January 22 TN News Digest

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

Tennessee’s physicians throw their support behind Insure Tennessee (NBJ)

When Gov. Bill Haslam first announced plans for Tennessee’s own version of Medicaid expansion, Insure Tennessee, the group that represents the state’s physicians was generally supportive, but had its questions. But now, a little more than a month later, the group has released a follow-up statement voicing its full support of Insure Tennessee. What changed between now and then to assuage the group’s concerns? According to TMA President Dr. Doug Springer, the primary concern was a perceived connection between the unique Tennessee Medicaid expansion plan proposed by Haslam and ongoing payment reform efforts within the state.

Haslam hits the road to promote Insure Tennessee proposal (AP/Schelzig)

Gov. Bill Haslam on Wednesday kicked off a statewide tour to make the hard sell for his proposal to extend health coverage to more than 200,000 low-income Tennesseans. Haslam opened the tour at Jackson-Madison County Memorial Hospital, where he sought to explain his Insure Tennessee proposal and assuage the concerns of fellow Republicans wary of approving the program in a special legislative session next month because it would draw on federal money available under President Barack Obama’s health care law. “This is not Obamacare,” Haslam told reporters after the event.

Haslam kicks off Insure Tenn. tour in Jackson (Jackson Sun)

Gov. Bill Haslam began a statewide tour in Jackson on Wednesday to promote his health care plan that could insure more than 200,000 working poor Tennesseans. Haslam’s plan, Insure Tennessee, would not be Obamacare, he said, but the federal government would pay for 100 percent of the expansion for two years. After that time, hospitals would pick up 10 percent of the cost. The program would be open to Tennesseans earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level. There is no additional cost to taxpayers in the proposed plan, Haslam said Wednesday.

Gov. Haslam lays out Insure Tennessee proposal (WBBJ-TV Jackson)

Governor Bill Haslam has laid out his plan for health care reform in Tennessee, beginning with a stop in Jackson Wednesday. The proposal could extend health insurance to more than 200,000 low-income residents. Haslam maintains the plan is not Obamacare and said he did not think Obamacare was right for the Volunteer State. “This is a critical issue to the state,” Haslam said. “We have a lot of people with no health care coverage and we have a way to provide that at no cost to the taxpayers,” the Governor said. Before the plan can go into effect it needs support from both sides of the aisle in Nashville.

Haslam promotes Insure Tennessee to Memphis area legislators (CA/Burch)

Gov. Bill Haslam, on the road to promote his health insurance plan, assured Memphis area legislators Wednesday that if Insure Tennessee doesn’t work in its first two years, “we’re not obligated to continue it.” A gathering at the Frayser Health Center was the second stop on the Republican governor’s planned nine-stop state tour to shore up support for his health care proposal in advance of a special legislative session that begins Feb. 2. Haslam’s two-year pilot program would provide health coverage for up to 200,000 Tennesseans with limited or no access to insurance. Darin Gordon, director of the state’s current Medicaid program TennCare, traveled to Memphis with Haslam.

Haslam stops in Frayser to promote his Insure Tennessee plan (WREG-TV)

Gov. Bill Haslam was in Frayser Wednesday, making a pitch for his Insure Tennessee program. It would allow the Volunteer State to opt-in to the Affordable Care Act, giving it a windfall of federal dollars for insuring the poor. “Not only is this good for Tennessee, I think it’s the right thing to do for the country. And the direction we should be going in with healthcare,” Haslam said. Haslam got right to the heart of why he came to Frayser Wednesday afternoon. His stop at Christ Community Health Services was one of nine he’s making to promote his Insure Tennessee healthcare plan. He made his pitch to a standing room only crowd that included state legislators from Shelby County.

Haslam begins health care drive (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam sought to reassure anxious GOP lawmakers Wednesday that he legally will be able to jettison his plan to use federal Medicaid dollars to insure 200,000 low-income Tennesseans should it prove unworkable. The governor’s comments came as he kicked off a statewide tour at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital in West Tennessee. It’s a high-stakes effort to build support in a Feb. 2 special session of the GOP-dominated Legislature for his “market driven” Insure Tennessee program. “This is a two-year pilot program,” Haslam told the lawmakers. “At the end of that time, we can decide if we want to renew.

Tennessee Promise mentors take on life-changing roles (Tennessean/Yankova)

Mentors learned one interesting thing about their Tennessee Promise students during their first meeting Tuesday. “They wanted to be contacted by text messages,” mentor David Gregory said after the meeting. “They said they can check and reply to text much quicker than to email.” A Hendersonville resident, Gregory is one of 50 mentors that met with some 350 students and parents at Gallatin High School as part of the newly launched Tennessee Promise program. Beginning with the class of 2015, the scholarship program provides two years tuition-free education at a state community college or technical school.

Education commissioner to visit every district in state (Tennessean/Gonzalez)

Tennessee’s newly appointed education commissioner has spent most of her first couple days on the job in and out of meetings getting acquainted with the role. Candice McQueen’s week also included recording a video Wednesday to announce to educators she plans to visit every district in the state. Her hope is to bring a collaborative leadership style to the top position by listening to the needs of every region in Tennessee. The commissioner said she will start the yearlong, statewide tour on an unknown date beginning in Clarksville — her hometown.

Crews dismantling Highway 41 bridge (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Benton)

Like a decomposing skeleton, the 1929-era steel Parker truss-style bridge over the Tennessee River on U.S. Highway 41 in Marion County, Tenn., is coming down a piece at a time. Crews started work this month on the two smaller truss spans, Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn said this week. “They are lowering them onto barges where they will be taken away and dismantled,” Flynn said. Work on the two larger, central truss spans has not begun. “They will be removed at a later date as soon as TDOT and the contractor finalize removal plans for the larger spans,” she said.

Weakley Co. woman charged with TennCare fraud (Jackson Sun)

A Weakley County woman is charged with TennCare fraud in connection with the sale of prescription drugs paid for by the state’s health care insurance program. The Office of Inspector General, with the assistance of the Weakley County Sheriff’s Office, on Wednesday announced the arrest of Mary Jane Seaton, also known as Mary Jane Upchurch, 59, of Gleason. She is accused of using her TennCare benefits on three separate occasions to obtain the painkiller Hydrocodone and Diazepam, an anti-anxiety medication, and later selling a portion to an undercover informant, according to a news release. Seaton is charged with three counts of TennCare fraud and three counts of sale of a controlled substance.

Haslam’s Medicaid-Expansion Plan Getting First Committee Look (TNReport)

The Legislature’s not scheduled to take up Gov. Bill Haslam’s voucher-driven plan to widen the scope of government-financed heath-insurance coverage until Feb. 2. But the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a meeting next week to give the governor’s proposal a preliminary probe. A press release issued by the upper-chamber GOP majority caucus Wednesday indicated the Judiciary Committee plans to meet on Tuesday afternoon “to study the legal issues raised by the governor’s proposed Obamacare Medicaid expansion plan.” The committee is chaired by Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who last year sponsored the “Stop Obamacare Act.”

Bills aimed at Achievement School District (Tennessean/Gonzalez)

A Nashville Democrat will file bills placing some limits on the way the Tennessee Achievement School District takes over a school. State Rep. Harold Love, D-Nashville, is behind two pieces of legislation he thinks will cut the fear among educators when a school slips into “priority” status. Love has yet to file his portion of the bills. The first bill, already filed in the Senate Jan. 17 by state Sen. Reginald Tate, requires the ASD hire back 30 percent of teachers with high performance marks upon a charter school takeover. If there aren’t enough teachers at that level, the ASD isn’t obligated to fill the number. “This is not to say ASD doesn’t know who to hire,” he said.

Tennessee sets uniform 911 fee for landlines, mobile (Associated Press)

Tennesseans getting their first bills of 2015 will soon see new charges for 911 services. Under a new law that took effect on Jan. 1, the surcharge for all landlines and mobile phones was set at $1.16 per month. That’s a 16-cent increase for mobile phone users, and a decrease in the fee for business landlines in all 100 emergency communications districts in Tennessee. For residential landlines, the universal $1.16 fee marks an increase for subscribers in 45 districts, and a decrease for those in the remaining 55 where most people paid $1.50 per month.

Alexander, Corker hold first hearings as committee chairmen (N-S/Collins)

For U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the subject was school reform. For U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, it was a nuclear Iran. The Tennessee senators formally stepped into their roles as chairmen of two powerful committees on Wednesday by presiding for the first time over hearings on two hot-button issues. Alexander, a Maryville Republican, used his debut as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to make the case for revising the No Child Left Behind school-reform law.

Study Finds Doctor Pay Raise Boosted Medicaid Access (Governing)

As a federally funded pay raise for Medicaid doctors expired at the end of 2014, a common refrain among states that decided not to continue with their own money was a lack of evidence that it worked. A study released Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine is the first national effort to quantify the impact of the policy — and it shows the pay bump provided a boost in patient access to doctors. The 10-state study found that appointments to see primary doctors increased 7.7 percent on average when compared with a period before the launch of the pay raise.

School closure talk sparks questions about impact (Commercial Appeal/Roberts)

Desiree Moneyham is school mom, PTO president and chief concessions officer all rolled up in one at Lincoln Elementary. With all her hats, she got word that the school may be closing when her phone starting blowing up on the way to school early Wednesday. “I started receiving phone calls: ‘Have you seen the news? You need to see the news; they’re talking about closing Lincoln.’ A lot of parents are very upset,” said Moneyham, who has been tied to the school for “going on 12 years” as her three children have attended the school on South Orleans. Now, she’s ready to stage a grass-roots revolt. She watched as Orleans Elementary closed in the spring of 2013, sending a passel of children on foot over busy South Parkway to Lincoln Elementary. She’s lobbied ever since for a crossing guard.

Alaska: Walker offers hope but few details in State of State speech (Dispatch-News)

Gov. Bill Walker on Wednesday used his first State of the State address to put a positive, up-by-your-bootstraps spin on Alaska’s tough fiscal predicament, though he offered Alaskans few concrete details on the steps he’ll take to reach the goals outlined in his speech. In a 40-minute address to members of the Legislature and to a statewide television and radio audience, Walker said he’d appoint a special investigator on Thursday to examine the Alaska National Guard scandal, and said he’d already taken steps to give tens of thousands of Alaskans health care coverage by expanding the Medicaid insurance program.

Mississippi: ‘Eternal optimist’ Bryant gives State of State (Clarion-Ledger)

Gov. Phil Bryant described himself as “an eternal optimist” in the final State of the State address of his first term, and vowed to pump millions more money into job training and tourism and continue to push for a tax cut for “working Mississippians.” Bryant on Wednesday declared that in his first three years, he and Republican legislative leaders “have created one of the most job-friendly states in America.” As he has in other recent speeches, he listed numerous kudos and high rankings the state has received from business magazines and studies, including a “Silver Shovel” award for breaking ground on many new enterprises.

Missouri: Nixon Talks Ferguson, Education, Cuba in State of State (KOLR-TV)

“Rumor has it I don’t spend enough time up on the third floor. I hear you. I’m going to be coming around more often. Just be careful what you wish for.” Gov. Jay Nixon called said he will do his best to improve political relationships in Jefferson City at the start of his State of the State address Tuesday night.  Political expert Dr. Brian Calfano told KOLR 10, it’s not likely we’ll see much change. “they don’t need him to do anything,” Calfano said. “The size of the republican majority in both chambers now are super majority status. It’s almost impossible for the governor to get his initiatives through.” Nixon touted the rebounding auto industry as a promising sign for the state economy.

New York: Cuomo talks taxes, budget, education in State of the State (Times-Union)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo began his State of the State address on Wednesday touting past efforts to cut income and property taxes, unveiling plans to spend billions of dollars on upstate economic development and laying out a proposal to dramatically overhaul the education system and teacher evaluations. The speech will be accompanied by the unveiling of his proposed $141.6 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year. “I wouldn’t say it was an easy four years,” he said of his first term. “It was a hard four years.” Cuomo initially spoke about the state’s economy. “Business is the engine that drives the train,” he said. “It’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs.”

South Carolina: Haley proposes gas tax hike if income tax cut (Greeneville Online)

Gov. Nikki Haley is proposing fixing the state’s roads with an increase in the gas tax over three years, provided lawmakers also reduce the state’s income tax rate and restructure the state’s highway commission. In her annual State of the State speech Wednesday night to a joint session of lawmakers, Haley unveiled her long-awaited roads plan promised last year during her re-election campaign. The Republican governor has repeatedly vowed to veto any gas tax increase and repeated that promise in her speech, if the bill that comes to her is a stand-alone tax proposal.

OPINION

Editorial: Entire community benefits from MTSU initiatives (Daily News Journal)

Recently we congratulated Blackman High School on creation of its Collegiate Academy initiative, and its efforts to prepare students to succeed at any universities they want to attend. We hope many of these highly qualified students from Blackman and similar programs in the county will consider attending Middle Tennessee State University. MTSU officials recently reported an uptick in the average ACT score for incoming students, and credited their initiatives such as the Buchanan Fellowship program and construction of the $147 million science building, now open to the students.

Columnist: Tennessee’s ‘front-running’ schools earn national attention (Tenn)

“Great,” isn’t a word I’m used to hearing describe the job I’m doing, teaching in Tennessee. Perhaps that’s why I felt so stunned when I heard it expressed — not here, but at a conference I attended last October in New York City. The person who used it was Peter Kannam, managing partner of America Achieves, a national education reform organization for which I was awarded a fellowship this year. Because I was so shocked — and because I was in New York — I wanted to ask in my best Robert De Niro accent, “You talkin’ ta me?” He was. “Tennessee has made a lot of progress,” Kannam told me last week from his office in Washington, D.C.

Editorial: Lawmakers can fix shortfall in funding at UT (Knoxville News-Sentinel)

If the University of Tennessee’s business model is broken, as UT system president Joe DiPietro has repeatedly asserted, the blame lies with the state Legislature’s unwillingness to fund higher education. State support for higher education in Tennessee has dropped an astonishing 24.1 percent, adjusted for inflation, over the past 15 years, according to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. Tuition payments now outstrip state appropriations as a source of revenue. If the inflation rate remains at around 3 percent and tuition increases are capped at 3 percent annually, the university system could face a $155 million shortfall over the next decade.

Guest columnist: Fill judicial vacancies, including the one in Tennessee (Tenn)

What if 5 percent of all the jobs in your workplace were left unfilled? Projects would still need to get done. Each worker would need to take up the slack for the missing employees until the posts were filled. For the federal judiciary, this is not just a hypothetical situation — it’s a lived reality every day. With more than 40 vacant seats on the federal bench, our judicial branch is under substantial strain. High school civics made it seem simple. Our Founding Fathers crafted a system of three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. Each of these separate branches was vested with distinct powers with which they could check and balance each other.

Columnist: Middle Tennesseans say they haven’t felt economic gains (Tennessean)

President Obama called for “a better politics” in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, harkening back to the days when he talked about there being no Red America or Blue America, but one united America. At the same time, he proposed policies that Republicans have already balked at, be it new taxes for wealthy Americans, mandatory paid medical and family leave, investment in climate change solutions, and free community college across the nation for students. On the latter point, he gave a shout out to Tennessee, which he visited earlier this month to tout Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise plan to do just that for the state’s students.