Nearly two-thirds of Tennesseans support Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan to expand Medicaid coverage, according to poll released by Vanderbilt University, and even a higher percent said the full legislature ought to vote on the governor’s proposal.
The poll of 1,001 registered voters launched the day after the legislature adjourned found 64 percent of those polled support the governor’s plan. Another 19 percent oppose and 13 percent indicated they neither support nor oppose Insure Tennessee.
Democrats make up the largest support for Insure Tennessee, with 85 percent of Democrats polling in support of Insure Tennessee. Nearly half, 49 percent, of self-identified Republicans also said they support Insure Tennessee, as did 42 percent of Tea Party members and 65 percent of independents.
Opposition to the program — which failed twice in legislative committees this year — largely comes from Tea Party members and Republicans. Forty percent of people who said they belong to the Tea Party said they oppose Insure Tennessee, as did 28 percent of Republicans. Another 17 percent of independents also oppose the plan, as does 8 percent of Democrats.
Seventy-eight percent of people surveyed said the full legislature should vote on the governor’s proposal, compared to 15 percent who said a vote isn’t needed.
More than two-thirds, 68 percent, of Tea Party members said they would like to see a full vote by the legislature on the plan, as did 73 percent of polled Republicans. More than four in five Democrats and Independents also said the legislature should vote.
The survey was conducted by Vanderbilt University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions from Apr. 23 until May 9. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.
Two of the legislature's highest-ranking Republicans got caught by Scoopageddon allegedly "double dipping" reimbursements for legislative trips out of state. According to NewsChannel 5, Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron charged both his campaign account and the state for his legislative trips to Alaska, Washington, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Kansas City and Dallas in the last six years. Ketron, who said he wrote a check to the state for $17,553 after he was contacted by the reporter, called the charges "an oversight on my part." He is also vice chair of the Joint Fiscal Review Committee, which polices how the state spends money, and is the first vice chair of the Senate Ethics Committee.
The investigation also found newly-elected state Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes allegedly charged both his campaign accounts and the state for his legislative travel. He reimbursed the state for more than $4,700, according to the report. Memphis Democrat Antonio Parkinson also reimbursed the state for a hotel charge that was paid for by both his campaign and the state.
After a year of thumping the Bible, revealing details about vasectomies and rejecting Insure Tennessee, lawmakers hope to call it a year and wrap up their business this week.
When legislators come back this afternoon, 92 bills will be waiting for them on the House floor with more expected after a few last-minute committee meetings. That long calendar will likely take a few days to work through. The Senate is taking Monday off and will return Tuesday expecting no more than 40 bills next week.
Here’s are the highlights of what they have left to do, in alphabetical order:
- Abortion, 48-hour wait period: Requiring pregnant women to wait 48 hours before undergoing an abortion procedure and requiring physicians to explain the related risks needs the House’s sign-off before it can go to the governor. It is on the House’s long Monday calendar. The Senate passed Senate Bill 1222 last week on an easy 27-5 vote.
- Abortion, ambulatory surgical centers: Legislation that would likely result in the closure of four out of seven operating abortion centers in Tennessee is also awaiting a final House vote before it can move to the governor. The bill would require abortion facilities that perform more than 50 abortions a year to meet the requirements of an ambulatory surgical center. The Senate passed the bill without debate on a 28-4 vote last week. SB1280 is on the House calendar for Monday.
- ASD fee, empty seats: Will schools in the middle of a state-sponsored turnaround be able to enroll kids who live outside that school zone? That’s the question in one of two remaining bills regarding the Achievement School District, a state agency in charge or improving student performance at some of the state’s lowest-performing schools. The bill had a rough go of it in the House last week where lawmakers allowed the ASD to accept certain students outside the school zone and charge its schools an administrative fee of up to 3 percent. In one of the chamber’s closer votes, House Bill 473 passed 59-31. The Senate version is scheduled for a vote Tuesday.
- ASD takeovers. Schools flagged for low performance can escape state takeover if they improve test scores “above expectations,” according to a second ASD bill still floating through the legislature. The Senate voted 31-0 for SB758 last week. The House version is on Monday’s calendar.
- Common Core: After entering the hallways of Legislative Plaza promising to stick a pencil through the heart the politically unpopular education standards, lawmakers have slow-walked a compromise idea up to the Capitol. Instead of repealing Common Core, lawmakers want to add their own layer of scrutiny to the governor’s standards review by appointing a panel of people to examine the recommendations. The addition would take away the governor’s “unilateral control” over the outcome, lawmakers said. While the plan is generally agreed upon by the legislature and administration, some lawmakers are worried the bill doesn’t go far enough to fully erase Common Core. HB1035 is scheduled for a House floor vote on Monday and a Senate vote Tuesday.
- Hall tax: Lawmakers are still looking to whittle away at the state taxes on investments and dividends this year, though not as much as they’d like. Having done away with more far reaching bills this year, lawmakers have a smaller one that would raise exemptions for those paying the tax. SB32 is awaiting a Tuesday hearing in Finance Committees in both the House and Senate.
- Longevity Pay: The governor wants to change how state employees are rewarded for service, switching from a formula based on tenure to one measured by merit and job performance. Amid pushback from state employees, and lawmakers bombarded with emails and phone calls, the governor’s office has agreed to keep longevity pay for current executive branch state employees and shift to the full merit system for new recruits. HB647, passed the Senate 26-3 and is on the House calendar for Monday.
- Revenue Modernization Act: Legislators will have to decide whether to give final approval to a proposal from the governor’s office which modernizes the state’s tax code to ensure out-of-state businesses pay their share of taxes. It was an easy decision for the House which passed HB644 90-3 last week. The bill is on the Senate's Tuesday calendar.
- School vouchers: The long debate over whether the state should cover low-income students’ tuition at private and parochial schools is still unresolved. The measure, which has historically stalled in the House despite many successful years in the Senate, still needs approval from the lower chamber’s Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee (tentatively scheduled for Tuesday). If passed, it will then face the full Finance Committee before it reaching the House floor. Leadership, advocates and opponents alike predicted earlier this year vouchers would have a much easier time winning approval in the past, which makes this end-of-year slowdown concerning to fans of the bill. SB999 swept through the Senate 23-9 last month.
- Special Ed school vouchers: A bill that would allow students with special educational needs to use school vouchers is also waiting in the wings. The bill has yet to reach the House or Senate floor for a full vote. Like the original school voucher bill, HB138 needs to face a battery of House finance committees before it can reach the floor. The Senate version should be on the floor Tuesday.
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.”
In hopes of ending this year’s legislative session in the next two weeks, the lower chamber expects to approve a flow motion Wednesday to speed up the final days of business.
This year’s flow motion, which allows the legislature to fast forward through mandatory wait times to take up certain bills, would come almost a week later than last year’s.
Last session, the House moved into “FloMo” territory on April 2 and adjourned 15 days later on April 17. In three of the last four years, session adjourned either 14 or 15 days after the House approved the motion.
According to legislative staff, lawmakers hope to adjourn next week or the week after.
The flow motion suspends 12 aspects of the House rules, like allowing a floor calendar to exceed 25 bills, adding flexibility on when committees and the full house can meet, and sidestepping waiting periods for bills or amendments to be heard.
Welcome back from the holiday interlude. Here’s what to expect from the legislature in the coming weeks:
Tuesday, Jan. 13 - The 109th General Assembly will gavel into session for the first time at 12 p.m., launching a two-year cycle of filing, debating and passing legislation. Lawmakers will begin the session by electing House and Senate speakers. Both House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey are expected to run unopposed. During this week, the elected speakers are expected to release legislators' committee assignments.
Wednesday, Jan. 14 - Legislators will meet in a joint session, likely at 9 a.m., this time to elect the state treasurer and comptroller. Those positions are currently manned by David Lillard and Justin Wilson, who are both expected to win reelection.
Thursday, Jan. 15 - Both chambers will meet together again, this time for mandatory ethics training.
Friday, Jan. 16 - The House and Senate are both expected to gavel in, although they’ll break before 10 a.m. to pack food for five major food banks feeding people in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville and the Tri-Cities. That evening will kick off the governor’s string of inauguration events, beginning with free music at the Acme Feed & Seed at 1st and Broadway.
Saturday, Jan. 17 - After an 8:30 a.m. prayer service at the Ryman Auditorium, Gov. Bill Haslam will give his inauguration speech on War Memorial Plaza. The 11 a.m. outdoor event will last an hour, according to Joe Hall, spokesman for the governor’s inauguration committee.
Festivities will continue that evening with the first couple’s celebration dinner at the Omni Hotel at 6:30 p.m., an event with a $250 ticket cost which permits access to a ball to follow at 8 p.m. Entrance only to the ball is $50, and proceeds go toward paying expenses to put on inauguration day events, said Hall.
Sunday, Jan. 18 - The governor and first lady will open the residence to tours from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and legislators still in town for the weekend’s events will likely be headed home. The General Assembly likely won’t resume official business until the first week of February as they break for what staffers expect will be a two week organizational period. When lawmakers return, they anticipate spending the first week or two in a special session focused on Haslam’s plan to expand Medicaid to low-income Tennesseans by way of his Insure Tennessee proposal. Haslam has yet to officially set the date for the special session.
The state gives legislators thousands of dollars each year to cover the costs of communicating with constituents, and Sen. Stacey Campfield is the first to use that money to air "legislative updates" on cable TV, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports.
The money — $6,832 annually for state senators and $2,016 for reps — is typically used on postage and printing costs. Lawmakers tend to stockpile those dollars and either use them on mailers shortly before the elections or transfer funds to fellow legislators. While the state prohibits lawmakers from including political references or postmarking the communications fewer than 30 days from the election, critics argue the communications give incumbents an edge over political challengers. The Dean has more on who gave, who received, and how sitting legislators are spending that money.
“I’m encouraging you to punch at your weight class because your view matters incredibly to the future of Tennessee,” the governor told members of the state Chamber of Commerce Tuesday. Here, in full, is his pitch.
House Speaker Beth Harwell says she’s still weighing whether the legislature should come back for a veto session after their expected adjournment next month.
“I don’t know that I’ve made up my mind,” said Harwell who confirmed Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey brought the idea up to her. “This is not in any way a reflection that we have any disagreement with the governor. We don’t. We were just looking at what’s good government and the protection of the strength of the legislative body.”
The speaker, who said issues like cost and timing are worth thinking about, would not confirm whether she would consider a veto session for this year, saying she and Ramsey would make that decision together. Ramsey said the legislature should not let the governor's veto go unchecked and suggested lawmakers come back for one day a month after they adjourn to revisit any vetoed bills.
Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters it’s the legislature’s prerogative if they want to come back to overturn vetoes he may make.
“There’s always a lot of speculation at this point in time in a session about what’s the governor going to veto. At this point in time, as I’ve said before, we’re still really early in this book,” he said.
Two weeks ago, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he told House Speaker Beth Harwell the legislature ought to come back a month after they adjourn just in case the governor vetoes anything they’ve passed.
It should be a regular practice, Ramsey explained to reporters Thursday in his weekly press availability. The legislature should schedule it 30 days after they adjourn, he said, but only in the last year of the two-year legislative session so the lawmakers have a chance to reverse any vetoes before a new General Assembly is elected.
“I think the people would expect that,” said Ramsey “When you leave here, any governor has full reign to do whatever he wants to and we can’t do anything about it. I don’t care if it’s (former Gov. Phil) Bredesen, (former Gov. Ned) McWherter, whatever, and that’s not really good practice,” he said.
The last time the legislature held a veto session was in 2001 under then-Gov. Don Sundquist who had vetoed the state’s budget. The legislature did the same in 2000.
House Speaker Beth Harwell was unavailable for comment as of late Thursday.
The governor’s veto power is already one of the weakest in the nation, requiring a simple majority of the legislature to overturn the governor. He has 10 days to reject a bill, but if vetoes come out after the legislature has gone home for the year, the veto typically sits unchallenged.
Gov. Bill Haslam has hinted he would veto legislation that seeks to delay Common Core education standards and it's related test called PARCC. He has also intimated he would veto a bill taking away local government's authority to ban guns in local parks. Both measure appear stuck in committees due to hefty price tags.
Ramsey said wanting to call lawmakers back to veto session is nothing personal against Haslam. “I wish the Constitution said you had to. That would make it a whole lot easier.”
POSTDATA: WARRANTY DEEDS