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Business and Economy NewsTracker

Improving Education a Key Theme at ECD Convention

Tennessee needs to develop a more skilled workforce to attract the jobs of the future, Gov. Bill Haslam said Friday at the 60th annual Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development conference.

“Only 32 percent of Tennesseans have a two-year, four-year degree or technical certificate,” Haslam said. “That means a whole lot of jobs are going somewhere else.”

To bring those jobs here, the governor lauded his “Drive to 55” initiative, which aims to encourage Tennesseans to pursue advanced education after high school.

“A lack of training beyond high school limits opportunities,” he said.

Tennessee is projected needed 55 percent of its workforce trained beyond high school to attract and retain jobs by 2025. If the state stays on track, it will only have 39 percent with a certificate or degree beyond high school in 2025.

To accomplish this, the state as a whole has to change expectations for what comes after high school and help the 940,000 adult Tennesseans who have some college credit but didn’t graduate with an advanced degree.

For this part of the equation, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris championed the Labor Education Alignment Program last session. LEAP aims to meet the demands of employers’ rising skill requirements by allowing adults to transfer technical training to four-year degrees.

“LEAP provides the pathways we need to enable Tennesseans to work, earn and learn,” Norris said.

The program was recognized Friday by a report from the Brookings Institutions’ Advanced Industries Series for meeting the demands of employers’ rising skill requirements.

“Brookings confirms this and suggests strategies to implement action between the public and private sectors designed to maintain competitiveness and move Tennessee forward,” the Collierville Republican said.

In his speech Friday, Haslam said public and private partnerships are exactly why businesses are coming to Tennessee.

The public and private sectors have worked together over the years to create excellent infrastructure and raise the quality of life in the state, he said. Both have also invested heavily in education.

State Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna, agreed, pointing to the state-funded technical education center that is being built in Smyrna. The $38 million education center is a joint venture by the Tennessee Technology Center in Murfreesboro and Nissan.

“This is the largest investment in Smyrna since Nissan opened,” Sparks said, adding the tech center will provide training on maintaining high-tech manufacturing equipment like robots and other computer-controlled processes.

“We want to be the best location in the Southeast for quality jobs,” Haslam said, which means tech centers need to focus on emerging sectors of the economy.

The Smyrna tech center is doing just that, Sparks said, by teaching skills that can be used at area manufacturing facilities like Nissan, Bridgestone and General Mills and distribution facilities like the ones opened by Amazon.

“We have a lot going for us right now,” Haslam said.

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Featured Health Care NewsTracker

Haslam Defends Push to Regulate Obamacare ‘Navigators’

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam wants the Affordable Care Act to “work well” as long as it’s law, he said Monday after a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new hotel in downtown Nashville.

“The Affordable Care Act is the law of the land right now, and whether I agree with it or not doesn’t matter. Certainly if it’s in place, we want it to work well,” Haslam said.

But Democrats who support Obamacare are skeptical.

Jim Kyle of Memphis, the Tennessee Senate minority leader, said the “emergency rules” enacted by the state’s Department of Commerce and Insurance to require criminal background checks on anyone helping others on the newly opened insurance exchange “may have been the first, but are definitely not the last, effort to cripple the Affordable Care Act.”

“To use a NASCAR analogy, they are taking the air out of the tires to slow it down,” he said.

Kyle was the sole member of the Tennessee General Assembly to vote against legislation last spring declaring that “it is in the best interest of the people of the State of Tennessee that navigators be licensed and regulated insofar as is consistent with (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act).”

The measure was sponsored by Republican Sen. Mark Green and Democratic Rep. Joe Pitts, both of Clarksville. Signed by the governor on May 14, it passed in the House 87-0 and 28-1 in the Senate. Three lawmakers abstained from the floor votes: Oak Ridge Republican Rep. John Regan, Cookeville Democratic Sen. Charlotte Burks and Sen. Thelma Harper, a Democrat from Nashville.

Noting that support for the legislation giving rise to the new rules was overwhelming, Haslam said the proposed regulations “are not intended to be a stumbling block.”

At issue are emergency rules finalized Sept. 20 that pertain to those who will be helping others enroll in the state health care exchange, also known as “navigators.” The rules define who a navigator is, require them to submit to criminal background checks before they are allowed to offer any assistance and clarify navigators are not allowed to sell health insurance.

On Sept. 27, the Tennessee Justice Center, League of Women Voters and others filed suit asking that a temporary restraining order be issued. The suit argues that the rules may limit navigators rights to free speech, and that the state is defining a “navigator” as “individuals and entities that facilitate enrollment in exchanges” is too broad.

The broad definition prompted the City of Nashville to file a friend of the court brief because Metro employees may be asked to help and the city feared they could be slapped with a $1,000 per violation fine. “We’re called upon – because of our role in running a public health facility, running libraries, running a hospital – to give information. And we just want to make sure we’re following the law. And I think clarity is a good thing,” said Nashville Mayor Karl Dean.

Davidson County Chancery Court Chancellor Russell T. Perkins agreed Monday afternoon that clarity is necessary, but said the rules will probably not affect the exchanges or anyone’s First Amendment rights, as argued by the plaintiffs.

“If somebody’s rights end up getting chilled because of this, that’s not the intent of this order at all,” he said.

The intent of the emergency rules are meant to protect the state’s citizens, Commerce and Insurance Commission Julie Mix McPeak said in response to the lawsuit.

“Our focus is on protecting Tennesseans and taking reasonable and responsible steps to provide consumer safeguards,” she said, adding navigators will have access to individual’s personal financial and medical information.

“These rules are those reasonable and responsible steps,” said McPeak.

Kyle said Tuesday he doesn’t see much need for worrying about protecting consumer information for people who sign up for the health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. He doubts they have anything anybody would want to steal.

“The people (who will need the help of navigators) don’t have checking accounts, they don’t have driver’s licenses, and we are worried about identity theft,” he said. “I want this (the ACA) to work as a representative of people who need this. I saw it as an effort to make certain it doesn’t run fast.”

As the exchanges open, others may want even more safeguards. Haslam said Monday he has heard concern expressed from some in the insurance industry that “we haven’t put enough regulations in place,” he said.