In light of a localized discussion about whether certain symbols and statues — such as the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest and a confederate flag on speciality license plates — that hark back to historical racism should be removed, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey joined House Speaker Beth Harwell in urging the Tennessee Capitol Commission to "begin the process of evaluating the characteristcs of Tennesseans who should be honored in the Capitol Complex."
To members of the Capitol Commission, he wrote:
From time to time, it is appropriate for the State of Tennessee to review which Tennesseans are honored and in what location and manner. As Governor Bill Haslam has noted, there is a limited amount of space in the Tennessee State Capitol and on its grounds. Those honored in the Capitol should be those who accurately reflect the historic accomplishments of the Volunteer State and its people.
Under state law, the Tennessee State Capitol Commission is given the power to develop a master plan for the capitol building and its grounds and to determine its furnishings. As such, we are writing to encourage you to begin the process of evaluating the characteristics of Tennesseans who should be honored in the Capitol Complex.
The Tennessee State Historian, the Tennessee Historical Commission, the Tennessee State Museum, the Tennessee Wars Commission, the Tennessee Historical Society and other appropriate entities are resources available for consultation. In addition, we encourage you to consider the ideas of all Tennesseans who wish to have their input considered.
However, the lieutenant governor had something more to add. From the inbox:
My condolences and prayers go out to all the families and communities affected by the mass murder in Charleston. It was a truly horrific and tragic event that will not and should not be forgotten. But the effort underway to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust in our State Capitol strikes me as a knee-jerk reaction.
Forrest was a native Tennessean widely recognized as one of history's greatest military commanders. I cannot and do not defend every action he took throughout his life but I couldn't do that for any man in history aside from Christ himself.
The Tennessee Capitol Commission will meet soon to take up this issue. Whether the bust stays or goes, I am concerned that we are rapidly descending down the slippery slope of political correctness. Now more than ever it is important to keep in mind that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.
A last ditch effort to keep open a floundering virtual school failed Tuesday in the Senate, although Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he hopes to convince the administration to cut the school one last break.
“I firmly believe that that school needs to be given another chance,” Ramsey told the Post. “Now, one more year is all I’d give them. If they didn’t have the achievement then, I’d cut their legs out from under them, so to speak.”
Senators voted 17-13 against an amendment sponsored by Sen. Frank Niceley to give Union County-based Tennessee Virtual Academy a one-year reprieve to avoid closure if the school’s scores improve this year. The amendment, proposed on the floor and not timely filed, needed a two-thirds majority.
However, Niceley attempted to add the language to a separate bill sponsored by Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham that would allow students from outside the school zone to attend a school taken over by the state Achievement School District.
“This school has actually taken advantage of these students,” said Dolores Gresham, chair of the Education Committee and an advocate for school choice who fought off Niceley’s amendment. “Fairness, compassion and common sense will tell you that these students have not been served well. To let it go on for another year is outrageous.”
According to the state report card, fewer than one in four students are on grade level in math, and 42 percent are at or above grade level in reading language arts. Growth in student test scores ranked one out of five, the lowest score possible.
Proponents for the school argue Tennessee Virtual Academy, run by for-profit operator K12 Inc., shouldn’t be treated any differently than traditional public schools which can fall among the lowest-performing of the state but not face closure. They argue the school should have one more year to increase test scores.
Ramsey said he walked into the Senate planning to support Niceley’s effort to give the school one last chance. Ramsey acknowledged his vote in favor probably would have garnered a few more votes in the legislation’s favor, but said he changed his mind after the debate twisted in procedural knots after learning Niceley's had other ways to bring his measure to the floor instead of amending another member's bill. The practice is legal under the Senate rules but was frowned upon in debate Tuesday night.
"I'm still, honestly, going to work with the administration to see if we can't get them to extend another year," said Ramsey.
Is it better to spend $120 million on one project or $1 million on 120 projects? Some variation of that question is one lawmakers will be faced with next week as they plan to approve a state spending plan for the next year.
As the legislature presses toward a mid-April adjournment, lawmakers will have to settle several budget battles first, like whether to reduce the Hall tax, give their blessing to a series of economic incentives and approving a new state museum.
“The one thing that we have a lot of is non-recurring money. What we don’t have is recurring money. We just don’t have any,” said House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, R-Franklin.
Lawmakers expect to pass the state’s $33.3 billion spending plan this week with hopes to adjourn the following week. The spending plan assumes an uptick of $31.5 million in recurring funds, largely in tax revenue growth, and $318 million in one-time money from a legal settlement, according to the administration’s proposal.
The lopsided increase in one-time money to recurring funds has led the governor to propose about $245 million in additional capital projects, including spending almost half of the dollars on a new state museum next to the Bicentennial Mall in Nashville at the chagrin of at least one lawmaker.
“I want to send you home with something to think about,” Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, said on the House floor before legislators left town Thursday. “I want you to think about if $120 million for a state museum is the best use for the taxpayer of Tennessee’s money. And we’ll talk about this again next week.”
Budget gurus in both chambers say they have heard grumbling over the museum, although House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent expects the capital project to weather any challenge from lawmakers.
“I think the museum is the top priority of a number of people and I believe the museum has a very good chance of surviving,” he said. Not only does the museum attract both students in school field trips and tourists to Music City, but the current facility has “moisture problems” that jeopardize materials housed in the museum, he said.
Lawmakers will also have to decide whether to try to cut the 6 percent state Hall tax, a long-held thorn in the side of conservatives who want to reduce the tax on interest from investments and dividends. Sitting in legislative finance committees are at least two bills gradually cutting down the tax. The Hall tax is estimated to generate $270 million next fiscal year, according to the Office of Fiscal Review.
“I just don’t see (that) we’ll be doing any chipping this year. Hopefully next year is a surplus on recurring money. We’ll chip away at it then,” Casada said about the Hall tax, adding he’s open to cutting it now if someone finds a way.
Other lawmakers, like Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, say they believe the state can afford taking another step to phase the tax out, although by less than they had hoped.
“I don’t know what that magic point is, but my goal every year, especially when we have a little extra money, is to raise (the exemptions) a little bit… before we get to where we need to be,” said Ramsey.
Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-brothers-funded advocacy group, have pushed hard for the state to do away with the tax, calling it punitive for those who save for retirement. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s March 2014 report, the tax largely affects the state’s top 5 percent of earners who collectively pay approximately $160 million into the tax each year.
Gov. Bill Haslam says he would like to phase out the tax but has repeatedly warned that the state doesn’t have a wide enough base of revenues to afford cuts should revenues unexpectedly drop.
Before approving the budget, legislators will also have to decide whether they approve of a $20 million tax break for FedEx. In a bill recently on the move, the Haslam administration is proposing the state gradually cap the company’s aviation-fuel tax liability to $10.5 million annually in four years — about a third of the taxes the company paid last year.
Lawmakers will also be poised to approve an additional $52 million in Economic Development “FastTrack” projects that lure businesses to Tennessee, $40 million for the renovation of Cordell Hull and a $30 million increase in the state’s share of teachers’ health insurance costs, among other expenses. Meanwhile, the House Finance Committee has 140 requests from lawmakers to fund special projects in their districts.
“I think it’s only fair for us to let people decide themselves what they want to vote on in the budget rather than for us to try to make comments and deter people to vote yes and no,” said Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, countering several legislative retorts on the floor about spending projects lawmakers should ponder over the weekend. “And I thank God that I have the freedom to vote like I feel like I need to vote on the budget rather than someone telling me how.”
As much as Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he favors allowing guns in the Capitol, he expects legislators to strip out that provision to ensure the original guns-in-parks bill becomes law without a veto.
“The bottom line is I do want the guns-in-parks to pass. I don’t want the governor to veto it or even let it” become law without his signature, he said Tuesday after speaking at the Tennessee Republican 1st Tuesday luncheon. “I think we’ll get something out of conference committee that will be palatable to both houses.”
Like the House Speaker, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey also wants to see a conference committee tackle overall confusion over where guns will remain banned, such as specifying whether gun carry permit holders can bring guns into parks adjacent or used by schools.
Ramsey says he would expect a conference committee to add in language that removes restrictions on carrying guns in parks used by schools. A bill introduced earlier this session carrying that language was shelved in the House and lacked of a second but passed in the full Senate.
Although the legislature has yet to send the bill to a conference committee to hash out a compromise, both Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell told the Post they expect any conference committee meeting or pre-meetings to be made public.
“I want it to be very open. I do. All of our conference committees, as far as I’m concerned, are opened to the public just like every other. As a matter of fact, they ought to be video streamed,” said Ramsey. “I’ve been very upfront about that. It used to, you walk across the hall to the legislative library and shut the door. That’s not the way I want it. These need to be open.”
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he still has the same concerns about a plan to expand health coverage to low-income Tennesseans, but adds he won’t meddle with a Democrat bill fighting its way through the Senate.
The measure, which mirrors the governor’s Insure Tennessee plan, won approval by the Senate Health Committee on Wednesday in a 6-2 vote and is now set for a Senate Commerce Committee hearing next week. In a special session held earlier this year, lawmakers in a specially assigned Senate Health Committee rejected Insure Tennessee on a 7-4 vote.
“Nine members of Commerce Committee, I can honestly say I have not influenced them one way or another, nor did I [do so] in special session,” Ramsey told reporters Thursday. “Members need to vote their conscience based upon the facts that they hear and we’ll see what happens in Commerce. I couldn’t predict right now.”
SJR93, sponsored by freshman Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, picks up where the governor left off on his plan to expand health care coverage to an estimated 280,000 people through the Affordable Care Act by reaping $2.8 billion from the federal government.
The new version seeks to address issues lawmakers had with the governor’s first proposal, largely by building in provisions locking out people who fail to pay their premiums; requiring a memorandum of understanding from the governor ensuring the program will not go into place until the U.S. Supreme Court decides the King v. Burwell case concerning the Affordable Care Act; and that the federal government puts in writing that the state can opt out of the program if the state begins to incur costs.
Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters Thursday morning it’s a positive to give the bill more time before lawmakers, even if it does not pass.
"I don't think it's a bad thing at all for it to be discussed every chance that it gets to be discussed," Haslam said. "Obviously we're hoping it passes, but if it doesn't pass, there's still that much more airtime for the issue and for people to understand it."
A bill that would block the state from setting up an insurance exchange is nothing more than a political statement by Sen. Brian Kelsey, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said Thursday.
“I don’t think that bill’s needed. Once again, sometimes you have overkill,” Ramsey told reporters. “The basic premise of that, if the Supreme Court rules this way or the Supreme Court rules that way and if ‘that’ happens we’re going to do ‘that’ — that’s not the way you pass legislation,” Ramsey said.
Senate Bill 72 is built around a lawsuit now before the U.S. Supreme Court, King v. Burwell, that challenges whether the Internal Revenue Service can write rules to extend subsidies to people who buy insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s federal exchanges. Should the court find the IRS cannot write rules, Kelsey’s bill prohibits Tennessee from operating its own exchange and blocks the state from putting money for an exchange in the state’s budget.
“That’s more a political statement than it is good government,” said Ramsey.
Ramsey said he has faith Gov. Bill Haslam would come to the legislature first should he want to install a state exchange. An estimated 229,000 people in Tennessee selected health care plans on the federal exchange, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, posing a “big problem” if the federal exchange can’t be used and there’s no state exchange to turn to, Ramsey said.
“I just told him where I was. He rolled it for three weeks after that. That might tell you something,” Ramsey laughed.
Kelsey rolled the bill in the Commerce and Labor Committee Tuesday until March 10, saying he is waiting to meet with the administration about the legislation.
If anyone thought the first Senate committee to vote on the governor’s Insure Tennessee plan was stacked, they should have looked at committee No. 2, said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.
Had Insure Tennessee squeaked out of the special Senate Health Committee last week, it “didn’t have a prayer” in the special Commerce Committee it was facing next.
“As a matter of fact, I was very cognizant of the fact of giving it a fighting chance in first committee,” said Ramsey, who said he matched four adamant no votes against four lawmakers who’d been reported in the media as being in likely favor of the bill, then filled in the other committee spots with two legislators he believed could be persuaded.
But more than a week after that committee voted 7-4 against the governor’s bill to capture federal dollars to fund the lion’s share of a Tennessee-crafted Medicaid expansion for mostly working-poor residents, House Democrats are pushing to give the proposal another go.
Democrats, who are in the minority of two chambers of Republican super majorities, say they have legislation that would allow the governor to authorize Insure Tennessee, another providing a full expansion of Medicaid, and another to repeal legislation requiring the General Assembly OK an expansion.
“We may not all agree on the right approach, but we can’t just sit by and do nothing. And I think it’s time for the legislature to stop coming up with excuses and start bringing forward ideas,” said Nashville state Sen. Jeff Yarbro.
A leading coalition that supported Insure Tennessee said as much as it plans to drive conversation about the low-income working class’ lack of access to affordable health care and explain the negative effect it has on health care providers and the rest of the state, the group likely won’t get behind the Democrats’ efforts that don’t specifically authorize Insure Tennessee, said a spokesman. Any other legislation would have to win approval by the group’s board.
“Our members agreed to do one thing and that’s to support Insure Tennessee,” said Joe Hall, communications director for the Coalition for a Healthy Tennessee.
Both Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell say they are ready to put the governor’s plan behind them, at least for this year.
“It might be that two years from now, we wake up with a Republican president, look at going after it again and coming back with a block grant,” said Harwell. “That would a selling point here in the General Assembly. Does that continue to be on the minds of legislators, of community leaders? Of course it does. Do I think we want to spend a lot of time during the regular session? Nah, I don’t think that.”
The Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents released a letter Tuesday signed by 114 of the state’s 140 school district leaders telling lawmakers to back off from changing education standards.
The letter, which includes signatures from the state’s four largest school district and omitted the words "Common Core," added that superintendents are awaiting the governor’s standards review to fully unfold and thus drive edits to the standards. Meanwhile, they say, changing standards now would be a “huge blow to the morale of educators” as they prep for a new state test in 2016.
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen echoed that sentiment Tuesday after presenting to a House education committee, telling reporters the governor’s review will be a vehicle for editing and developing a set of standards “that truly are Tennessee’s academic standards.”
An a high of frustration with the federal government, several legislators have pushed to repeal the state's standards, known as Common Core, which have been adopted and in some cases repealed across the country. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told Post Politics after the governor's State of the State address that “Common Core is dead,” and said last month he expects legislators to work late into the session combing through the results of the governor’s review to set new education standards this spring.
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