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Haslam Awards Shelby Co $1.4M in TDOT, TDEC Grants

Press release from the Office of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; July 23, 2014:

MEMPHIS – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced five grants totaling more than $1.4 million for Shelby County to make Walker Avenue in the University District more pedestrian friendly, enhance parks and recreation opportunities in Arlington, Collierville and Germantown, and to make the Shelby County Corrections facility more energy efficient.

“These types of projects strengthen our communities,” Haslam said. “Increasing energy efficiencies saves taxpayer dollars, and making our cities more pedestrian-friendly and enhancing our parks and recreation areas improves the lives of Tennesseans. We want Tennessee to continue to be the very best place to live, work and raise a family, and projects like these are key to making that a reality.”

A $458,830 transportation alternative grant from the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) will fund new curbs and gutters at crosswalks, new sidewalks, decorative park benches, bike racks, and pedestrian lighting along Walker Avenue in the University District adjacent to the University of Memphis.

The transportation alternative grant is made possible through a federally funded program formerly known as transportation enhancement and is administered by TDOT. A variety of activities, such as the restoration of historic facilities, bike and pedestrian trails, landscaping and other non-traditional transportation projects, are eligible for grant funds under the federal program.

“Through these grants, TDOT has funded more than $306 million in non-traditional transportation projects,” TDOT Commissioner John Schroer said. “This program has assisted communities all over the state in their efforts to revitalize downtowns, highlight historic areas, provide alternative means of transportation, and increase opportunities for economic development.”

Shelby County is also receiving three Local Park and Recreation Fund (LPRF) grants and a Clean Tennessee Energy Grant from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).

“From land acquisitions for new municipal parks to renovating and improving existing facilities, these grants help expand recreational opportunities for Tennessee citizens,” TDEC Commissioner Bob Martineau said. “We are always looking for ways to promote environmental awareness and energy efficiency, and these investments in our local communities help improve the quality of life for all Tennesseans.”

A $250,000 LPRF grant will be used to construct athletic fields at the new Forrest Street Park in Arlington.

Another $250,000 LPRF grant will be used for the Wolf River Boulevard Greenbelt Trail in Collierville. Phase I of the project will include a .58 mile trail, two pedestrian bridges, an observation deck for wildlife viewing and educational opportunities, and a small trailhead with four parking spaces and entrance signage.

A $208,000 LPRF grant will be used for a hay barn pavilion at the Bobby Lanier Farm Park in Germantown. The pavilion will offer farm-based education and also serve as an event center.

The LPRF is a 23-year old state program that provides local governments with resources to support development and improvements to local parks, greenways, trails and recreational facilities. Grant recipients were selected through competitive scoring with careful consideration given to the projects that met the selection criteria and expressed the greatest local recreation need. All LPRF grants require a 50 percent match by the recipient.

A $250,000 Clean Tennessee Energy Grant will be used to make the Shelby County Corrections facility more energy efficient and sustainable. Shelby County will add multiple solar thermal systems on housing units to be used as the primary source for heating water instead of natural gas and an ozone laundry system to conserve on both natural gas and water. Inmates will be trained during the installation and maintenance of these products as a re-entry strategy. The estimated long-term savings over a 20-year period for the full project is more than $1.6 million.

Clean Tennessee Energy Grants were established by the Haslam administration in 2012 to fund energy efficiency projects for local governments and municipalities, utilities, and other private and public organizations across Tennessee. These grants support projects designed to reduce air emissions, improve energy efficiency and create cost savings.

Pody Questions State’s Contract to Outsource Motor Pool

An inquiry into contract outsourcing for the management of the state’s motor pool to Enterprise Rent-A-Car has left one state representative with more questions than answers.

And those answers may not come for another month Mark Pody, who sits on the legislature’s Joint Fiscal Review Committee, told TNReport.com.

Rep. Pody had said on Monday that he’d been told by state Department of General Services staff to expect more specific answers Tuesday. However, that didn’t happen, he said.

“I believe they’re giving me general information where I want more specific information, and I want to see where it’s documented and backed up,” said the Republican from Lebanon.

“Everything has been postponed until they come up in Fiscal Review to review the contracts next month,” Pody told TNReport.com Tuesday afternoon.

Fiscal Review is one of a handful of General Assembly committees that meet year-round. The committee convenes on the second Monday of each month. The next meeting will be July 8.

“I’m not comfortable with the stuff they’ve given me already,” said Pody, who is in his second term. “I’ve got to make them tell me why they believe it’s one way and the contract clearly says its something different.”

Pody, who owns a small company specializing in financial planning, said he was made aware of the contract — which he calls “not good business” — by Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 Chief Investigative Reporter Phil Williams.

“We want transparency in government that we know that our taxpayer dollar is being spent wisely, openly and everybody can follow through,” he told TNReport.com, something he doesn’t feel is happening with the Enterprise contract.

“I just see what’s in the contract and what’s being done is two separate entities. I’m not getting the answers that I’m looking for yet.”

Since Gov. Bill Haslam was elected to office in 2010, General Services Commissioner Steve Cates, a Brentwood developer, has overseen the transfer of certain state jobs and services to private companies,

Among these transfers was the state motor pool in 2011 when the Department of General Services decided to outsource the program to Enterprise and its car-sharing program called WeCar.

Around the same time, former Enterprise executive Kathleen Hansen was hired by Cates to head the department’s motor vehicle management division

According to a General Services’ internal memo, the state contract was not put out for bid for three reasons. First, the General Services memo seeking approval stated that “there is insufficient time to create the Request for Information, hold a pre-bid, create an Event, solicit bids, evaluate bids and award a contract by Jan. 1, 2012.”

Second, the memo stated that, “The rental of cars has not been solicited by the Purchasing Division in the past; therefore it does not have experience in developing the specifications.”

Lastly, the memo stated the state would it “piggy-back” on the “University of Tennessee’s WeCar” program, which was put out for public bid.

However, a statement submitted to NewsChannel 5 Investigates reads: “The University of Tennessee does not have a WeCar program,” but instead has a rental discount program with Enterprise for university employees and alumni only.

The UT motor pool has not been outsourced.

This statement, as well as the fact that the state’s contract calls for a fleet of 80 vehicles, but as of Tuesday only had 56 cars in it, causes Pody grave concern.

“The contract clearly calls for a minimum of 80 cars, and that’s what the state’s suppose to be paying for on a monthly basis,” Pody told TNReport.com Tuesday. “As of today, there’s only 56, and I cannot find any documentation where Enterprise or anybody else has agreed that we only pay for 56.

“There’s no paper trail to verify it. There’s just not. I don’t want us to get a bill at some point when this contract ends that says, ‘You’ve been paying now for $6 and the difference is some 20 cars.”

Additionally, Pody said while the “contract specifically calls for hourly rates in three separate spots,” General Services tells him there is no hourly rate. Instead, the state pays the daily rate of $31.33 and a weekly rate of $184.85, $26.60 more than the state of Oklahoma’s rate of $158.35.

Pody said he intends to ask his questions at the next Fiscal Review Committee meeting so he can go on record as having asked them in a public meeting.

Specifically, he wants to see the paper trail regarding the reduction of the fleet size, as well as written documentation explaining how much this has saved the state versus operating its own motor pool. He also wants a detailed explanation regarding the discrepancies between the UT statement and that of General Services regarding the “piggy-back” of the university’s contract.

Pody said he hopes to have some answers next week, well before the next Fiscal Review Committee meeting.

“It’s just me. I’ve got a month to finish getting my stuff together before they come before Fiscal Review,” he said.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

AG Opinion: Abuse-Reporting Bill Has Problems

Tennessee’s top lawyer has declared that a controversial measure purporting to prevent animal cruelty is “constitutionally suspect.”

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has said he wouldn’t decide whether to sign the legislation until after he got state-sponsored legal advice. Attorney General Robert Cooper issued the opinion Thursday.

Cooper and his staff wrote that the much-debated legislation potentially violates principles of freedom of the press and the right against self incrimination. Also suggested in the attorney general’s opinion, written upon the request of Nashville House Democrat Mike Stewart, is that the measure, House Bill 1191, appears not-so-subtly designed to target a particular group — namely, animal rights activists — rather than to address a matter of genuine state concern through a neutral law of general applicability.

Sponsored in the state House by Republican Andy Holt of Dresden and in the Senate by Somerville Republican Dolores Gresham, the bill requires anyone who films or photographs animal abuse “for the purpose of documenting the offense” to hand the material over to unspecified law enforcement authorities within 48 hours. It passed handily in the Senate, but by only one vote in the House of Representatives. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans.

“HB1191’s requirements related to both the reports and the recordings impact speech rights protected by the First Amendment,” concluded the state’s lawyers. “In that regard, there are three potential objections on the validity of the restrictions and requirements contained in HB1191. First, the provisions in HB1191 are arguably underinclusive relative to the governmental interests that the bill seeks to protect. Second, the requirement to provide any recordings to law enforcement authorities could be construed by the courts as an unconstitutional prior restraint. Third, the reporting requirements could be found to constitute an unconstitutional burden on news gathering.”

The “underinclusiveness” objection raised in Cooper’s opinion relates to the scope of the bill. The measure appears to target only those who are looking to document and expose animal cruelty, rather than anyone who films or witnesses animal abuse.

By way of explaining the constitutional red flag raised when the specter of underinclusiveness comes up in a law, Tennessee’s attorney general quotes a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a California effort to ban violent video games. In the high-court’s opinion, penned by Justice Antonin Scalia, “Underinclusiveness raises serious doubts about whether the government is in fact pursuing the interest it invokes, rather than disfavoring a particular speaker or viewpoint.”

In Tennessee, that’s been a central criticism of the “Ag Gag” bill all along. Opponents rejected claims by the bill’s sponsors that their overriding concern is to stop abuse of animals. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, himself an attorney, went so far as to call the measure “a sham bill.”

Cooper, a Democrat, states that “(t)he underinclusiveness of HB1191’s reporting duty, which applies to recordings but not to other documentary or eyewitness evidence of abuse, creates an issue about whether the government is disfavoring particular persons who seek to communicate by creating recordings of livestock cruelty, rather than pursuing its stated interest in having immediate reporting of livestock cruelty in order to facilitate law enforcement investigations.”

Reached by phone Thursday evening, Rep. Holt said he “respectfully disagrees” with Cooper’s assessment. Holt, a hog farmer from Weakley County, added though that “this argument will not be lost on animal rights. If it’s lost at all, it will be on constitutionality.”

Haslam has until May 15 to sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified the author of the U.S. Supreme Court case referenced as Chief Justice John Roberts.

Amelia Morrison Hipps and Mark Engler contributed to this report.

DA, Sheriff Criticize Animal-Cruelty Reporting Measure

While Gov. Bill Haslam weighs his options regarding legislation sitting on his desk that opponents have dubbed the “Ag Gag” bill, the chorus of condemnation continues to grow.

Earlier this week two prominent Tennessee crime-fighters told TNReport they have concerns about the bill from a policing standpoint. The state’s longest serving district attorney as well as the president of the Tennessee Sheriff’s Association are saying the legislation is flawed to such degree that enforcement and prosecutions would be problematic if it becomes law.

The bill, sponsored in the state House by Andy Holt, R-Dresden, and in the Senate by Somerville Republican Dolores Gresham, requires anyone “who intentionally” films or photographs animal abuse “for the purpose of documenting the offense” to hand the material over to law enforcement within 48 hours.

It passed handily in the Senate, but by only one vote in the House of Representatives. Both chambers are dominated by the GOP. The governor is also a Republican.

District Attorney General Tommy Thompson, Jr. of the 15th Judicial District called the legislation “an obstruction to justice.”

“This bill is more an industry protection act. It’s a way to prevent people from finding out, because you have to get the trust of the people who are doing it,” said Thompson, a Democrat who for 36 years has served as chief criminal prosecutor for Wilson, Trousdale, Smith, Macon and Jackson counties.

“The people who are doing it are smarter with the law than a lot of the people who are enforcing it,” he added. “They aren’t going to do anything where you can see them until you gain their trust.”

However, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Farm Bureau, which supports the legislation, told TNReport the measure has been unfairly characterized by media and opponents.

Noting that the bill was initially titled the “Livestock Protection Act” by one of the sponsors, Farm Bureau Executive Vice President Rhedona Rose said the purpose and intent of it is to protect the animals and stop the abuse of the animals. Calling it “Ag Gag” misrepresents what the bill in fact does, she said, which is require people who knowingly witness and record animal abuse to promptly report it to law enforcement officials who can then take steps to stop it immediately.

Rose also pointed to Tennessee’s relatively high score on an Animal Legal Defense Fund assessment of all 50 states’ laws relating to animal treatment as evidence of “how strong we are in dealing with animal abusers.”

“I think the farm community is very frustrated that because of a few bad actors, the entire agriculture farm community is getting a black eye,” Rose said. “They are ready to deal with those who are in fact causing that image and feel like that folks that have proof of that image and knowingly and intentionally go out and capture the proof of that image, they could get it to law enforcement to be dealt with quickly.”

Nevertheless, vocal opponents of the measure, including Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris and House Consumer and Human Resources Subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Lynn, have said the bill seems more like a thinly veiled effort to stifle the activities of animal rights activists — that the legislation would in effect “gag” them in the interest of protecting ag and livestock producers.

Thompson, the district attorney, said putting together enough evidence for a prosecution to occur would in fact require more than just one recorded instance of animal abuse. He compared the undercover operations of documenting animal abuse to undercover drug operations.

“If the drug task force had to report their buys within two days, first of all, you would never have enough informants who could get in like that,” he said. “Secondly, if you have to report within two days, the person comes to court and says, ‘That was just the first time I ever did it. I made a mistake. I’m sorry,’ and he may be the biggest drug dealer in town.”

Thompson, who also raises cattle, said the drug task force always tries to do three or four buys from a dealer so they can’t claim it was a casual sale when they come to court.

“You can’t just stand there and take pictures in two days,” said Thompson. “You have to work awhile and let them trust you before you get in position to where the real abuse is going on.”

Thompson added that the bill “doesn’t really have any teeth to it, because anything that is a Class C misdemeanor by fine only gets moved to the bottom of the priority list for law enforcement. There’s so much more important stuff going on.”

Putnam County Sheriff David K. Andrews pretty much agreed with Thompson that the bill has no real teeth and that capturing a one-time incident is basically futile.

“There’s no jail time to it. If a judge issues a pick-up on someone, law enforcement is going to make an effort to pick that person up. But then when you pick him up, what do you do with him?” said Andrews, who last summer was elected to lead the Tennessee Sheriff’s Association.

“If he can’t pay it and won’t pay it, what are you going to do? You can’t put him in jail.”

While the Sheriff’s Association has not taken an official active role in the legislation, Andrews said he used to work undercover and that if you buy drugs from someone just one time, “you might as well not go to court.

“They’re going to say, ‘Well, judge, I really just done this the one time. I was coerced or this or that.’ It sort of takes the teeth out of your prosecution,” Andrews said.

The governor is awaiting an opinion on the bill’s constitutionality from the state attorney general before deciding whether to signs it, veto it or let it become law without is endorsement.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

‘Ag-Gag’ on Guv’s Desk; AG Yet to Opine

Rep. Mike Stewart, who voted against the so-called “ag-gag” bill, is still waiting for an Attorney General’s opinion on the constitutionality of the legislation, which arrived on Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk only just at the end of last week.

Haslam has until May 15 to veto it, sign it or let it become law automatically without his endorsement.

The bill, sponsored in the state House by Andy Holt, R-Dresden, and in the Senate by Somerville Republican Dolores Gresham, requires anyone who films or photographs animal abuse to hand the material over to law enforcement within 48 hours. The Legislation passed both chambers last month.

Even though the bill passed the House on April 17, its last hurdle in the General Assembly, the speakers of the two chambers did not sign it until May 1.

Kara Owen, deputy chief of staff for communications and policy for House Speaker Rep. Beth Harwell, said it was a logistics issue. She said it was not uncommon when there are so many bills that pass the last few days of the session for there to be a delay in having them engrossed and sent to the proper speaker’s office for his or her signature.

On the day the bill passed the House, Stewart, a Democrat, asked for a state attorney general’s opinion “to see if it violates the first amendment as it relates to freedom of the press and how it will affect the proprietary rights to their work product such as video or photographs taken as part of the undercover investigation.”

As of Tuesday morning, no opinion had been issued by Attorney General Robert Cooper’s office. However, the Nashville legislator’s assistant Delano Brent said she did receive an email from the AG’s office that stated an opinion could be issued by Friday.

Supporters contend that the measure is meant to encourage whistleblowers to come forward and stop illegal treatment of animals as quickly as possible. Critics, however, argue that it is actually an industry protection law, created to stop journalists and animal rights groups from gathering enough evidence to prove cases of continuing abuse.

Holt told TNReport on the legislative session’s final day that after discussing the measure with Haslam, he’s confident that it would become law. He also defended the intentions behind the legislation, charging that the Humane Society of the U.S. was demonizing it to raise money.

“The truest intent of this bill is to protect animals – especially from ongoing investigations like we’ve seen many times in the past from HSUS,” Holt said. “This is a radical animal activist group that raises literally hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Rep. Susan Lynn, a Republican, voted against the bill saying it violates free speech and that it criminalizes those who are seeking to stop animal abuse. On the day of the House vote, Lynn said the bill “is coercion by government of the worst kind.”

Lynn said she talked to Haslam before the last session and asked him to wait before signing it until the Attorney General opinion had come back.

The Mt. Juliet representative also noted that the bill did not go through the House Judiciary Committee after the criminal statute was added to it as an amendment in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. She said that move was wrong.

Opponents to the bill include lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, the HSUS, as well as celebrities like Carrie Underwood, Emmylou Harris and Ellen DeGeneres. On Friday, members of the Clergy for Justice faith community delivered a letter to Haslam urging him not to sign it.

Last week, the governor said he had not made up his mind how he will proceed with the legislation. He said he sympathizes with farmers, while also understanding the arguments against it.

While the bill passed in the Senate 22-9, it passed in the House 50-43-2 on a razor’s edge. One vote less and it would have failed for lack of majority, making an override of a veto unlikely.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

John Klein Wilson contributed to this story.

 

 

Workers’ Comp Overhaul Signed, Takes Effect Summer 2014

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has signed the workers’ compensation reform legislation his administration pushed through the state’s General Assembly.

Haslam on Monday put official gubernatorial endorsement to Senate Bill 200, “The Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Reform Act.” The bill swept through both chambers of the General Assembly, largely following a GOP-dominated party-line trek.

The American Insurance Association was quick to issue a press release applauding Haslam after the signing of the bill. “AIA applauds Gov. Haslam for signing SB 200 into law and for his continued leadership throughout the legislative process,” said Ron Jackson, AIA Southeast region vice president. “The Act is the right approach to providing much needed reform to Tennessee’s workers’ compensation system.”

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The new law will make the Volunteer State the 48th to no long adjudicate workers’ comp claims in court. Instead, the law creates a new state agency with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, whose administrator will be chosen by the governor.

In anticipation of the July 1,2014 effective date, certain portions of the law go into effect immediately, such as those for the adoption of rules and the appointment of personnel to staff the new agency.

Rep. Kevin Brooks presented House Bill 194 to the lower chamber on behalf of House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, the bill’s prime sponsor.

Brooks predicted that the primary gains for employees will be fewer delays, better medical treatment, claim processes that are easier to follow and support from the workers’ comp division when problems arise. Gains for employers include cost reductions, predictability and more efficient claim handling, said the Bradley County Republican.

Democrats, who fought the bill throughout its movement in the General Assembly, complained that the legislation does not address the medical costs associated with workers’ comp. Opponents claimed that the high cost of health care is the reason Tennessee’s costs continue to rise, while those in the surrounding eight states continue to fall.

Following the House session, where members concurred with the Senate version, before passing 68-24, Democratic Leader Rep. Craig Fitzhugh told TNReport.com “people think it’s going to be reform, but it’s really not.”

“I’m afraid we’ll see it in a year or two and have to do something else with it. I don’t think this is going to turn out to be something very positive,” said the nine-term representative from Ripley.

Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, carried the bill in the Senate, where it passed 28-2 with little discussion.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

Some Teachers Could Carry Guns Under Bill Passed by Legislature

Legislation drafted by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration that would give local boards of education the authority to allow certain teachers to carry firearms into the classroom heads to his desk for his signature.

House Bill 6 passed the Senate 27-6 on Thursday, with Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey joining Democrats in voting no.

Kelsey is chairman of the Senate Judicial Committee, where the “comprehensive” amendment that rewrote the bill was drafted. The House signed off on the new version later in the day.

The legislation would allows teachers or staff members who meet four criteria to carry a firearm of any kind onto a school campus – provided the person receives written authorization from the director of schools and the school’s principal. (See criteria list below.)

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Once the person has met all of the requirements and receives permission, the director of schools has 10 days to notify the head of the appropriate local law enforcement agency information about this individual. These are the only individuals who will know which teachers or staff members are carrying, an issue with critics of the bill.

“I truly believe your constituents who have children in school would like to know if the teacher has a gun in the classroom,” said Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis.

Republican Sen. Mark Green, who came up with the amendment in committee, disagreed.

“A person who is intent on assaulting a school, one of the best pieces of information that person could have is where guns are in the school and where they’re located,” said the senator from Clarksville. “Keeping that information private protects the students in that school.”

However, each year the director of schools will be required to submit a report to the two chambers’ chief clerks a report containing just the number of schools and persons participating.

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, questioned whether or not the amendment placed any restrictions on the type of guns a school employee may legally carry.

“No, it did not. It simply mentions firearms,” Kelsey said.

“So a teacher could carry an AK-47 or an Uzi fully automatic if they so chose?” Campfield asked.

“Yes, the language drafted by the administration would allow a teacher to carry an AK-47 in the school,” the Germantown senator replied.

“Far be it from me to stand in the way of the governor,” Campfield said.

Campfield, who ended up voting for the bill, also noted that currently there are currently only about 100 teachers throughout the state who might meet the qualifications to carry a gun to school.

“I support the concept of this, but I really think it’s so watered down and weak, it really doesn’t do any of the goals that we all have,” he said. “And actually by shutting off all information to find out if its successful or not, we’ve neutered it about as much as it can be neutered.”

In his closing remarks, Kelsey said, “You’re not really providing true safety to anybody with this type of approach that’s half-hearted at best. If we’re truly are concerned about safety in our schools, then we’re going to have to suck it up and pay for it.”

Just before the vote, Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, who sponsored the legislation in the upper chamber, noted that the amended bill “represents the consensus language from the governor, the Department of Education, the Department of Commerce and Insurance, the Sheriff’s Association, the school boards and the Chiefs of Police. Now if that many people can agree on this, it can’t be all bad.”

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

Legislature Approves TN Workers’ Comp Overhaul

Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s workers’ compensation reform legislation passed the state House of Representatives Thursday, 68-24. The bill now heads to his desk to be signed into law.

The House moved to concur with Senate Bill 200, where the bill passed by a vote of 28-2, with little discussion earlier this month. Only one Democrat – Rep. Charles Curtiss of Sparta – broke rank with the House minority party in voting against the legislation that expands the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development to oversee a process formerly handled by the courts.

“This bill is truly an overhaul of the system designed to make fundamental changes to avoid having to do it again in a few years,” said Rep. Kevin Brooks, who presented House Bill 194 to the body. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, is the bill’s prime sponsor. In the Senate it was Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville.

Brooks predicts that the primary gains for employees will be fewer delays, better medical treatment, claim processes that are easier to follow and support from the workers’ comp division when problems arise. Gains for employers include cost reductions, predictability and more efficient claim-handling, said the Bradley County Republican.

Currently, the Volunteer State is one of only three states that adjudicate workers’ comp claims in courts. The legislation does away with the court system — but without any reduction of employees in the state’s 95 Chancery Courts located in each county, Democratic Leader Rep. Craig Fitzhugh noted.

Democrats complained that the legislation does not address the medical costs associated with workers’ comp. Opponents have claimed throughout the bill’s largely party-line trek to passage that the high cost of health care is the reason Tennessee’s costs continue to rise, while those in the surrounding eight states continue to fall.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Mike Turner wondered from where the cost-savings in the new system will come. Brooks said “streamlining the process” will result in lower employer insurance premiums.

Turner said he suspects any real savings will come from lower payments to disabled-on-the-job employees. “We’re taking money out of the workers’ pocket. That’s not right. It’s not fair,” said the Old Hickory lawmakers, a firefighter who has served 13 years in the House. “We’re going to pass the savings onto business people. I’ve never seen a bill that tears at my heart like this one does.”

“I hope you understand what you know what you’re doing if you vote for this bill. We’ll be back in three or four years doing this again,” said Turner, urging members to send the legislation to summer study and to “do it right.”

Fitzhugh offered six of the eight amendments from Democrats. However, each one failed, just as they did when he presented them in the Finance, Ways & Means Committee, due to tabling motions to kill each without discussion. In both situations, the tabling motions overwhelming passed along party lines.

Following the House session, Fitzhugh told TNReport.com that he tried to “have amendments that would just put a little more common sense in there.

“The problems I have with it are that people thinks it’s going to be reform, but it’s really not,” said the nine-term representative from Ripley. “I’m afraid we’ll see it in a year or two and have to do something else with it. I don’t think this is going to turn out to be something very positive.”

Following the vote, Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, a union-backed organization that has fought against the legislation, said in a statement that “the House of Representatives has clearly shown that instead of being on the side of protecting the hardworking Tennesseans who elected them, they are on the side of special interests like big insurance companies and large corporations who already benefit from so many tax loopholes and giveaways.”

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

Workers’ Comp Rewrite Rolls Through Senate, Bearing Down on House Floor

While Gov. Bill Haslam’s workers’ compensation reform bill has had bumpy hearings in House committees, the track was clear and the ride mostly smooth on the Senate floor Monday night as SB200 passed 28-2.

Currently, the Volunteer State is one of only three states that adjudicate workers’ compensation claims in court. If the legislation passes, an independent agency run by an administrator chosen by the governor would oversee the process.

Supporters say the new system will process claims faster and cost less while opponents say it doesn’t address the real issue of higher medical costs and that workers will receive smaller awards and have more difficulty getting claims approved.

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Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, of Collierville, who carried the bill in the upper chamber, said he feels the reforms “are not only going to keep Tennessee competitive, but are going to benefit the workers of this state.”

Only Sen. Doug Overbey rose to speak in opposition to the sweeping legislation, which House Democratic leaders called “just wrong,” “shameful” and “immoral” during a show of solidarity with labor-union protesters on the steps of the Capitol last Tuesday.

“There are many good provisions in this bill,” said the Maryville Republican. “The part of the legislation I’m troubled about, though, is the part where we are creating new positions in state government.”

Overbey named 28 new positions outlined in the bill’s fiscal note, noting that there are already “spread all across the state” court clerks to file claims and judges “who have been adjudicating these claims since the workers’ compensation law came into effect.

“So my problem is that we have the processes in place in the status quo. If we were making only the substantive changes, or many of the substantive changes, I could support those, but to create all of these new positions, I cannot support it,” he continued.

While less concerned about the size of state government, groups opposing the reforms have raised similar doubts about the wisdom of moving the dispute resolution process away from the court system. The governor’s plan would place the new agency under the state Department of Labor, the subject of recent negative attention. A state comptroller’s audit found the DOL issued $73.4 million in overpaid unemployment benefits over the past six years.

Mary Mancini, of Tennessee Citizen Action, a group fighting the legislation, cited the comptroller’s findings Tuesday, telling TNReport that the DOL’s poor handling of unemployment benefits should give lawmakers pause.

“It’s being mismanaged, and it’s just completely plagued with problems now,” Mancini said of the Department of Labor. “It doesn’t make sense to add this entirely new system, an entirely new department within there without them fixing what’s wrong with it first. This is not good for working people and their families. It’s certainly not good for the state of Tennessee.”

Asked about these concerns Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Haslam told reporters that he thought the comptroller’s audit had no bearing on workers’ comp.

“I think it’s a whole separate deal,” Haslam said. “One of those is about processing claims, and one of them is about adjudicating workers’ comp issues, so those are two very, very different issues. They’re in the same department, I admit, but they’re two very different issues.

During discussion on the Senate floor, Sen. Jack Johnson noted that most of the new positions added under the bill would be converted from existing positions.

“For example, 20 existing attorney positions in the workers’ compensation division will convert to 16 workers’ compensation judge positions, as well as one chief judge position and three administrative review board judge positions,” said the Republican from Franklin.

Johnson did not address Overbey’s other concerns, that an administrator would appoint the judges deciding claims and that payments to injured workers who return to work would not be much higher than payments to those who do not.

“I am concerned there is not an incentive to get employees back to work, which is a very important incentive under the status quo,” Overbey concluded. He, along with Democratic Sen. Lowe Finney, of Jackson, both voted no, while Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield, of Knoxville, and Democratic Sen. Jim Kyle, of Memphis, did not vote at all.

At the protest rally last week, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh said the legislation would create “another administrative branch, basically, to government, which is something that we certainly don’t need to do. We have the court system that’s working well.”

The Ripley representative also noted that the real costs to employers “are coming from medical costs, and this bill doesn’t even touch those at all. It only looks at the already reduced benefits to an injured employee.”

On Tuesday, HB194, the companion to SB200, passed the House Finance, Ways & Means Committee along party lines. The bill is now headed to the House Calendar & Rules Committee.

Despite his best efforts, the six amendments offered by Fitzhugh all failed without discussion. Each one was met with a tabling motion to kill it without discussion.

Saying that he supported previous workers’ comp reforms, Fitzhugh urged committee members to not pass the bill, but to study it and look at the medical costs involved, which he believes “are the real drivers of cost in Tennessee.”

He also stated that he didn’t think that now is the appropriate time “to ramp up an entire new department,” given that the Department of Labor and Workforce Development is without a commissioner.

John Klein Wilson contributed to this story.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

Little Statehouse GOP Support for State-Run Insurance Exchange

Gov. Bill Haslam now has another month to decide and declare whether Tennessee intends to manage its own so-called medical insurance “exchange” as outlined in the controversial 2010 federal health care law.

After prodding from the Republican Governors’ Association, the Obama administration agreed late Thursday to give states more time to decide if they want to manage their own government-run health coverage marketplaces, or hand the duty over to the federal government.

“It is clear that putting in place the new programs you championed will be an enormous strain on state governments and budgets, as well as the federal government,” the governors wrote. “From the financial obligations and complex technicalities to ensuring the healthcare workforce and infrastructure will be in place to meet the new demand, the timeframe and many of the provisions in the (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) are simply unworkable.”

States now have until Dec. 14 to make their respective Affordable Care Act health-exchange decisions.

“We are hopeful in the coming weeks we will receive answers from Washington to the many questions we’ve asked in our effort to have a full picture of the future of exchanges in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a statement issued Friday morning.

Haslam has for a while been saying he favors the state running its own exchange. Haslam indicates he believes it would be better for insurance companies doing business here to answer to Tennessee regulators, and that a state-run exchange would better serve the unique features of the state’s health care system.

“Ultimately our citizens, through insurance companies, are going to pay for the cost of running that exchange,” Haslam said on Tuesday. “Who do we think can run it cheaper, us or the federal government? I’ll bet on us every time.”

But members of Haslam’s party in the Tennessee Legislature are anything but enthusiastic about the prospects of doing the federal government’s bidding with respect to the ACA.

In the wake of the president’s re-election, Tennessee faces a difficult policy decision  surrounding the subsidized insurance marketplaces mandated under Obamacare, the governor said this week. The three options include the state setting up and running the exchanges, letting the federal government do it or pulling together some kind of a hybrid model wherein state and federal bureaucracies share responsibility for creating or managing a system.

“Let me be clear, I oppose the Affordable Care Act,” Haslam said today. “Unfortunately, the Supreme Court upheld a majority of it this summer, including the provision that states are required to either participate in a federal exchange or establish their own.”

Both parties’ leaders in the Legislature agree, as far as it goes, that the state is indeed better suited to run the Tennessee exchange than the federal government.

“Government closest to the people governs best, and that should be a guiding principle as we implement the new health care law,” Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said this week. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, told TNReport.com he believes a state-run health exchange system “would give us a little more control, and I think Tennessee would probably like to have that.”

However, GOP lawmakers, who overwhelmingly control both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly, are expressing doubt that the federal government can be trusted to honor the integrity of whatever systems states develop on their own.

The key details about how the exchanges are theoretically supposed to operate have yet to trickle down through the federal regulatory pipeline, which has only added to the sense of uncertainty, and Republican legislative leaders believe the unpredictability is just getting started. A prevailing sentiment among GOP state representatives and senators is that Obamacare planners in Washington clearly anticipate keeping the states on short leashes, and that federal intervention into the state-run systems will be commonplace as the administration attempts to micromanage.

Republicans suspect that when all is politically said and done, the “state-run” exchange will be so laden with federal red tape, mandates and market manipulation that Tennessee would be better served steering clear and letting the feds drive from the outset.

Glen Casada, chairman of the House Health and Human Resources Committee, said that over the past few months he’s reversed his opinion on who should run the health insurance exchanges. Casada, R-College Grove, said he used to think states ought to handle them, but no longer.

“I just cannot see a reason to implement a state exchange when the (U.S.) Health and Human Services Department will not commit to us on what we can do exactly, and for how long,” Casada told TNReport Wednesday. “If the feds came out and were very clear on what we could and could not do, with guarantees that we could keep doing what we wanted to do, you would probably see some Republican House members interested (in a state-run exchange). But under the current criteria it looks like we have to operate under, I don’t think you are going to find too many in the House Republican caucus interested.”

Skepticism and frustration pervades the upper-chamber GOP caucus, too.

“The federal government has put the state of Tennessee between a rock and a hard place on the issue of health care exchanges,” said Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville. “The Obama administration has refused to answer questions and provide information necessary to make decisions by its arbitrary deadline.”

Ramsey, the state’s lieutenant governor, added that the Haslam administration is going to need a stamp of approval from the Tennessee General Assembly if it decides that setting up a state-run system is the best way to go.

“No state exchange can be implemented without the consent of the Legislature,” said Ramsey. “This issue is not going away. The Republican majority will continue to do what we must to keep all options open to minimize the impact of this insidious federal law on the citizens of Tennessee.”

Sen. Mike Bell, chairman of his chamber’s Government Operations Committee, said he has no plans right now to support any sort of state-run exchange — and thinks he’s by no means alone in the caucus.

Bell, R-Riceville, said he is “still holding out hope” that Republicans in Congress can roadblock funding for Obama’s health care law “and thereby delay or possibly even kill it at the federal level.” Bell said resistance by the states could also force the feds to abandoned their plans.

“The very weight of the responsibility for setting up that bureaucracy to run 20 or 30 state exchanges will be so heavy the federal government won’t be able to do it,” he said. “I hold out hope — now, it’s a faint hope, but I hold out hope — that there’s something that still could stop this.”

House Democrats on Friday jabbed at Haslam to quit stalling and set a course for the state.

“The Governor has had ample time to decide whether or not he wants to establish a Tennessee plan for a Health Insurance Exchange,” Fitzhugh said in a caucus release. “Now is not the time for more delays, now is the time to create an open process that brings all interested parties to the table, Democrats, Republicans, consumer advocates, insurance companies, small businesses and others, to start deciding what this Tennessee Health Insurance Exchange will look like.”