Dec 03 2013

I hate to say I told ya so #TennCareExpansion

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

Republicans hate Obamacare so much, they’re willing to let you die to prove how bad it is.

Back in March when Gov. Haslam announced the state would not be expanding Medicaid, I wrote a series of posts about the impact of this decision on rural hospitals.

Seems like my early predictions are coming to fruition.

In his March release, it says he’s announcing the “Tennessee Plan” which was supposed to be something like the Arkansas Plan…but different. Unfortunately, this was…at best a fib. The Governor hasn’t released any specifics of the “Tennessee Plan” to the Feds, and as such, the plan doesn’t exist anywhere except in the Governor’s imagination.

In the eight months since the announcement, there’s been a bunch of nothing from the Governor.

Budget talks in November revealed what folks call the “woodworking effect”…or what happens when people start actively looking for insurance only to find out they qualified for Tenncare all along. That “effect”will be a budget buster to the tune of $172m for the author (Gov. Haslam) of the state’s largest budget to date.

It’s important to remember…these aren’t people who suddenly qualify for Tenncare…these are people we should have been covering all along.

As the year comes to a close, we are starting to hear about major cuts to rural hospitals, most of whom are the only lifeline rural families have. These cuts are just the prelude to closures, that will mean rural folks will not only NOT have access to coverage, but likely die in an emergency because needed care was too far away.

A tale of two states

Our neighbor to the north…Kentucky, is both running their own exchange and expanding medicaid. Kentucky has been in the spotlight of what the Affordable Care Act, AKA “Obamacare” is supposed to do and be…a way for all people to get health insurance coverage that is within their means.

A recent article in the Indianapolis Courier-Journal could have just as easily been written about the differences between Kentucky and Tennessee. In fact, it practically is.

Both Gov. Haslam (TN), and Gov. Pence (IN) both want to embark on Medicaid expansion in a way that would mean working poor people would have to pay for some of their healthcare costs…which means that suddenly someone making 101% of poverty would have a whole lot more out of pocket expenses than someone making just a few dollars less a pay period at 99% of poverty.

There are over 500,000 people not currently enrolled in Tenncare that live in households making $25,000 or less (133% of poverty) in Tennessee. That’s a lot more than the 330,000 predicted to come on line under Medicaid expansion. The difference is the impact of the woodworking effect.

Gov. Haslam and Gov. Pence want these people to pay more for two reasons:

1. It will cost them less making them seem more fiscally conservative, even if they aren’t.

2. They claim it will keep people from “taking advantage of the system” and add some “personal responsibility” to the program.

That’s a slap in the face to working folks…to assume that they would game the system just because they “could”. Working folks don’t have time to game the system, they’re too busy working.

It IS about people

This is about people…people who live all over the state.

People who live in remote areas because that’s where their work is. Farmers, businessmen and women, children and the elderly…people just like us city folk…that just happen to live in the country.

Over half the state’s population lives in Tennessee’s mostly rural 80+ counties. That’s a lot of ground to cover for the 3.4m who don’t live in Tennessee’s big 5 counties (35% of the population) or the other 10 with a healthy rural/urban mix. But not living in one of the state’s largest counties doesn’t mean people should be without a hospital…and due to the economic realities of providing rural healthcare…that’s the fate they face.

In a release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus, Chairman Turner called on the Governor to act…rather than let people needlessly suffer:

“This Christmas, Governor Haslam has the opportunity to give thousands of working men and women in Tennessee the best gift possible – longer and healthier lives,” said Chairman Turner. “I understand it will be difficult to get the expansion passed in the legislature, but the Governor owes it to the people of our state to try. If he stands by and does nothing, the hospital closures, the jobs lost, and the premature and preventable deaths of Tennesseans will rest squarely on his shoulders.”

It is a preventable tragedy. One that is so easily preventable, its almost madness that we’re even discussing people lives in such a flip manner. When Lt. Gov. Ramsey says:

“obviously this is going to hurt. In some cases there may be hospitals that have to close — but look, if you want to operate in a free market, things like that happen. But I think overall they will figure out a way to cut this.”

I’m sure the families of the people who suffered thanks to the “free market” Ramsey describes will understand.

After all, ideological purity is much more important than someone’s life.

What about Speaker Harwell? She’s only slightly more sympathetic:

There are some rural hospitals that will be hurt; there’s no doubt about that. But the health care industry is a changing industry and those that can’t keep up, they just simply can’t,” she said. “I’m sorry that that might happen, but again, if it was a little exaggerated, we’ll find out in the next six months.”

As for Governor Haslam…he hasn’t compared the human cost to an ideological test yet…in fact, he’s done what most folks with his pocketbook do to working folks…ignore them.

A slow death spiral

The worst thing about the layoffs, departures of services, and eventual closures of rural Tennessee hospitals is that it will be a slow decline…much like what many rural communities have already seen as businesses leave their communities and their populations age.

Hospitals are community pillars. They are institutions that help hold up the towns they serve. As they close…and they already are, the towns they serve and the people around them will suffer health related challenges…and economic challenges as the jobs the hospitals once hosted also disappear…and along with them, their trained, well paid workforce.

Ramsey, Harwell and Haslam will say I’m exaggerating…but its already happening…just not all at once. The slowness of it all will give them time to shift blame, distort reality, and manufacture scapegoats.

Hopefully people won’t fall for that.

Just look at Kentucky.

The irony is…the largely rural districts that vaulted them and their Republican colleagues into power…are the ones that will suffer most.

That suffering means more tragedies…and preventable decline for communities that cannot afford to bear them.

Sep 11 2013

Shameful…and the response is just weird

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics, TNDP

On a day reserved for the remembrance of first responders and victims of the 9/11 attacks, many of whom also lost their life…

A day where American servicemen and women are thanked for their service in two wars that followed those attacks…

The man who is one heartbeat away from the helm of state government here in Tennessee had this to say.

Ignorant

Ignorant

**sigh**

Its unfortunate that a political leader would use such a solemn occasion to launch a petty and misguided political attack.

In response, Tennessee House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh issued the following:

“September 11th is a day when all Americans come together to remember a solemn occasion in our history. Instead of honoring those who gave their lives 12 years ago, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey decided to take the low-road and accuse our Commander-in-Chief of allying with the very terrorist who attacked our country.

“This divisive rhetoric dishonors the memory of those who died on this day. It is insulting to our President, to Senator Corker who shares the President’s position, to all Americans no matter their position on Syria and to the memory of those we’ve lost. Lt. Governor Ramsey is either grossly misinformed or he has decided to be a partisan, instead of a patriot. He should apologize immediately.”

Not to be outdone, the Chair of the TNDP also made a statement, as reported by Michael Cass of the Tennessean:

“”Speaker Ramsey should fire whoever wrote such an outrageous, dishonest, misleading, incendiary, unpatriotic and dangerous attack on our nation’s president and on Republican leaders like Senators Corker and McCain and House Speaker Boehner and even the military leaders working with them,” Herron said in a statement. “Many of us are unsure about how to proceed in Syria, but whoever wrote that tweet dishonors the victims of 9/11 and our military men and women who are doing all they can to stop more children and parents from being gassed and killed.”

He should fire someone? That’s where that tweet leads you? Holy Mackerel!

Kind of a weird thing to say in the same week three staffers announced their exit from the party offices.

**sigh**sigh**

In any case, Lt. Gov. Ramsey’s statement is shameful. It touches on all the things that make people’s ears bleed when they think too much about politics, and go down a road that is unnecessarily divisive on such a day as today.

Kudos to House Minority Leader Fitzhugh for calling Speaker Ramsey out.

As for the TNDP statement…

***sigh***

Jul 26 2013

Who will it be?

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics, TNDP

Your face here

Your face here

With a little over 15 months to the November 2014 general election, the discussion has turned to statewide races. University of Memphis College Democrats President Charles Uffelman took to this site last week and suggested House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, who had at one time mentioned the prospect. Earlier this week he declined the offer.

Then on Wednesday, Newscoma asked the question, “Who will be the Democratic Nominee for Governor?”

That’s a question I’d like an answer to as well.

She also had some advice for stakeholders both inside and outside of the party.

They should all carefully consider that advice, though if past is prologue, they won’t.

2013 isn’t anything like 2009 anything like last time.

Around this time in 2009 we had at least 4, if not 5 candidates in the mix (Mike McWherter, Ward Cammack, Kim McMillan, Roy Herron, and Jim Kyle). Four of them would eventually drop out for their own reasons, but at least we had some names. Right now, I couldn’t name someone who was even considering it.

Yesterday, Sen. Jim Kyle is quoted in a Knoxville paper saying that it wouldn’t be bad if no one ran. Here’s the quote:

“I do not feel that the Democratic Party is damaged by not fielding a major candidate,” said Kyle, noting that Republicans — when they were the state’s minority party — often went through elections without seriously challenging incumbent Democrats.

He conceded that the party faced “an unpleasant situation” in 2012 when the U.S. Senate nomination was won by Mark Clayton, who was subsequently disavowed by the party for “extremist views.” The party has since set up a new candidate vetting operation that is supposed to keep such people off the primary ballot.

But Democrats would be just as well off without a candidate as someone who is “just a name on the ballot,” Kyle said and accepting the present state of affairs as “just part of the ins and outs of Tennessee politics.”

Now, I think I get what Kyle is saying here. In some ways, not having a candidate would keep people from thinking about the fact that they never heard of him, assuming said candidate didn’t have the wherewithal to field much of a campaign outside of Democratic strongholds.

But the reality is, practice becomes habit, and there are lots of practices that I’ve seen over the past 5+ years in state Democratic politics that are alarming. I’m not even talking about the major players here.

We have to stop waiting for someone, be it the TNDP, the Caucuses, the County Parties or anyone else to swoop in and save us. It isn’t happening.

Its time for regular people to stop fretting about it, and start acting on it.

As for those institutions, I’ve said about all I have to say about them over and over in the past several years. The short story on them is, most of them are too wrapped up in their own self interest to do what needs to be done for the state.

We have to relearn everything

Rome didn’t fall in a day, and neither did the Tennessee Democratic majority. It took a long time. Folks point to the 2002 Income Tax thing as the beginning of the end. Honestly, that was closer to the end of the end.

That failure, showed a weakness in the party. A weakness of message. A weakness of resolve. A lack of focus.

The state GOP has exploited that weakness, and the fear of reprisals since, and have used it to their advantage.

We have’t seen the end of the end yet. The end of the end won’t hit until we start really picking up the pieces. Right now, we’re still looking at them and wondering what happened.

We’re looking at the house we once had, that got neglected, and that we allowed through that neglect to be dismantled piece by piece over a long period of time.

It didn’t start in 2008, that’s just when we noticed the roof was gone. It didn’t end in 2012. If it had, we’d be laying the foundation for 2014 and beyond.

To even get started on that foundation, we have to be willing to relearn everything.

We have to learn how to build a modern foundation. The one we built in the 19th century held up for a long time, but we never reinforced it with modern building techniques…and it broke.

There are still some folks, standing on what’s left of that old floor, saying, “look, its fine, it still works.”

We just need to slap tin foil hats on their heads, and smile and nod. They’re fooling themselves. The whole damn thing needs to be re-thought, and rebuilt.

This can’t and won’t be done by most of the folks that let it decay around them. It has to be fresh blood. We have to raise an army of people to help rebuild this house. It has to be built differently.

We NEED a candidate

We don’t need happy talk, haikus or flowery bullshit, we need real talk.

We need real talk about our party’s finances, which are in the toilet according to recent FEC filings.

We need real talk about the race for mediocrity that puts incumbency protection above gaining ground…like holding on to that last little patch of floor is really doing anything.

We need to hammer a Governor that has more ongoing scandals than I have fingers and toes because that message IS NOT GETTING OUT AT ALL. Almost no one here in Memphis has reported on it, and when they do, it’s a passing glance. If folks in the biggest County in the state don’t know about it, you can be sure the majority of folks in rural areas, that have far fewer media outlets than Memphis aren’t hearing about it either.

We need to MOCK the Governor’s repeated refrain of the Tennessee Economic Miracle. Guess what, it’s a lie. As of last month 260,000+ people were without jobs in Tennessee, and that number stands to go up as more hospitals scale back operations in rural areas thanks to the Governor’s insistence on balking at Medicaid expansion. 21,000 jobs on the line. Unemployment will be closer to 9.2% if those jobs go away.

Some miracle.

But most of all, we need someone, man or woman, out there talking about these things. Challenging the Governor’s lack of disclosure. Calling him out on his crony capitalist model, and telling the people of Tennessee how it can be better if we stop sitting back and letting another rich guy that never missed a meal in his life, “fix things for us”…which really means rig the game for his friends personal profit.

We need fire. We need backbone. We need someone with a strong voice to deliver that message.

With a couple of exceptions, it ain’t any of the usual suspects. They’re too busy being scared.

We don’t have time to wait for someone to save us. Right now, there’s no reason to believe they’re coming. Instead of waiting, we have to start acting, in our own ways.

It may seem small, but I’ve found that action begets action, and there’s no better recruiting tool.

For you folks scattered hither and fro across the state asking what I’m doing. Ask the Germantown Democrats. I spoke to them Wednesday about the upcoming elections. Ask the County party, where I serve in the most thankless job…as Secretary. Oh yeah, and I ran for County Commission in a Republican district last year because it needed to be done.

We need people to run for Governor, and Senator, and State House and Senate, and County Commission, and City Council, and School Board for that matter. Hell, run for dog catcher if that’s on the damn ballot.

We need folks who are mad as hell and ready for a fight.

If this sounds like you, stand up and take a good look in the mirror. Ask yourself, “why not?”

That’s what I did two years ago when a surprise spot opened up on the Shelby County Commission, and I started contemplating running.

Why not?

Jul 20 2013

U of M College Democrats address Gov. Haslam leadership crisis

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

The following is an editorial penned by the University of Memphis College Democrats. It is published here in its entirety.

BATTLING BILL’S BOONDOGGLE(S)

Tennesseans face a leadership crisis due to the self-serving mismanagement of our state by Governor Bill Haslam. So far, during his more than three years in office, Governor Haslam has abused the public trust in order to enrich him and his friends. As dogged investigative reporting offers more insights into the nature of this administration, the public is learning just how pervasive and damaging Governor Haslam’s “leadership” has been for the middle class Tennessean, and why it is imperative that we consider House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh for election as our next governor:

• Governor Haslam awarded a $330 million contract for the management of state buildings to Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), a company with which the Governor has over $10,000 invested. The Governor maintains a close relationship with JLL executives, inviting them to an “intimate dinner” at the Governor’s Residence during the contract bidding process in April 2012.
• Governor Haslam’s family company, Pilot Flying J, is currently under investigation by the FBI for knowingly withholding fuel rebates from trucking companies with which they do business. The investigation calls into question the Governor’s business integrity and is indicative of a culture of blatant disregard for middle class workers within the Haslam Empire.
• Bill Haslam failed to disclose that he paid lobbyist Tom Ingram for political advice while Ingram lobbied on behalf of a coal company hoping to mine beneath state parks.
• The Haslam Administration outsourced a million dollar contract for maintenance of the state’s fleet of vehicles to Bridgestone/Firestone, a company once headed by Mark Emkes, Haslam’s former finance chair. The bloated deal includes massive markups that waste taxpayer dollars. For instance, a $1.74 headlight bulb cost Tennesseans $12.
• Haslam outsourced the state’s motor pool to Enterprise for the price of $739,000, despite the fact that state employees used only $450,000 worth of services. General Services Commissioner Steve Cates began pushing for the deal around the time that he hired former Enterprise executive Kathleen Hansen to head General Services’ motor vehicle management division.
• Governor Haslam appointed Brad Martin interim President of the University of Memphis. Martin was the CEO of Saks Inc., and hired Haslam as an executive, when the Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the company on charges of fraud for withholding millions owed to clothing retailers. Martin is also conducting Pilot’s internal investigation regarding the withholding of fuel rebates.
• Haslam appointee Kate O’Day, head of the Department of Children’s Services (DCS), resigned amid an investigation into the deaths of 31 children in DCS care.
• Under Haslam’s guidance, the State of Tennessee awarded a $200 million-plus contract to provide health services for our state’s inmates to Centurion, which employs the wife of the head of the Tennessee Department of Corrections, despite concerns about the company’s qualifications and the fact that Centurion’s bid came in almost $20 million higher than its competitor’s bid.

This laundry list of scandals, mismanagement, and disregard for the livelihood of Tennesseans is emblematic of the leadership crisis facing our state. Haslam’s passion for political patronage endangers the welfare of ordinary Tennesseans and threatens to cause serious long-term damage to the state we all love. For the good of the state, Tennesseans need a candidate for governor whose leadership offers a clear contrast with Gov. Haslam and his self-serving Capitol Hill cronies.

Leader Craig Fitzhugh ran the Bank of Ripley in a clean and honest manner; Governor Haslam has been an executive at two companies that federal authorities have investigated. Leader Fitzhugh has given nearly 20 years of his life to a career in public service aimed at increasing the well-being of all Tennesseans; Governor Haslam has spent his ten years in public office focused on the financial fate of his inner circle. Leader Fitzhugh has been a champion of bipartisanship during his years in Tennessee politics; Haslam has spinelessly rubber-stamped the agenda of the most radical state legislature in Tennessee history. For these reasons, we urge Craig Fitzhugh to enter the 2014 Governor’s race.

At the end of Don Sundquist’s tenure as Governor, it was revealed that Sundquist gave no-bid state contracts to his business associates, and then the FBI raided the business offices of a close friend of his. The parallels with Bill Haslam are striking. Tennesseans had the good sense to elect Phil Bredesen after the mismanagement of the Sundquist years; and, after four years of Haslam’s underhanded governance, we are confident that the sensible citizens of our state will have the wherewithal to elect another serious leader who is committed to serving all Tennesseans. We are confident that Craig Fitzhugh is that leader.

Charles Uffelman–University of Memphis
President of University of Memphis College Democrats
Matt Strauser–Princeton University

Jul 09 2013

Is Haslam running government like a business?

Posted by Steve Ross in corruption, State Politics

TN Gov’t Contracts 101: Question 1. Are you a friend, friend of a friend, or paying a friend for counsel?

Back in 2010, when Gov. Haslam used millions of his personal wealth to win both the GOP primary and eventually the general election, a constant theme was that he would “run government like a business”.

Now, anyone with half a brain in their head should have looked at this promise pretty skeptically. Its just like any other promise a politician makes, subject to change based on future events.

And while the notion of “running government like a business” may seem like a good idea, 2010 was just two years after businesses…really big businesses…essentially tanked the economy by screwing over people who just wanted to own a home.

So, maybe we didn’t ask the right question at the time. Maybe we should have asked, “What kind of business?”

Of course, a fawning media, ready to crown a victor well before the election, didn’t help with the questions. They were falling all over themselves to use every adjective they could to make Haslam seem inevitable.

30 months into this term, the shine is starting to wear off with the media, and problems both inside and out of his administration have more than a few observers wondering about the Governor’s decision-making and the patronage system that has emerged.

Lead by the Legislature

Riding a wave of Republican victories across the state, Gov. Haslam was inaugurated with a newly ensconced GOP led House and Senate. While the Governor was just getting settled in, the legislature went to work, removing collective bargaining for teachers, instituted a photo ID bill for voting, and passed a bill allowing corporate contributions to political campaigns, among other things.

By the end of the 2011 session, many on both sides of the aisle rightly asked who was in charge of the state…the Governor or the Legislature? By 2012 the Governor started getting his sea legs, even if the legislature continued dragging him further to the right than most thought possible.

A post-mortem of the Gov.’s second year in office, noted that Haslam had a hard time reigning in the far right elements in the legislature. In the days following the end of the 2012 session, a slew of articles noting both the secrecy of the legislature and the Executive Branch intent on keeping information about the workings of government from the people, under the guise of “privacy”. One such effort sought to shield the owners of companies from public disclosure of their receipt of cash grants from the state.

All of these things led to the state being saddled with the dubious distinction of having the worst State Legislature in the US in 2012, and led to many questions, including those wondering if Gov. Haslam would ever live up to his “moderate” public image?

Apparently, the Gov. had other things in mind…like fulfilling the worst fears of what “running Government like a business” can be.

Patronage and personal interest

With the passage of the TEAM Act, a bill that radically changed the way Civil Service jobs are awarded, and which led to the hiring of what one writer called his patronage chief, Larry Martin, the nature of that “business climate in government” began to emerge.

Martin, who retired from First Tennessee Bank in 2006, also served as Chief of Staff for the Haslam Administration in Knoxville. While its not unusual for a political appointee to follow an executive from one place to another, Martin’s connections to the Haslam family are deeply rooted.

Both Jimmy Haslam and R. Brad Martin (U of Memphis interim president and chief Pilot internal investigator) served on the First Tennessee board while Larry Martin was COO of First Tennessee’s Financial Services division.

Another Haslam staffer, Mark Emkes, a Director at First Horizon (Parent Co. of First TN) became Director of Finance and Administration until he retired recently and was replaced by Larry Martin.

While the tangled web of business friends of the Haslam family that litters the upper echelon of the Haslam Administration is interesting, I’ll leave that for a future post to deal directly with the personal interests that have been rearing their ugly head for months now.

In June, a committee tasked with oversight of state contracts deferred the review of a contract for the Dept. of Corrections, that was awarded to a company employing the wife of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield…and cost the state $15m more.

This same group was also exploring looking into contracts offered to Enterprise Rent-a-car and Bridgestone, the latter formerly headed by recently retired Director of Finance and Administration, Mark Emkes.

But it doesn’t end there.

The Governor recently awarded a $330 million contract to a company he listed on his disclosures as an investment, one of the scant few I might add. He also signed a law that benefitted a business buddy in Gatlinburg and says he’s unconcerned about a coal company that has ties to his family business.

All of this leads us to a report from NC5 yesterday that alleges inside dealings on contracts by Tom Ingram, who, until recently was paid privately by the Governor.

This after several administrative problems involving child deaths at DCS, and the rewards totaling $1m that went to the TN Dept. of Labor after misspending $73m of unemployment money, which ultimately led to the Governor seeking cover behind newly appointed State Chief Operating Officer Greg Adams.

Apparently, “running government like a business” in part, at least, means placing layers of folks between you and government so you don’t really have to take responsibility for governing.

Cloudy skies ahead?

Of course, this is going on while the FBI and IRS are investigating the family business. An investigation that, while not directly connected to the Governor yet, certainly puts a pall on the overall outlook for Tennessee’s first family.

Which brings me back to something I said at the beginning…just what kind of business did candidate Haslam intend to model Tennessee government after?

While the jury may be out on that question as a whole, the evidence is pointing to the same kind of crony capitalism that brought down the banks in 2007-08 and is causing his family business all kinds of trouble right now. The kind that works with its friends at the expense of everyone else.

And while the Governor has enjoyed a certain measure of teflon like “unstainable” status in public opinion, one has to wonder how many scratches that surface can withstand before the public turns their back on the Governor.

What should be even more troubling for the Governor is that while he’s taken some dings to his image, the investigations into poor management and potential misdeeds in his administration are just beginning.

And just like most things, the bandwagoneers in the media will eventually jump on this en masse to do the thing they like doing more than building someone up…taking them down.