Capitol View Commentary: Friday, December 14, 2012

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, December 14, 2012

CREATED Dec 14, 2012


By Pat Nolan, DVL Public Relations & Advertising

December 14, 2012



After weeks of study and publicly debating the merits of what to do, Governor Bill Haslam has decided Tennessee will not run the health care insurance exchanges required under the new national health care law. That means the federal government will have to do so in this state (and perhaps in a majority of states across the country).

Now normally, Republicans don't like Washington directly running programs that impact our citizens. They think state and local governments can do the job better and more efficiently. Even the Governor said that in recent weeks. But he also said it was difficult to get answers about the rules and regulations being set up for the exchanges even after some 800-plus pages of guidelines were issued. "What concerned me more and more is that they seem to be making this up as they go," complained the Governor. 

So Tennessee will pass on running the exchange and I guess hope for the best that Washington can figure out a way to help Tennesseans get the health insurance coverage they'll need come 2014. The Governor says his was strictly a business decision. "That's what Tennesseans expect and elected me to do," he says. That's despite the fact that two other prominent Tennesseans who recently held statewide office, and who are considered nationally-recognized experts on health care (former Governor Phil Bredesen and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist) both publicly urged the Governor to have Tennessee operate the exchanges.  Also according to the TENNESSEAN (December 12), a new poll by Vanderbilt University found "a slight majority" of registered voters surveyed thought Tennessee should run the insurance exchanges not Washington.

But while the Governor says politics did not play a role in his decision about the exchange, he does admit it was highly unlikely that the Republican super majorities in both Houses of the General Assembly would have endorsed the state running the exchange effort, so his support for such an idea would have been futile. That's likely true. Almost every Republican elected official in Tennessee despises the new health care law (Obamacare) and would do nothing to even appear to help implement it. So they are praising the Governor's decision.

But that's the wrong way to look at it say Tennessee Democrats and some media outlets (THE TENNESSEAN editorial, December 11). In fact, Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen in a news release says the governor's decision is completely political and compares what he and other Republican governors have done in rejecting state-run exchanges to what was attempted by state officials back in the 1960s to stop federal civil rights and voting rights legislation.  

And this may not be the end of the debate. Governor Haslam also faces a choice down the road (he says in the spring) about whether to expand our TennCare/Medicaid program under the new health law. The Supreme Court says states have the option of doing it or not. So, of course, still being Obamacare, there will be a lot of political heat not to do it, even though the greatly increased federal dollars to fund the program require almost no state matching funds in the early years. Still it's a bad idea say many GOP state lawmakers, especially given the federal deficit and the fiscal cliff crisis.

But the political mix could be a bit different this time. Hospitals and other health care providers argue the state will need those funds (and so will they) given how larger the indigent health care population will become whether Tennessee expands TennCare or not. Also the hospital tax Tennessee also uses to help fund its TennCare program now could be discontinued by the feds who have always questioned its legitimacy.

Meantime, even before the new law goes into effect, Governor Haslam says Tenncare (as it's done in the past) is likely to suck up every available new dollar in revenue the state seems likely to generate for next year ,making those new extra federal dollars look  even more tempting even if they come gift-wrapped with the words Obamacare on them. It could be for the state: either accept those funds or have hundreds of thousands of poor people still left without health care coverage (and clogging up emergency room seeking uncompensated care) even after the new federal law, with its promised nearly universal care, goes into effect.

Finally, according to THE TENNESSEAN's Politics blog site (December 12) the first piece of legislation filed in the upcoming new State Senate, SB 1, is a measure sponsored by GOP Senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown "which would bar the state from expanding Medicaid (TennCare) or accepting the new federal dollars." Sounds to me like a strong message (warning) to the Governor about where many of his party's lawmakers are on this issue.


There continue to be signs that there may be at least a partial agreement reached by the end of the year (probably reached right down to the wire the week after Christmas) to advert the fiscal cliff in Washington at least in term of taxes and maybe the mandatory budget cuts set to take effect January 1.

It could still fall apart of course, but increasingly you can hear more and more Republicans admitting they can't win the tax fight with the President. The polls have been showing it for weeks and so did the November election returns. This shift by some in the GOP includes Tennessee's recently re-elected Senator Bob Corker who says Congress ought to go ahead pass legislation before the end of the year to "prevent a tax increase on 98% of Americans" (and therefore allow taxes to increase on the remaining 2% of wealthiest taxpayers). This would be a major victory for the President and the Democrats.

But Corker still wants to use the looming federal debt ceiling fight (again)or the next continuing budget resolution vote  to negotiate an overall fiscal reform agreement as well as "necessary reforms to Medicare and Social Security."   While this is shifting the ultimate battle to a different time (next year) and different political ground (the new Congress with fewer Republicans in both houses), the Grand Ole Party still controls the House and has more than enough members to filibuster and deadlock the Senate. But given how the Republicans came out on the short end of the last debt ceiling fight they got involved in (it resulted in the creation of the fiscal cliff), this may not be the best "high ground" Corker and the GOP want to have.

You can tell Republicans are also very annoyed at how the President is now using his campaign tours and tactics to build public support. Even Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander is complaining about the President being in Michigan campaigning against efforts to impose a "right to work' law there ( the President lost by the way as the bill passed). "Come back to Washington" and provide leadership the Senator says. But if the President's tactics weren't winning overall, the GOP would be paying for him to take these trips rather than complaining about them.   

All the major politicians seem to be in good shape with voters according to that latest VANDERBILT/TENNESSEAN poll I mentioned earlier.  Even the President is up to 45% approval here which is better than the percentage of vote he got in November from Volunteer State voters. Both Senators (Corker 60% and Alexander 56%) have strong numbers in the polls. Even the General Assembly is at 52% while Governor Haslam is nearly off the charts with a 68% approval rating. Maybe Democratic State House Minority Leader Craig Fizhugh needs to study that strong number while he ponders a possible run for governor (CITY PAPER article, December 13) against incumbent Haslam in 2014. Overall, while Congress gets only a 23% approval rating from voters in the Vanderbilt/TENNESSEAN poll, Tennessee voters seem to be in a bit of a Merry Christmas mood with their elected officials right now.


There hasn't been much good news for embattled 4th District Congressman Scott DesJarlais who was re-elected in November despite a sex scandal from an earlier divorce case that has led to calls for his resignation and his shunning by state Republican officials.

THE NATIONAL JOURNAL HOTLINE (December 12) is reporting at least 5 potential major candidates eyeing bids to challenge the Congressman in the GOP primary in 2014. That includes State Senator Jim Tracy, Representative Joe Carr, assistant State House Majority Leader Kevin Brooks, conservative businessman Forrest Shoaf and Weston Wamp, son of the former congressman Zach Wamp and a failed 2012 3rd District congressional candidate. Actually, a field that is anywhere near that big would be good news for DesJarlais. The state doesn't have a runoff law, whoever gets the most votes wins. So, especially if the vote in Rutherford County (which could make up nearly 40% of the total vote) is split, DesJarlias could somehow survive the stint in the "political wilderness" he is presently enduring .


Getting back to Washington and the fiscal cliff, Congressman Marsha Blackburn is my guest on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend. Her conservative star and leadership continues to rise in the Republican House as she is being added to the increasingly powerful House Budget Committee and she is about to become vice-chair of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee. Blackburn did lose out on winning any of the sub-committee or committee chairs up for grabs, all of whom are headed by men. We will ask her about that male-only group appointed Speaker John Boehner and the increasingly difficult job he has trying to find a way to solve the fiscal cliff and keep his party united. 

INSIDE POLITICS can be seen several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK. Our air times include 5:00 a.m. Sunday on the main channel, WTVF-TV NEWSCHANNEL5.  We are also on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS at 7:00 p.m. Friday, 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m., Saturday, and 5:00 a.m. & 12:30 p.m., Sunday. THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 150 and NEWSCHANNEL5's over-the-air digital channel.


With the millionaire owners and players of the National Hockey League continuing their ego fight over who gets what of the league's revenues, the resulting lockout has cancelled nearly half the season. Unless an agreement is reached soon, it will be the second time since 2004-05 that the entire season was lost to a labor dispute.

The question arises in the mind of former Metro Councilman-At Large David Briley (in a letter written by Briley to the NHL and related in a story on THE TENNESSEAN's Politics blog site December 13): With no games being played, shouldn't some or all of the $6 million annual subsidy local taxpayers' pay the team be refunded?

So what about it? If they don't play, should taxpayers still pay? And what about that new lease Mayor Karl Dean has been negotiating with team officials that reportedly would reduce the subsidy? I am told by one Metro source that indeed some of the subsidy could be held back if the season is cancelled.  But I was not told how much that would be.


This has been my birthday week (Thursday).

I am now 61.

For me, birthdays are not what they used to be in terms of expectations.

When I was a kid, the first twelve days of December seemed to take forever to pass by. I see that now with my grandson, Shaun, whose birthday (he will be 6) also falls in December.  His mom says he asks almost every night these days how many more times he has to go to sleep before he wakes up and it's his birthday.

Of course, that's got a lot to do with the birthday party and presents at that age.  Add in that Christmas is coming and Shaun stays excited the whole month of December.  I did that too.  It even impacts his (infrequent) disagreements with his little sister, Libby. They love to tease when they are annoyed with one another: "You're not invited to my birthday!" So there

For me, going out to dinner with my wife and daughters and sons-in-laws is enough to celebrate, although I must say this particular birthday had more importance to me than others in recent years.

For one thing, it's the birthday I almost didn't have.

My 60th year was certainly a milestone for my health. It began the September (2011) before I turned the big 6-0 when I was hospitalized for the first time in my life while on vacation in North Carolina because of a flare up in my diverticulitis. That was followed by a fall in November where I broke my collarbone.

The first six months of being 60 were then relatively uneventful, before my greatest life change occurred when I had a stroke on June 28. I am not sure I still fully appreciate how close I came to dying. If not for my friends in the Mayor's office (Tam Gordon & Janie Conyers) and one of my DVL colleagues (Anna Hardaway) I likely would have died trying to drive back to the office while still having stroke symptoms (slurred speech and severe leg cramps).  Fortunately, I went to the hospital where quick care stabilized my condition.

At the time, I was never that concerned about dying. Maybe that's because I felt OK (no pain or headache) and I never lost consciousness.  But now when I think back, I now realize how few details I remember about what happened and I now know how very serious this was and how fortunate I am.

So I am very grateful for this 61th birthday and I am even more intent now on continuing my recovery (6 months in) and sticking with the health and lifestyle changes I am making, some of which would have seem inconceivable to me prior to June 28.

I am also so grateful for my loving family and how they have supported me and the help of all my co-workers and friends as well. Their birthday best wishes (and the dozens I have received from friends on Facebook and by e-mail) always mean a lot, but even more so this year as I celebrate the birthday that almost wasn't. Thanks be to God for being spared, and I understand that to whom much is given (more time in your life), much is expected. That's my continuing challenge for year number 61, and hopefully beyond.   

As I write these words, the horror of the latest mass murder by a lone gunman in our nation is just beginning to come out. This time, it's innocent young children in an elementary school in Connecticut. If you are a parent or a grandparent or just a human being, killings like these, especially with their increasing frequency at movie theatres, malls and now schools leave you sick to your stomach and almost numb with sadness and grief.

I have no answers to the seemingly never ending line of young males who decide to take out their life's frustrations by senselessly killing others, but  it's a challenge we must try to find some way to begin to address or face the need to make all our public institutions and gathering places like airports in terms of security.  And if we do that, how we can continue to remain a free society?