Education News Transparency and Elections

Ramsey Would Reject RTTT Funds If ‘Strings Attached’

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said Saturday that as governor he’d reject federal Race to the Top funds for state education if the money comes with requirements from Washington, D.C.that it be spent in specific ways.

“I hope and pray this Race to the Top money doesn’t have strings attached to it. If it does, and I’m governor, we’re not going to take it,” Ramsey said.

He said the funds should be used in non-recurring ways, such as putting it toward teacher and principal training.

Ramsey, who is seeking the Republican nomination to replace Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, was speaking at a meeting in Franklin of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, an organization that offers teachers an alternative to joining a teachers union. The lieutenant governor said he is feeling much relieved now that the legislative session is over and he can concentrate on primary election campaigning

Other speakers at the meeting included Republican candidate Zach Wamp, Democrat hopeful Mike McWherter and independent candidates Bayron Binkley, Samuel Duck and Brandon Dodds.

Bredesen led the charge for the Race to the Top funds, and the federal government surprised Tennessee by granting the state $500 million, an amount the state wanted and applied for but did not expect to receive in full. The state had expected a much lower figure if it won. Only one other state, Delaware, won Race to the Top funds in the first of two rounds in the contest and was awarded roughly $100 million.

Ramsey told the group the Race to the Top funds were greatly due to the intense amount of work the Legislature put in during its special session on education in January.

Ramsey spoke highly of the effort in the special session and explained that he knew the subject of teacher evaluations was controversial but supported changes in the evaluation process. The reform effort was intended to help put together a strong application for the federal funds.

Ramsey said the special session was an example of “the way government ought to work.”

“This is not about some mass firing of teachers, but it is a tool we can use to help teachers,” Ramsey said. “In the end, this will work out. It will be fine.”

Ramsey was in full campaign mode and he became passionate when the issue of federal intervention rose.

“At first I thought this administration we have now was just incompetent. But now I think it’s conniving,” Ramsey said. “You don’t borrow $1.4 trillion one year, $1.6 trillion the next year and expect our country to stay the same. It’s not going to happen.

“I hope to have grandkids soon. There’s no way our kids can have the same world to grow up in that I did if we keep heading in this direction. It’s impossible.”

He said governors need to push back against the federal government.

“This is revolutionary,” Ramsey said. “I don’t mean like march on Washington, D.C., revolutionary. I mean revolutionary in the sense that I don’t think states have ever pushed back. We’ve never been in this position before.”

Wamp said a group like the Professional Educators of Tennessee deserves to have a voice in decision-making on education. He used the opportunity to state his case about the importance of early childhood reading and emphasized the importance of health issues among children.

“The truth is you are getting a product that requires you to be in law enforcement and psychology and everything across the spectrum instead of the ability to just educate the children based on you getting a decent product,” Wamp told the group.

McWherter tied education to the mission of creating more jobs in the state. He said he recognizes the importance of providing the resources necessary to teach children. He also lauded the Bredesen administration for landing the Race to the Top grant monies.

The primary is Aug. 5. The general election is Nov. 2.

Health Care Transparency and Elections

Candidates Continue Pushing Back on Health Care Mandates

Congress had its say on health care reform, but gubernatorial candidates in Tennessee have their second opinions.

And they’re sticking to them.

As soon as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was passed, an immediate cry went up across the country to repeal the law, an idea that certainly has legs. While one line of thought says states should accept the act as the law of the land and concentrate on how to deal with it, many voices are still saying no.

Much of the objection to the law is bolstered by the fact that many of the requirements do not kick in until 2014, which opponents view as enough time to undo the damage.

“The mandates to Tennessee don’t begin until 2014 and we should not give up or give in until we have our voices heard in the election of 2010 and 2012,” said U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, a Republican candidate who voted against the bill as a member of Congress.

“Parts of the federal health care bill are going to be implemented this year. Some things are going to be permanent, but in terms of the state going ahead with preparation for the mandates on Medicaid, we don’t even have the money to keep the budget balanced with non-recurring revenues right now, let alone how we would ever pay for the mandates.”

When the health care overhaul was in the discussion phase, Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen said it could become “the mother of all unfunded mandates.” Republican candidates for Bredesen’s job, particularly Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, have jumped on that line repeatedly in the campaign as a sign of agreement between them and Bredesen.

After the bill passed, Bredesen said that while he didn’t like it, it was time to figure out how to cope with the new law. But Bredesen is in the final year of his final term. Yet the idea of trying to deal with the reform package has not been completely dismissed. Jeff Yarbro, the Nashville attorney challenging veteran state Sen. Douglas Henry in the Democratic primary, speaks of the opportunity for states to be the laboratories for implementing reforms and points to Tennessee’s strong health-care industry as an asset in that effort.

Bill Haslam, mayor of Knoxville and another Republican candidate for governor, said there should be a lot of discussion about the financial implications of the legislation on the state.

“We’re still four years out from the first stages of it,” Haslam said. “There’s still a lot of water to go under the bridge. We do need to be talking about the cost of that and how we’re going to handle that cost.”

It’s clear that the law remains widely unpopular. Part of that is because many people have felt confused by the legislation, according to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which does extensive research on health care isses.

Another Republican gubernatorial candidate, Joe Kirkpatrick, said, “Working with it is not an option.”

Ramsey guided a resolution through the Senate calling on state Attorney General Bob Cooper to file a lawsuit challenging the health care reform law on grounds that it is unconstitutional. Cooper has not given any indication he will do so.

Mike McWherter, the likely Democratic nominee for governor, has said he wants to avoid the mandate that would come with reform.

“As the next governor, I’m going to be working closely with the congressional delegation, Republican and Democrat alike, to see that we don’t have a huge unfunded federal mandate coming down and burdening our taxpayers,” McWherter said. “I believe our governor needs to work very closely with our congressional delegation to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

McWherter has said openly that he will rely heavily on what Bredesen says about the issue, given Bredesen’s background in the health care industry.

In a recent forum in Gatlinburg, Republican candidates were asked about TennCare, the state’s version of the federal Medicaid program. Both Wamp and Haslam credited Bredesen and Darin Gordon, director of TennCare, for the reductions they have made.

“Governor Bredesen and Darin Gordon have done one really good thing,” Wamp said. “They lowered the benefit structure so we’re no longer a magnet for people in surrounding states to come here to get benefits. That’s one reason why costs are contained. It wasn’t that way for a long time.”

Haslam said Wamp was right and that Bredesen and Gordon had cut TennCare rolls by 140,000 people and put limits on what the state would pay providers. But Haslam said the new problem was that the law would add 250,000 people back to the rolls, so all the work that had been done to cut the cost just got thrown back at the state, and more.

At that, Brandon Dodds, an independent candidate for governor and an optometrist in Dyer County, had heard enough.

“I can tell you if you think Bredesen has done a good job, you’re just wrong,” Dodds said. “You could not devise a more inefficient system of treating patients. As a medical provider, doctors can’t practice medicine with their hands tied behind their backs.”

While much of the debate continues to focus on parts of the law that kick in in 2014, the White House points to its immediate benefits.

A White House summary of aspects of the law that apply this year says 66,500 small businesses in Tennessee could benefit by a tax credit the law provides; the law may help some of the 85,000 Tennesseans who hit the “donut hole” in their Medicare Part D coverage; a $5 billion temporary program to help stabilize coverage for early retirees begins June 1; coverage begins Sept. 23 for maintaining coverage for children on plans until they turn 26; several consumer protections including no lifetime limits on coverage kick in Sept. 23; community health centers benefit beginning Oct. 1; and beginning Oct. 1 scholarships and loan repayments will be provided for health care providers where there is a shortage of professionals in their field.

As for Medicaid, where so much of the concern exists about mandates, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported this week that Medicaid enrollment nationally will increase by 15.9 million people under the plan and that the overall cost of Medicaid expansion in 2014-2019 would be an increase of $443.5 billion in federal funds and $21.1 billion in states’ spending.

The group broke down the numbers for each state, and Tennessee, in its estimation, would see 330,932 new enrollees involving $716 million. The federal tab on Tennessee’s new enrollment would be $11.1 billion. Those figures are based on what the organization said would be a standard participation scenario. Kaiser also calculated what it called an enhanced outreach scenario, which would have new enrollees total 474,240 people at a cost of $1.5 billion to the state and $13.1 billion by the federal government.

Press Releases

Haslam Calls Health Care Vote ‘Intolerable Expansion of Federal Power’

Press Release from Bill Haslam for Governor, March 21, 2010:

KNOXVILLE – Republican gubernatorial candidate and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam released the following statement regarding tonight’s Congressional vote on health care:

“The legislation that passed the House today is an intolerable expansion of federal power and a reminder of the incredible arrogance of Washington. The Obama Administration and Congress chose to defy the majority of Americans and the governors of most states, including our own.

“Not only has the Administration in Washington expanded federal government control into yet another area where we would prefer to trust individual decisions and free markets, this legislation usurps our 10th Amendment right to have a state government that reflects our own priorities.

“Today the federal government imposed an unbearable unfunded mandate that will explode costs in an area our state has worked hard to control. We can’t tolerate Washington making us pay for their bad ideas, and if elected governor, I will pursue every means necessary to protect our state’s interests.”

Bill Haslam is the two-term Mayor of Knoxville, re-elected in 2007 with 87% of the vote. A hardworking, conservative public servant, he led Knoxville to become one of the top ten metropolitan areas for business and expansion, while reducing the city’s debt, tripling the rainy day fund, and bringing property taxes to the lowest rate in 50 years.

An executive leader with a proven record of success, he helped grow his family’s small business from 800 employees into one of Tennessee’s largest companies with 14,000 employees. His combination of executive and public service experience makes him uniquely qualified to be Tennessee’s next Governor. Bill is the right person at the right time to lead Tennessee.

Bill and Crissy Haslam have two daughters, Annie and Leigh, and a son, Will, who resides in Knoxville with his wife, Hannah.

For more information on Bill Haslam, please visit


Anti-Insurance Mandate Bill Thus Far Encountering Little Resistance

The Tennessee Senate has passed a measure aimed at blocking any federal requirement that citizens of the state purchase private health insurance.

The bill cleared the Senate 26-1-5 and is now headed to the House.

Coined “The Tennessee Health Freedom Act,” the bill would require the state attorney general to defend residents who find themselves in trouble with the IRS, or some other federal agency, for disobeying an order from the United States government to purchase health insurance.

“I think this just protects the rights of our citizens to choose,” said Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, who sponsored the bill.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a co-sponsor, said Senate Bill 3498 (pdf) could end up opening a legal can of worms to determine if state law has the power to trump the federal government under certain circumstances.

It’s an issue being raised by as many as 36 states carrying similar legislation, many of which are considering amendments to their constitutions to bolster their claims of legal legitimacy and political independence.

Tennessee is considering such a constitutional amendment, too, however that process takes at least two years in the Volunteer State.

The measure passed by the Tennessee Senate, while something of a “stopgap,” could provide extra protection for Tennesseans, and the state government, if the federal government tries to impose something on the states before a state constitutional amendment can be voted on, said Ramsey.

The federal health care package debated in Congress throughout 2009 is now essentially on life support. But the states aren’t out of the woods yet in terms of avoiding mandates from Washington that political leaders and voting majorities in some states do not want.

“I think we’ve seen that the president is determined to get something done and we don’t want the citizens of Tennessee to be penalized in case they do,” said Beavers.

It is important, said Ramsey, “to make sure there’s something in place” — even if it is only a statute — that could add “more validity” to Tennessee’s legal position should the state find itself in court.

“This (statute) can be done immediately, whereas it takes a little time to pass a constitutional amendment,” Ramsey said.

State Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, is sponsoring a constitutional amendment, House Joint Resolution 745 (pdf), with similar language. However, it would take a majority vote this year, and a super majority in 2011 or 2012, to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, cast the lone vote against the bill Wednesday, calling the effort “pure political grandstanding.”

“What we need to be doing up here is protecting our middle class families who are struggling to get and keep health insurance and the businesses that are finding it hard to pay high premiums,” he said.

Five other Democrats who were present abstained from voting.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that promotes state-based, free-market policy initiatives, has been pushing similar bills in legislatures around the country.

Christie Raniszewski Herrera, director of the Health and Human Services Task Force for ALEC, said the preferred legislative course of action for states seeking to stand up to federal overreach is indeed to approve amendments to their constitutions, which she said federal courts may take more seriously than mere statute.

“There are a number of states that will say the federal government can’t do this, or the federal government can’t do that,” she said. “That’s kind of grandstanding in a sense — like saying, ‘The tyranny that is closest to me is fine, but the tyranny in Washington is not’.”

She added, though, that statutory measures like the one passed today in the Tennessee Senate are by no means a waste of lawmakers’ time.

Oregon’s 1994 voter-approved statute legalizing assisted-suicide for the terminally ill was challenged by the Bush administration on the grounds that federal law, and its interpretation by federal officials, always trumps state law. But Oregon’s position was upheld by the United States Supreme Court, Herrera noted.

Also, the lopsided, bipartisan nature of the Tennessee Senate vote isn’t surprising, she suggested. While Democrats have generally supported health-care reform in the broadest sense, the individual-mandate element of the proposals under consideration in Washington isn’t too popular on the left.

“This is a way for conservatives to thread the needle with progressives and other folks who don’t like the insurance industry,” she said.”Why should the federal government be a collection agent for private health insurers? That’s basically what the federal mandate is.”

Andrea Zelinski can be reached at


Republicans Sounding Agreeable to Bredesen’s Education Reform Pitch

Gov. Phil Bredesen’s speech before a joint meeting of the House and Senate for the special legislative session on Tuesday drew skepticism from some in his own party. But to many Republicans on Capitol Hill, the reform plan outlined by the Democratic governor was just what they wanted to hear.

“He has asked us to be bold and join him in this opportunity to prepare students for this global economy and I’m excited about the opportunity,” said Senate Education Committee member Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville. “I think this is an excellent opportunity for Tennessee, and I look forward to this week so we can work together.”

Bredesen is offering two legislative proposals for the special session.

One, called “Tennessee First to the Top Act of 2010,” is designed to position Tennessee to snatch up a portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars the Obama administration is dangling in front of states in “Race to the Top” education funding grants.

The other bill, the “Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010,” is written with the idea in mind of trying to boost lagging college completion rates in Tennessee. “On average, only 46 percent of full-time students at four-year schools graduate within six years, and only 12 percent of full-time community college students attain associate degrees within three years,” Bredesen told lawmakers.

For every 100 students who enter ninth grade in our public schools, Bredesen said, 67 graduate from high school in four years. Of those, 43 go directly to college after graduation, but only 29 return for their sophomore year.

“Just 19 graduate with an associate’s degree in three years or a bachelor’s degree in six years,” Bredesen said. “We can do better. We’ve got to do better.”

For Tennessee schools to have a chance at some of the “Race to the Top” funding, which is part of the stimulus package the Democratic-led Congress and the Obama administration passed last year, changes need to be made to how teachers here are evaluated, said Bredesen.

The “Race to the Top” application specifically requires that student achievement data be added as a “significant factor” to teacher and school principal evaluations, according to the governor. Other states the Bredesen administration sees as “primary competitors” have generally determined that half a teacher’s or principal’s performance evaluation should be based on student achievement.

Currently, it is illegal in Tennessee for school administrators to use student achievement data to rate and review teachers for tenure.

“I know this represents change, but this is not rocket science,” Bredesen said about his proposal to allow student progress to drive official teacher-performance assessments. “It is a commonsense notion; we pay teachers to teach children, a part of their evaluation ought to be how much the children they teach learn.”

Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, said afterward that Bredesen “made a very good case on why we need to do this, and that it’s probably the right thing to do.”

Democrats grumbled that all this proposed change is coming at them without much opportunity for considered debate and analysis. The deadline for the state to apply for the “Race to the Top” grants is Jan. 19. That means a legislative package needs to be on Bredesen’s desk before then.

“I think he’s pretty optimistic. I think he’s entered into a contest where we may or may not win and are trying to change the entire system in a very short period of time,” said Rep. John C. Tidwell of New Johnsonville. “A lot of the details don’t work out.”

While everyone “would love the luxury of time,” said Woodson, “this isn’t the only time in our legislative history that we’ve been talking about these important issues.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said tying teacher performance reviews to student test scores “is something (Republicans) have been pushing for years.”

Ramsey predicted that getting the legislative changes Bredesen wants passed through the chamber over which he presides probably won’t be too difficult. “I think we can do it,” said Ramsey. “I don’t see a lot of problem on the Senate side.”

Press Releases

Stimulus Money Coming for Electronic Medical Record-Keeping

Press Releases from the State of Tennessee and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Jan. 4, 2010:

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services have announced that Tennessee will receive federal matching funds for state planning activities necessary to implement the electronic health record incentive program established by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Tennessee will receive approximately $2.7 million in federal matching funds:


In another key step to further states’ role in developing a robust U.S. health information technology (HIT) infrastructure, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced today that Tennessee’s Medicaid program will receive federal matching funds for state planning activities necessary to implement the electronic health record (EHR) incentive program established by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act). Tennessee will receive approximately $2.7 million in federal matching funds.

EHRs will improve the quality of health care for the citizens of Tennessee and make their care more efficient. The records make it easier for the many providers who may be treating a Medicaid patient to coordinate care. Additionally, EHRs make it easier for patients to access the information they need to make decisions about their health care.

The Recovery Act provides a 90 percent federal match for state planning activities to administer the incentive payments to Medicaid providers, to ensure their proper payments through audits and to participate in statewide efforts to promote interoperability and meaningful use of EHR technology statewide and, eventually, across the nation.

“We congratulate Tennessee for qualifying for these federal matching funds to assist its plan for implementing the Recovery Act’s EHR incentive program,” said Cindy Mann, director of the Center for Medicaid and State Operations at CMS. “Meaningful and interoperable use of EHRs in Medicaid will increase health care efficiency, reduce medical errors and improve quality-outcomes and patient satisfaction within and across the states.”

Tennessee will use its federal matching funds for planning activities that include conducting a comprehensive analysis to determine the current status of HIT activities in the state. As part of that process, Tennessee will gather information on issues such as existing barriers to its use of EHRs, provider eligibility for EHR incentive payments and the creation of a State Medicaid HIT Plan, which will define the state’s vision for its long-term HIT use.

Additional information on implementation of the Medicaid-related provisions of the Recovery Act’s EHR incentive payment program may be found (HERE).

Press Releases

Reps. Maggart and Lynn Ask State AG to Intervene in Federal Health Care Legislation

Tennessee House of Representatives press release, Dec. 21, 2009:

On Monday, State Representatives Susan Lynn (R-Lebanon) and Debra Young Maggart (R-Hendersonville) asked Tennessee State Attorney General Robert Cooper to prepare to take the appropriate legal action against the federal government in the event HR 3200, the controversial federal healthcare reform legislation, passes into law.

The legislators requested this action in order to grant Tennessee relief from the unfunded mandate contained in the bill that Tennessee complies with the expansion of the federal Medicaid program.

The letter notes that under the bill Tennessee would be forced to expand the state’s Medicaid program potentially costing the citizens of the state $1.4 billion dollars in additional state taxpayer funds annually.

“Such an increase would place a great burden on the citizens of this state. It is clear by the wording of the legislation itself that not every state would face a similar and equal burden,” stated Rep. Debra Maggart.

Lynn explained that, “We see this as a violation of equal protection of the law, an affront to our sovereignty, and as a breach of the U.S. Constitution.”

Lynn and Maggart noted that the passage of this bill is imminent so it is important that the AG prepare now to take immediate action, and they referenced Governor Bredesen’s recent comment that “we can’t print money.” The great issue for the states is that states are not allowed to borrow money for operations expenses. “Obviously, this is something that many in Washington just don’t understand,” stated Lynn.

Press Releases

TCPR: Medicaid Expansion Would Wreak Havoc on State

Press Release from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, Dec. 3. 2009:

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Center for Policy Research today sent a brief to state lawmakers outlining the potential costs the proposed healthcare reform bills in Congress will have on the state. Both the House and Senate bills expand Medicaid eligibility, potentially devastating Tennessee’s budget. As a result, TennCare—the state’s Medicaid program—could become the health insurance option of nearly one in four Tennesseans.

According to the brief, titled “The Oncoming Tsunami of TennCare Costs” (pdf), the additional TennCare enrollees could cost Tennesseans as much as $1.4 billion. Governor Phil Bredesen (D), has properly referred to this expansion as “the mother of all unfunded mandates.”

TennCare already eats up a larger portion of the state budget than nearly every other state’s Medicaid program, and the proposed expansions would cause it to consume even more taxpayer money.

“The current rate of TennCare enrollment is unsustainable without a significant tax increase,” noted Justin Owen, the director of policy at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. “Opening the door to even more enrollees by expanding eligibility would wreak havoc on an already troubled program and the state budget.”

Rather than add to the TennCare rolls, Owen suggests free market alternatives that would reduce TennCare recipients’ dependence on government and protect taxpayers’ hard-earned money.

The brief offers two simple, yet effective solutions to the problem. First, the Tennessee General Assembly should seek a Medicaid waiver that would allow TennCare enrollees to take more control of their healthcare costs. Second, the state’s congressional delegation should urge Congress to replace the current Medicaid matching system with block grant funding.

“Congress successfully reformed welfare in the 1990s by moving to a block grant program, and they should do the same now to fix the Medicaid debacle,” said Owen. “The move would eliminate states’ incentive to throw more money at the problem rather than find real solutions to provide healthcare coverage to those unable to afford it.”