political challenge of the governor’s tenure.

5 lawmakers to watch as the General Assembly begins (Tennessean/Boucher)
With lawmakers returning to Nashville to begin a new legislative session, here are five lawmakers to watch. Sen. Steven Dickerson, R-Nashville A Nashville doctor, Dickerson is known as a soft-spoken Republican who has considerable sway on whether legislation passes. He also represents a district that is much more moderate than other Republicans, leaving him more likely to break from the conservative party line as he heads into a re-election cycle. “He is well-grounded in his conservative principals, but (he) incorporates common sense solutions into a lot of complex issues,” said Matt King, former Tennessee GOP executive director, staff member for Ramsey and Harwell and current lobbyist.

How will politics affect the Tennessee legislative session? (Tennessean/Boucher)
Politics will likely play a key role in how the legislative session unfolds this year. Here are three things to watch. The campaign promise In a state growing more and more red by the day, politicians are less afraid of losing in a general election. Instead, the bigger fear for a GOP lawmaker is a challenge from the right. That means lawmakers typically considered moderate who represent conservative districts might look to move to the right on key issues like Medicaid expansion or abortion in order to fend off any in-party rivals next election cycle. The ‘unofficial leadership’ of the right wing While Democrats aren’t extinct in the Tennessee General Assembly, it’s clear Tea Party-aligned Republicans could have greater sway in the body.

More $ for Hamilton schools? Legislators recommend ‘y’all solution’ (TFP/Omarzu)
Want more money for Hamilton County schools? Then raise taxes yourself. Or spend some of your own money. That’s the response most of Hamilton County’s state legislators had to county officials who want Tennessee to fully fund the state’s Basic Education Program, the state funding formula for Tennessee schools. School board members have called on the state to boost its Hamilton County funding by $12 million annually, to about $145 million. They also want the state to pay the school district’s full cost for 12 months of insurance premiums, instead of the current 10 months. That could help fulfill school Superintendent Rick Smith’s vision to make Hamilton County the “best school system in the South,” by adding such programs as elementary school art and foreign language classes systemwide.

Local officials seek gas tax hike (Times-News)
Amid unprecedented low gas prices, Tri-Cities’ municipal governments asked Northeast Tennessee lawmakers Friday to support a gas tax increase if it is introduced in the General Assembly this year. The request was included in the Tri-Cities Joint Legislative Policy (JLP), a list of legislative positions taken by local government leaders representing Kingsport, Johnson City and Bristol, Tenn., and handed to lawmakers during a meeting held at the MeadowView Marriott. Tennessee’s 21.4-cent gas tax has not gone up in more than 20 years, and Tri-Cities local elected officials insisted per gallon tax revenue for maintenance and construction has declined as vehicles become more efficient.

Mancini elected chairwoman of Tennessee Democratic Party (AP/Schelzig)
Tennessee Democrats hoping to improve their bleak prospects in the state have elected activist Mary Mancini as their next chairwoman. The party’s executive committee voted 61-9 on Saturday for Mancini over Lenda Sherrell, of Monteagle. “We have to define what it means to be a Democrat,” Mancini told the panel after the vote. “We can no longer allow Republicans to define who we are.” Democrats hold just five of 33 seats in the state Senate and 26 of 99 seats in the House, and haven’t won an open statewide race since Phil Bredesen was first elected governor in 2002. Mancini is a Nashville resident who formerly headed the advocacy group Tennessee Citizen Action, where she helped organize large-scale voter registration drives. She sought the party leadership position after losing the Democratic nomination for a Nashville state Senate seat to attorney Jeff Yarbro.  (SUB)

Mary Mancini elected new TN Democratic Party chair (Tennessean/Garrison)
Mary Mancini is next up to lead Tennessee’s beleaguered Democrats after party leaders gave the progressive activist from Nashville a unified show of support in electing her new chair of the state party. Mancini, who last summer lost her Democratic bid in the Senate District 21 Democratic primary, collected 61 votes Saturday from the state party’s Executive Committee, easily defeating Lenda Sherrell of Monteagle, who finished with nine votes. “Now, it’s time to get to work,” Mancini said. “Together, we must work to elect Democrats.

Tenn Democrats elect leaders; Anderson loses bid for vice chairman (TFP/Sher)
Embattled Tennessee Democrats on Saturday chose Nashville activist Mary Mancini as the new leader of a party seeking to remake itself into a relevant political force in state politics. Mancini received 61 votes for party chairman from executive committee members. Lenda Sherrell of Monteagle got nine votes. Sherrell was the Democratic nominee in the 4th Congressional District last year, losing to Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais in November. In the vice-chairman contest, Chris Anderson, a Chattanooga city councilman, lost a 37-33 vote to former state Rep. John Litz of Morristown. Mancini, a former executive director of the progressive group Tennessee Citizen Action, told fellow Democrats after her election that “it’s time to get to work” to “rebuild and energize the base.”

Free community college plan draws praise, criticism (News-Sentinel/Collins)
Sandy Baum firmly believes the federal government has a responsibility to assure educational opportunities for students across the country. She’s just not sure President Barack Obama’s offer of two years of free community college is the answer. “It’s addressing an important problem,” she said of the proposal, which Obama announced Friday in Knoxville. But, “I don’t know that there is a cookie-cutter solution.” Obama’s plan, patterned after Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise scholarship program, attempts to put a college degree within reach for more students across the country by removing what for some is the biggest obstacle to getting a good education: Cost. Obama wants to offer two years of tuition-free community college to students who enroll in programs that meet certain academic standards and who maintain at least a 2.5 grade-point average and show steady progress toward completing their degrees.

TVA reports tritium leak at Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant (TFP/Flesner)
A leak of radioactive water from a tank at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant released tritium into the environment this week, but a TVA spokesman said Saturday the leak was quickly contained and presented no public risk. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates the plant near Athens, Ala., said a drain line leaked between 100 and 200 gallons of water containing tritium levels above acceptable EPA drinking water standards. The leak was fixed within three hours of when it was discovered and was largely contained within the plant area, according to TVA. In an incident report to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, TVA said it has increased monitoring of water around the plant but has not detected any elevated tritium levels outside the plant.

Illinois: Governor’s Campaign Promises Are About to Meet Budget Realities (NYT)
As Bruce Rauner swept out the Democratic governor of this Democratic-leaning state, he made one absolute pledge: He would shake up Illinois. Mr. Rauner, a multimillionaire who has never held elective office, said the state needed, at long last, to put its finances in order. He has said the state ought to lower income taxes, reduce regulations on businesses and devote more money to education. Yet as Mr. Rauner prepares to take office on Monday as the first Republican to govern the state in a dozen years, Illinois’s unstable fiscal health has grown shakier still. Weeks after Mr. Rauner’s election in November, a judge rejected a 2013 overhaul of the state’s vastly underfunded pension systems.

OPINION

Tom Humphrey: Forecast for the rest of Haslam’s term uncertain (News-Sentinel)
Gov. Bill Haslam’s choice of Groundhog Day for the start of a special legislative session seems appropriate given that the political weather forecast for his second term may be strongly influenced by the outcome of those extraordinary proceedings. According to the folklore, a groundhog seeing its shadow upon emerging from hibernation on a sunny Feb. 2 will flee back into its burrow to continue sleeping for six weeks or so, and winter weather will continue for the period. But if it’s a cloudy day, the groundhog stays out and spring is at hand. Our gubernatorial groundhog, who has spent a good bit of his first four-year term down in the burrow avoiding controversy whenever possible, has sent multiple signals that he will follow the tradition of two-term Tennessee governors of actually standing up for something he believes important in his final four years — even if it’s unpopular among some in his own party.

Free-Press Editorial: Go carefully on Insure Tennessee (Times Free-Press)
Chattanooga area legislators said they’ve heard tell of a health plan in which it was proclaimed “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it,” and they don’t want any of that. So, please pardon them, they said, if they’re not ready to embrace, with a ring and a date, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan. The two-year pilot plan, announced just a month ago with few details, would offer two private market choices for health care for state residents who currently don’t have access to health insurance or have limited options. It is expected to be revenue neutral for the state since the Tennessee Hospital Association has committed that its members would make up any money the federal government doesn’t pay.

Times Editorial: Tennessee lawmakers need our help as session begins (TFP)
The majority of Hamilton County’s state lawmakers will begin the new 109th Tennessee General Assembly session on Tuesday with vim and vinegar. But they need our help to clear their thinking. Five of our lawmakers — as indicated by their comments last week at the Chattanooga Times Free Press — have doubts about casting a sure vote for Volkswagen’s expected $300 million in SUV-expansion incentives. More concerning, however, is that four of the five members of our visiting delegation — Republicans Bo Watson, Todd Gardenhire, Mark Gravitt and Mike Carter — also had obvious contempt for local officials’ calls to fully fund the state’s Hamilton County BEP school allocation. And, our lawmakers said they are dubious of why they should vote for Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan that would return our federal tax dollars to Tennessee under the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid — known in the Volunteer State as TennCare.

Editorial: Make civics test part of schools’ required courses (News-Sentinel)
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick is proposing a bill to require high school students to pass the same civics test that those applying to become American citizens must pass. McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican, said he is proposing the legislation after reading reports on the lack of knowledge about the basic principles of American government and citizenship, especially among younger residents. “We want there to be some basic understanding of how government works,” he said. “That’s what our democracy depends on.” Certainly the evidence weighs heavily in favor of such a test, with plenty of video footage — humorous and pathetic at the same time — and poll results showing that U.S. citizens really know little about the Constitution, the branches of the federal government or how the government operates.