Governor urges cities to help with 'changing' legislature

The governor says legislatures have changed:

Haslam told reporters after the speech that once powerful institutions like lobbyists, the media, chambers of commerce and hospitals no longer carry as much sway with the General Assembly.

“We have a changing Legislature and the old ways of doing things won’t necessarily work,” Haslam said. “So I think you’ve got to be visible and present here.

“It’s just a different world,” said Haslam, a former Knoxville mayor. “You can’t rely on sending a rep to do what they’ve always done and expect the same results.”

Jun 10, 2015 6:52 AM

Crowe fully converted on Insure Tennessee?

Sounds like Rusty Crowe is fully in support of Insure Tennessee:

One of them, state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said he was perfectly fine with the public knowing of his health care coverage. Crowe, who helped defeat Insure Tennessee during a special session in February, only to play a crucial role in trying to revive it a month later, said he is now convinced the plan is a good thing for Tennessee.

That’s also the thinking of 64 percent of state residents polled on the subject by Vanderbilt University.

Crowe also told the crowd Wednesday that politics and ideology are the reasons many of his Republican brethren on Capitol Hill are willing to turn down nearly $2.8 billion in federal funds to help the low-income Tennesseans. Officials with Tennessee Health Care Campaign and the Tennessee Justice Center, two groups that helped to organize the Town Hall meeting, noted that Gov. Bill Haslam negotiated with the Obama administration to get a Medicaid waiver for Insure Tennessee.

May 27, 2015 10:11 AM

State gets new $46,000 logo, for some reason

It is apparently the state's interest and state's task to make the rebranding permanent. Tennessee Watchdog first reported on the planned change before Channel 4 uncovered a $46,000 contract with GS&F to create a new logo for the state that doesn't really incorporate the flag or anything particularly Tennessee-ish besides the postal abbreviation.

May 21, 2015 7:23 AM

State revenues rosey in April

Tennessee government collected $90 million more than it expected to last month largely thanks to growth in franchise and excise taxes which help make up the "bread and butter" of the state's revenues, said the state Office of Finance and Administration.

“The significant improvement in April taxes reflects an increase primarily in franchise and excise taxes, and we also saw moderate growth in sales tax receipts which indicates increased consumer confidence,” said Larry Martin, Finance and Administration commissioner.

Combined, franchise and excise tax collections amounted to $73.3 million more than the state’s budgeted estimate, for a growth rate of more than 12 percent over last year. Accounting for an unexpected dip in revenues last year due to two one-time tax payments, franchise and excise taxes are up about 10 percent over last year.

Sales taxes climbed $12.2 million above expectations and 5.6 percent over this time last year. Other taxes topping expectations last month include privilege taxes, Hall income taxes and tobacco taxes. Inheritance and estate tax collections, business taxes, gasoline and motor fuel collections all fell below expectations.

Year to date nine months into the fiscal year, state revenues are $444 million more than anticipated.

May 14, 2015 7:30 AM

Haslam's chief of staff leaving for private sector

Known for his role as a strong arm in the governor’s office, Chief of Staff Mark Cate plans to step down from his post after this summer to launch a strategic consulting and management firm, according to the governor’s office.

Cate, who began as a special assistant to Haslam, took the role of chief of staff in 2012. A press release from the governor’s office describes Cate as a top advisor, strategist and negotiator for the administration.

“Mark has been a key player and a valuable part of our team since my first campaign for governor,” Haslam said in a statement. “He is talented at keeping a lot of balls in the air at the same time and keeps us moving forward as a team. I wish him and his family all the best in his new endeavors. I will miss having him in the Governor’s Office.”

Cate managed Haslam’s initial gubernatorial campaign and, in state government, has overseen large projects including the civil service reform known as the TEAM Act, worker’s compensation reform, and the Drive to 55 initiative, including Tennessee Promise.

GOP lawmakers have quietly expressed frustration with Cate over the last few legislative sessions, describing his tactics as hardball and aggressive. Announcement of Cate’s eventual departure comes at the same time some legislators are complaining about the administration releasing details of their health plans to the media. Asked if there is a link between the two matters, Haslam spokesman David Smith said, "None whatsoever."

Cate will continue in his position until the summer and a replacement has not yet been named, according to the administration.

May 13, 2015 4:03 PM

Ramsey trashes VU poll on Insure Tennessee

Upon hearing hearing that two out of three Tennesseans favor the governor’s Insure Tennessee plan in a recent survey, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey turned to his spokesman and asked a question.

“Did you pull that out of the trash can yet?” he said, followed by a laugh.

Ramsey, arguably the most powerful Republican in state government, said he gives little credence to poll results released Wednesday by Vanderbilt University showing that people favor the governor’s embattled plan nearly by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, want an expansion of health care coverage and want the full legislature to vote on it. Vanderbilt is "notoriously wrong in their polling," Ramsey told reporters.

“All I know is I want to try to create the best policy for the state of Tennessee and I’m not going to do it literally based on polling. And I do think there’s all kinds of problems with the basic structure of Obamacare,” said Ramsey, who once straddled the line for support of the governor’s plan before the measure barreled toward two rejections in Senate committees this year.

“I think what we need is to wait until 2016, and I mean this, and we’ll have a Republican-elected president, I hope, and give us a block grant and let us design this to where we aren’t just addressing the 100 percent poverty, the 133 [percent],” he said after a meeting of the State Building Commission Wednesday. “We’re addressing everybody. Everybody should have to pay co-payments, everybody should have to pay deductibles, not just that little group right there and I don’t want to have my hands tied when that time comes. I just think that’s bad policy.”

Insure Tennessee is the governor’s state-specific proposal to expand Medicaid in order to close a coverage gap of people who make less 138 percent of the federal poverty level but don’t currently qualify for TennCare.

In addition to the 64 percent of people surveyed who said they support Insure Tennessee, 78 percent of respondents said the full legislature should vote on the measure. It failed twice this year in legislative committees.

“That wouldn’t have mattered… There was no way it had 17 votes, period,” said Ramsey about the votes needed in the Senate, adding that anyone who was eager to vote on the proposal did in committee.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, who also sits on the State Building Commission, took a phone call after the meeting and did not take questions from media. She was unavailable later in the afternoon, according to her staff.

May 13, 2015 3:01 PM

Dems push for insurance info release

A partisan divide:

The Tennessee House Democratic Caucus  supports today’s release of health insurance premium records to the Nashville Tennessean newspaper and request all insurance premium information be opened up to the media and the public.  Several media outlets had requested the information after the defeat of Insure Tennessee.  Insure Tennessee would have provided quality, affordable healthcare to 280,000 poor and working poor Tennesseans at no additional costs to taxpayers.

Several Republican lawmakers publicly condemned the premium information release, claiming it violated their privacy.  However, today the state turned over all of the information on premiums paid for lawmakers to the media.  Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Stewart said “It is the ultimate in hypocrisy.”

Stewart added, “To refuse to provide for the working poor of Tennessee, while trying to keep the insurance benefits they receive a secret illustrates their contempt for Tennesseans.”  Insure Tennessee was proposed by Governor Haslam in a special legislative session in February.  However, it was killed in committee by Republican lawmakers without ever going to the floor of either chamber for full discussion. 

May 8, 2015 1:48 PM

Casada blasts release of legislators' health insurance info

More information is coming about the insurance plans carried by state legislators. Rep. Glen Casada is displeased:

“As stated by the Office of Legislative Administration below, I wholeheartedly believe the release of this information is a blatant violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) standards. In addition, the release of these records is a complete policy shift of both the prior Governor and current Governor’s Administration up until February of this year. Whoever authorized the release of this information showed a clear lack of judgment and, at the very least, should be reprimanded immediately. If this is the executive branch’s way of negotiating with the legislative branch about Insure Tennessee, I would encourage them to strongly and swiftly rethink their strategy.”

The letter in question after the jump:

Members,

I write to inform you that the Office of Benefits Administration, a division of the Department of Finance and Administration, is releasing further detailed information to the media regarding member health insurance benefits.

This is once again a dramatic and unprecedented departure from policy. As you may remember, I wrote to you in February to inform you that Benefits Administration was departing from their policy to release only the number of legislators and staff on the state health plan. Today, Benefits Administration is going further. They are releasing, both to the Tennessean and the Associated Press, not only the names of legislators on the plan but what type of plan they have, as well as the full cost.

The Office of Legislative Administration views this as a blatant violation of member privacy.  It is the long standing policy of the Office of Legislative Administration to release only the number of legislators and staff on the state insurance plan. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) precludes releasing names or "any other personally identifying information" as such information is protected health information. It is the opinion of this office that release of personally identifiable enrollment information would be in violation of federal HIPPA privacy protections.

I would like to emphasize that decision was made in the executive branch at the direction of Benefits Administration Executive Director Laurie Lee. The Office of Legislative Administration did not approve of this release nor did we authorize it. Our policy of releasing only the number of legislators and staff goes back decades. This policy was also the policy of Benefits Administration until the concluding moments of this February's special session on Insure Tennessee. The policy change was made in consultation with Finance & Administration General Counsel Martha Nichols. The General Assembly's Office of Legal Services was not consulted.

You will likely see media coverage regarding the release of this information over the coming days. I wanted you to be fully aware of what information was being released and from where the information was coming. Following my signature you will find a detailed list of what information will be provided to the media by Benefits Administration.

If you have any questions regarding this subject or any other please do not hesitate to call my office.

Sincerely,

Connie Ridley

May 7, 2015 1:25 PM

State lobbying activities exceed $27M in 2014

Lobbyists and their clients collectively spent between $27.6 million and $69.4 million last year to influence state legislators and officials, reports the Dean. According to the 2014 Tennessee Ethics Commission annual report, 557 lobbyists registered with the state to represent 1,880 clients.

May 5, 2015 2:58 PM

Harwell: Cordell Hull to be legislature’s new home

By 2017, what is currently known as Legislative Plaza could become a parking lot and the once-forsaken Cordell Hull Building will be the new home for House and Senate legislators’ offices, committee rooms and the press suite.

That’s according to House Speaker Beth Harwell, who said the move will be more cost-effective than trying to repair problems in the Legislative Plaza.

“It’s a really neat building, and we’re going to try to restore it so it really looks good. The outside won’t look much different,” Harwell said.

According to Harwell, the Legislative Plaza and War Memorial Building need about $55 million worth of repairs, including replacing rusty pipes and locating hard-to-find parts to maintain the heating and air conditioning units that cost around $350,000 yearly in upkeep. According to staff, the Plaza lacks a proper sprinkler system and has flooding issues.

“Besides all that, it’s not a very nice facility,” Harwell said about the Plaza. “We’ve decided that it makes financially more sense. It’s only $44 million to relocate over there so it’s less money to do that improvement than it is to try to do the improvement to Legislative Plaza,” said Harwell.

Not all that long ago, Gov. Bill Haslam's administration planned to raze the Cordell Hull building upon the advice of a property management firm that told the governor the building was too costly to repair. That decision was reversed last year.

Ultimately, the state Building Commission will have to review and approve the project, according to Harwell. The War Memorial Building would be turned over to the Office of General Services, which Harwell expects will try to restore the building. The Legislative Plaza space would become an additional layer of underground parking to accommodate visitors, she said. Parking has long been a problem near the plaza, both for staff and visitors. At the earliest, the project will be finished by 2017, she said.

“Plus, I think we’ll all be healthier outside the Legislative Plaza,” Harwell said.

Apr 22, 2015 1:43 PM