Capitol View Commentary: Friday, March 29, 2013

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, March 29, 2013

CREATED Mar 29, 2013

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising

March 29, 2013

A THIRD WAY; NEVER ON SUNDAY; GEORGIA STILL WANTS OUR WATER; LET THE CAUCUSES DECIDE; INSIDE POLITICS; BELOW THE SURFACE; UPDATE

A THIRD WAY

In terms of its politics and its public policy positioning (at least in the short term), Governor Bill Haslam seems to have come up with a very interesting plan on how to handle the potential expansion of our Medicaid/TennCare program.

In making a speech (March 27) to a joint session of the General Assembly, the Governor seemed to be saying "no" to any expansion (at least for this year), while also leaving the door open to say "yes."  Confused?  Read on while I try to explain.

Expanding our Medcaid/TennCare program would mean accepting billions of dollars over the next few years in federal monies under "Obamacare", the new national healthcare law. Many in the Republican legislative super-majority in the Tennessee General Assembly have made it clear that is a non-starter for them. They hate any mention of Obamacare and many ran for office on that issue. But on the other side, business groups, especially Tennessee's and Nashville's large health care industry are equally adamant the state would be foolish to reject all that federal money especially since doing so might cause some rural hospitals to close and hundreds of thousands to go without health care coverage.

So what to do? Somewhat caught in the middle, the Governor says he has found "a third way" to "reform" Tennessee's health care system. With federal approval (which is still pending)  Tennessee would take the new health care funds then funnel them through private insurance companies (Blue Cross Blue Shield?) using the health care exchanges  allowed under the national health care law (and which the feds will run in Tennessee). That would be cheaper and more efficient says the Governor than putting them directly on the TennCare rolls.

The Governor says the expansion means up to 175,000 more Tennesseans (who earn up to 138% of the national poverty level) would receive health care coverage, with those who could afford it making co-pays on their coverage. There would also be a "circuit breaker" or "sunset" on the plan that could only be renewed by the Legislature (that's important if Washington requires more state money be involved in the future, right now it's 100% federally funded the next few years and 90% after that). The Governor's plan also pays providers for "health outcomes, not just …services provided."

So what's not to like? Ask Washington? The Governor says so far he can't get federal officials in the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) to give their OK even though a seemingly similar plan in Arkansas (in some media reports) has apparently gotten close to some kind of preliminary approval (by the way, Arkansas has a Democratic governor and a former President named Clinton if you think that matters). Arkansas has also agreed to establish its own health exchange (which Governor Haslam rejected) and has said it will go ahead and expand its Medicaid program now and then negotiate with the feds (which Governor Haslam has rejected too). So maybe those are areas for further discussion.

 For now, the Governor says if he can't get the feds approval for his plan, he'll walk away and say no thanks to any Medicaid/TennCare expansion. That seems to put some of the heat back on Washington to figure something out. It also means the Governor won't be asking the General Assembly to OK his plan before this year's session ends in mid-April. That's likely good for him (at least for the moment) because I doubt he has the votes. In the meantime lawmakers definitely like the Governor holding back and they will now hold off on their own legislation to block any Medicaid/TennCare expansion while letting the Governor continue to negotiate with Washington.  If something is negotiated, a special session of the General Assembly could be called by the Governor later in the year, but no one seems to be planning for that right now.

Already other reactions to the Governor's "health care reform decision" have been predictable along party lines. Both Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker say they trust the Governor will do the right thing for health care in the state and they will do what he can to help get Tennessee the flexibility the Governor says he needs. (With a Democrat in the White House, I don't think they can do very much frankly).

 State Democratic Party leaders meanwhile are blasting the Governor for not immediately taking the federal money with Party Chair Roy Herron  saying the Governor's action will deny health insurance to 300,000 Tennesseans in working families…"that means each week another parent, another child, another loved one—or two will die." Democratic House Caucus Chair Mike Turner of Nashville called the Governor's actions "chicken."

Business and health care groups are being more guarded and mixed in their reactions, praising the Governor for studying the issue and offering innovative ideas, while warning the situation remains quite serious and action is needed. They  still hope that the state and federal government will work together to find some common ground to begin to solve an issue that still seems to have no consensus long or short term right now.  

And that's the potential downside for the Governor. If not expanding Medicaid/TennCare in Tennessee does result in hospital closings and an increased health care crisis for the poor in Tennessee (as health care advocates warn), this issue could boomerang on the Governor just as his (and state lawmakers') re-election campaigns move into high gear in 2014. 

NEVER ON SUNDAY

Could the political price of allowing wine in grocery stores be allowing liquor stores to sell spirits on Sundays and holidays? Blue laws have prohibited such commerce in Tennessee for at least as long as I've been alive (over 61 years), and likely much longer (maybe since liquor stores were first established in the state). But now could "Never on Sunday" become "go down and get me a pint (and some ice and chips) at the liquor store" on the Sabbath?

That seems to be the deal being offered by some state lawmakers to the liquor industry after the Senate Finance Committee amended a bill in committee (March 26) to allow Sunday and holiday sales (and the sale of other items such as snacks, ice and beer in 2014)) in exchange for letting voters have the right to approve wine being sold in grocery stores at least in cities and counties that already have package stores and/or liquor by the drink. Under the bill, grocery stores would be limited to selling wine only during the hours where they can currently sell beer. It's all a huge overhaul of the state's liquor sale regulations and a major reason why the full bill was deferred a week for lawmakers to think it over (and probably lobby for votes either way).

For now, the liquor industry has the wine bill dead by one vote in a committee in the House and possibly bottled up in committee in the Senate. Do they want to do a deal? Or will they wait and see if Senate Finance passes the amended bill out to the floor of the upper chamber?  And/or will they wait to see if House supporters (including House Speaker Beth Harwell) have a way to change a committee vote or find another way to revive the legislation in the lower chamber? I'm told by one source the Speaker "has a plan", but no details were offered. Late word (TENNESSEAN March 29) has the House GOP leader saying he doesn't favor trying a "revote" in the House committee which seems to indicate delaying until next year at the earliest.

Remember no one needs to resolve the matter before the General Assembly adjourns for the year by mid-April. All bills still active remain in the system until lawmakers return to Nashville in January, 2014 and new bills can be filed or re-filed too. So I would not necessarily look for a quick resolution to this matter (although you never say never in politics). And I guess that could also include Sunday and holiday liquor sales even in a "Buckle of the Bible Belt" state like Tennessee. I wonder how religious groups will respond? They have in some ways helped the liquor industry on this wine in grocery store issue by telling lawmakers to oppose any expansion of liquor sales and availability. What now?

This Sabbath and holiday sales effort is probably a "Hail Mary" effort that will not get the bill very far this year but may help set the stage for more fighting on this issue in 2014 (although will lawmakers want to touch this issue at all in a re-election year)?

It also seems this mid-April adjournment date (now April 18 says Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey) is beginning to irritate some members, even GOP committee chairs  such as Knoxville's Bill Dunn (KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL, March 29). The complaint is things are going too fast on the Hill and lawmakers are having trouble staying on top of their business. But so far, the top leadership seems unconvinced to move back the date to get finished and out of town. If they are by mid-April, it would be the earliest ending in 23 years (1990) Ramsey's office proudly proclaims.

GEORGIA STILL WANTS OUR WATER

Liquor is not the only liquid that's in controversy on the Hill. The long-running efforts by the State of Georgia to change its common border with our state to get water rights to the Tennessee River have moved back into the news. The Georgia Senate has voted 48-2 in favor of a resolution that asks for a thin strip of land, leading to the river southwest of Chattanooga, be given to the Peach State.

While Tennessee leaders have never taken this border dispute all that seriously (which dates from an 1818 surveyor mistake in setting the borders, Georgia claims), you can bet pigs will fly before Tennessee cedes any territory willingly. So the resolution also asks that the Georgia Attorney General file a lawsuit in the matter if Tennessee doesn't hand over the land by 2014. That could lead the issue one day to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it won't attract the crowds of the potentially historic same-sex marriage cases heard by the Justices this past week, but it could still spark a lot of interest and controversy here if the High Court ever takes up the matter.

What this dispute is really all about is a new drinking water source for North Georgia and especially the greater Atlanta area. Georgia officials claim their state's streams and creeks feed the Tennessee River. In fact they say that makes up over six percent of the water in the River. Maybe so, but Tennessee officials are likely to be more concerned that Atlanta alone will take 6% or much more of the water to nourish its' still ever growing population and businesses.

The Georgia resolution still needs final approval in its state House, reconciling some amendments added by the Senate. But the lower body has already approved the bill 71-2 so it's going to become law in Georgia pretty soon. Then we'll see where this "border war" goes.

Through a spokesperson, Governor Haslam has said no to the Georgia proposal. "The governor will continue to protect the interests and resources of Tennessee," says the statement.  I'm quite positive our state lawmakers will also find a way to strongly oppose Georgia in this matter. In fact, this issue may make our lawmakers a lot more popular with voters by "protecting our water" and our state's sovereignty. They can use a boost given some of the strange bills our elected officials have been proposing again this term.   After all, if lawmakers don't want United Nations officials monitoring our elections in Tennessee; or federal officials enforcing any new gun laws or regulations s in our state; or they want to nullify the new national health care law inside our borders, surely they don't want Georgia taking our water.   

LET THE CACUSES DECDIDE

Believe it or not, next year (2014) Senator Lamar Alexander may be the last Republican U.S. Senate candidate ever nominated by the voters of the state. Some members of the GOP super-majority in the State Senate (on the State and Local Government Committee) have voted 7-1 in favor of legislation that, beginning in 2018 (when Senator Bob Corker's seat is up again), state lawmakers themselves through  party caucuses would select the nominees who will run in the general election. Voters would have NO say in selecting candidates to run in November.

That's the way it used to be (the State Legislature picking Senators) before the U.S. Constitution was amended in 1913 when direct election by the voters through party primaries and then the general election came into vogue.

Why change it now? Well the bill's sponsor, Senator Frank Nicely (according to a story in the CHATTANOOA TIMES FREE PRESS March 26) claims it happened when "a mad rush of progressivism" swept throughout the country and gave the decision to voters.  Nicely claims that's why "it doesn't matter who's in control in Washington." He adds, "This (bill) is sort of jerking their chain. If we don't do this, we don't deserve to be here." It's funny. I wonder what voters will think about limiting their access and ability to select two of their top statewide officials?   Talk about jerking someone's chain, in this case, it appears to be the voters!

On a somewhat related matter, movie star actress Ashley Judd says because of family considerations she won't seek the 2014 Democratic nomination to oppose longtime Kentucky GOP Senator and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.  That leaves Bluegrass State Democratic leaders in the same boat again as their counterparts in Tennessee which is looking for a credible candidate to oppose a longtime, well-funded opponent. Tennessee has no major "blue" candidate lined up to oppose Lamar Alexander in 2014 either.

INSIDE POLITICS

This week on INSIDE POLITICS, we will talk further about this and the many other issue swirling on Capitol Hill here in Nashville as lawmakers move towards the home stretch of this session. My guests include Tom Humphrey of the KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL , Andrea Zelinski of the NASHVILLE CITY PAPER and Chas Sisk of THE TENNESSEAN.  

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. For those outside Nashville or who don't have cable access, portions of INSIDE POLITICS interviews are later posted on NEWSCHANNEL5.com.

BELOW THE SURFACE

He probably had to do it so there would be no misunderstanding, but Mayor Karl Dean stated the obvious when he began his annual budget hearings this past week.  Of course, he won't be requesting another property tax increase this year. That happened last year and it's never happened two years in a row.

Maybe the Mayor said that because of news reports (TENNESSEAN, March 28) that the recent countrywide property re-appraisal found residential values fell a bit (1% on average) in most (22)of the city's 35 Metro Council districts. Some areas like Hillsboro Village and parts of East Nashville did increase in value and commercial appraisals went up 15%.  The Metro Property Assessor says that totals up to a 6% increase overall in Metro's tax base (compared to 16% in 2009). This is also the smallest increase ever measured in these surveys which are required to be taken every 4 years.

The law requires the property tax rate be lowered so the reappraisal won't cause a tax increase on its own. And the Mayor and Council will do that. But remember if your property, residential or commercial went up more than the 6% countywide average, your property tax bill will likely go up. If not, it should go down a little. No conspiracy, just following state law. 

Getting back to the next Metro budget, there'll still be lots of interesting story lines to watch over the next few days as Metro department directors come in to state their case for new and/or continued programs and services for their agencies. Already the Police Chief wants more money to staff and equip the new sub-stations and Crime Lab Metro has recently constructed. And what about the request made by State Fairgrounds officials? They want a near million dollar subsidy to operate the department which no longer generates enough reserves to pay its own way. Are we headed for another fight about the future of the Fairgrounds?  The Farmer's Market has a projected deficit too. An effort to privatize it got no bids from the private sector, so what happens now?

Looking ahead, what will learn about the future of General Hospital when its budget hearing comes up April 1? And then there's the final hearing for the largest single budget, Metro Schools, which is set for Friday, April 12. Already Schools Director Dr. Jesse Register says the School Board needs at least an extra $40 million next year, in part because of all the new charter schools being approved by the state (which Mayor Dean supports but which school officials have concerns about in terms of taking funds away from other public schools).

 And finally, what about the request by the Mayor that each department present an overall 2% budget cut that possibly be implemented next year? Is that possible?  For most departments, the answer is no.  But revenues are still very tight despite last year's tax increase, so department heads need to think carefully about what they propose. It's not impossible what they suggest could happen, if push comes to shove and then shove comes to cut.  Some departments might even get more funds. THE TENNESSEAN (March 28) reports the Mayor sounded receptive to the idea of keeping the Main Library downtown open again on Mondays and the branch libraries on Fridays. But I wouldn't count on anything until the budget is filed and passed.

So you see even in non-tax increase years, a Metro budget making process is never dull if you know where to look and what to listen for during the budget hearings. That includes the Metro Election Commission with an almost new membership coming on board (TENNESSEAN on-line article, March 29). The Commission always seems to be a source of controversy and after a year with no elections in 2013, we have three rounds of voting in 2014. Welcome aboard, ladies and gentlemen!

For this coming fiscal year, the Mayor must present his full budget request to the Council by May 1. The Council has until June 30 to approve a final budget or the Mayor's plan goes into effect automatically (although that last part has never happened in the 50 year history of consolidated government which officially turns a half-century old on Monday, April 1).

I also hope you will come celebrate 50 years of Metro with a special celebration and birthday party on Saturday, April 6 from noon until 3:00 p.m. at the Historic Courthouse. Happy Birthday, Metro!

UPDATE

As I head into the Easter holiday weekend, I mark nine months of recovery since my stroke and five months since I began my weekly workouts at the Y. Both continue to show slow but steady progress for me. I still need to get to the Y twice a week, but that will begin to happen soon, I promise.

I am also spending time with family the next few days, even getting to see some great nieces and nephews I haven't met (infants) or who I haven't seen much in recent months. As I celebrate the promise of salvation in the Risen Lord, I remain so happy and blessed  that God has given me the opportunity to still be around and watch the coming of spring once more (although it sure is taking its sweet time this year)!