Apr 02 2013

The Unbearable Partisanship of Expansion Denial

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

Peanuts, Popcorn, and a Whole Lot of Elephant Dung

Peanuts, Popcorn, and a Whole Lot of Elephant Dung

A couple of years ago, when I first published this image, I was lauded as a “chicken little” by some of my more conservative friends. They asserted that I was crying about the sky falling before a single drop had landed on my quickly balding head.

With a little time for reflection I say, “How do you like me now?”

Since last Wednesday’s decision to forego the expansion of Medicaid, and over $1b in Federal funding to do it, lots of people have sounded off on the issue. One of the best mashups of coverage came from Tennessee Values Authority over the weekend.

Pulling information from national and statewide sources, TVA shows in pretty stark terms the reality behind the rhetoric that the Governor used, to try and paint the Federal Government as inflexible and unwilling to compromise.

The Governor followed the lead of most other southern GOP lead states in effectively denouncing that favorite whipping boy of the Obama Administration…Obamacare. However, that wall isn’t as solid outside of the South. Maine is reconsidering, and seven other states with GOP Governors have accepted expansion.

This is one reason many thought Tennessee would be the next to break ranks.

Living in a dream world

In his address, the Governor invoked the “Arkansas Plan” as a model he hoped to pursue…with some tweaks.

The “Arkansas Plan” is an idea, still in the incubation stages, that would purchase private insurance through the state-run exchange for people, and include Medicaid “wrap-around” coverage.

But Gov. Haslam isn’t seeking to duplicate the idea of the “Arkansas Plan”. In fact, there are two stark differences between what Haslam proposes and what Arkansas proposes.

1. Arkansas will provide insurance to Medicaid expansion recipients with the same level of service as other Medicaid recipients. Gov. Haslam seeks to ask people to make co-pays above and beyond what Medicaid allows. This is likely in search of driving down premiums, but not actually serving more people.

2. Arkansas is running its own healthcare exchange, Tennessee is not. So Arkansas has more flexibility in terms of the market it will be seeking to provide services in. Tennessee locked itself into the Federal exchange back in December.

It should be noted, the “Arkansas Plan” has only been approved in concept, not practice. Arkansas will have to gain final approval from the Feds before they can head down this path.

In essence, Gov. Haslam has sought to make a modification to a plan that has only been tenatively approved, by adding things his administration knows full well would not be approved, and then saying “all or nothing”.

Haslam reported today that HHS head Kathleen Sebelius said “We want to work with you”. Of course, that doesn’t mean, “we’ll give away the farm”, which is what Haslam actually wants. So, nothing has changed.

In the end, this is not a good strategy if you want to get something done. Great strategy if you’re playing to a base that doesn’t like the idea in the first place.

Electoral Strategery and governance

Truth be told, Gov. Haslam is politically stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he has his moderate image that helped bring him widespread support across the state. On the other hand, he cannot exert the same Executive authority as 44 other Governors, whose states require a 2/3 majority to override a veto.

His decision on Medicaid Expansion is part of a strategy that would allow the Governor to “save face” with Conservatives, while looking reasonable to his moderate base. What’s more, it plays into electoral politics and is hoped to hold back a primary challenge from the right. Something the Governor might not survive if the ultra-conservative wing of the GOP has a single standard-bearer to rally behind (Haslam received 47.4% of the votes in the 2010 August Primary, not a majority).

Another reality is there is little possibility the legislature would approve expansion anyway, so why risk the political capital? A bill sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) to prohibit the state from participating in Medicaid Expansion, has sailed through committee and currently stands in final stages of approval. The bill was opposed by the Haslam administration, but still likely had a hand in the final decision on Medicaid.

The legislature must do something to approve expansion, as it requires accepting and spending Federal dollars. Considering all these variables, from a political perspective, there wasn’t much the Governor could do, despite the support of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, the Tennessee Hospital Assn., the fears of Hospital CEO’s, whose patients Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is willing to sacrifice as victims of the free market even in rural areas which the majority of his caucus represents.

Despite those apparent challenges, the Governor could have shown some leadership instead of trying to deflect blame and come out in support of the idea, even if the nuts and bolts weren’t worked out. In doing so, perhaps some members of the GOP caucus would have given him the latitude to still uphold the Hastert Rule and Reagan’s 11th commandment, the only two rules that seem to matter in GOP politics.

I know, its asking way too much.

Yet Another Slow-Motion Apocalypse

Over the course of the past several days, I’ve sought to chronicle what will likely happen to rural communities as a result of this decision. The posts will be linked below, but in simple terms, this will be economically devastating.

Over 9000 rural jobs hang in the balance, with a direct economic impact of over $400m in actual wages lost in those areas…not to mention other jobs that will be lost in the area due to decreased demand and spending.

But the impact isn’t limited to rural counties…though it will have a far deeper and wider impact there. Hospitals in the state’s largest counties, Shelby, Davidson, Knox, and Hamilton all are impacted, bringing the total employment impact to 21,000 jobs lost.

This, after several economists predicted an increase of around 8000 jobs by 2019. Not a huge number, but better than potentially losing 21,000.

And so we find ourselves stuck between policy and politics once again. Its become a common thread in recent years. The end result, hard working people lose.

God knows, if ever there was time for a candidate that actually gave a damn about the folks who do the work that actually gets things done, that time is now. But they must get out there and start doing, rather than just talking. Talking and not doing is what got us into this mess in the first place…and it started well before Democrats started losing seats en masse in 2006.

Nationally Lampooned

Finally, I would just like to leave you with this video, that you’ve probably already seen, from the Colbert Show. Honestly, no one could have said it any better.

Previous Posts on Medicaid Expansion

Medicaid Expansion: Is there a downside?
Bill Haslam’s Death Panel
More on the Haslam Death Panel
The Economic Impact of Hospital Deserts
Distant Care – Existing Hospital Deserts
What does Medicaid expansion actually do?

Feb 02 2011

Call to Action – State Education Committees #MCS – Updated

Posted by Steve Ross in activism, Memphis, Policy, Shelby County, State Politics

Update: It was brought to my attention that SB0025 will be before the Senate Finance Committee at 3pm today. I’ve added the email information for members of that committee also.

The Education Committee of the State Senate is meeting today to consider SB0025 sponsored by Sen. Mark Norris and SB0015 sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey today at 1:30pm.

Both bills, offered by members representing Shelby County, who didn’t bother to make it to a meeting yesterday to talk to the Memphis City Council or Shelby County Commission, set out to gut our ability to make local decisions on a local issue…schools.

Please take a moment to contact all the members of this committe, as well as the members of the House committee, which meets tomorrow, and let them know you oppose any effort to limit our ability to determine what’s best for our children and our community.

Below are links that will allow you to email all the members.

Senate Education Committee

Meets today, Wednesday, February 2, 2011 @ 1:30pm

Dolores Gresham
Reginald Tate
Brian Kelsey
Andy Berke
Charlotte Burks
Rusty Crowe
Jim Summerville
Jim Tracy
Jamie Woodson

Senate Finance Committee

Meets Wednesday, February 2, 2011 at 3pm

Randy McNally
Doug Henry
Bo Watson
Lowe Finney
Joe Haynes
Brian Kelsey
Bill Ketron
Jim Kyle
Mark Norris
Doug Overbey
Jamie Woodson

House Education Committee

Meets tomorrow, Thursday, February 3, 2011 @ 2pm

Richard Montgommery
Joey Hensley
Joe Carr
Harry Brooks
Kevin Brooks
John DeBerry
Lois DeBerry
Bill Dunn
Craig Fitzhugh
John Forgety
Ron Lollar
Debra Maggart
Jimmy Naifeh
Joe Pitts
Dennis Powers
John Ragan
Ryan Williams
John Windle

Dec 29 2010

Poisoning the Well

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, elections, media, Shelby County

Opponents of School Merger Don't Have to Prove Anything, Just Gin Up Fear

Does this scare you enough?

One element of any campaign, but particularly a campaign as emotionally charged as the fate of public education in a community, is the element of fear.

Fear comes naturally with an attempt to change something because the outcome is unknown, and long held assumptions may be challenged in a way that is uncomfortable. One of the tactics used by people who would seek to derail any change in the status quo is using that naturally occurring fear and taking it up a notch to support their intended outcome. This is called “poisoning the well”.

Over the past week since the historic vote to bring the fate of the MCS Charter to a referendum I’ve been chronicling the media coverage. Thus far, most of the coverage has been fairly benign. The emerging narrative has been largely focused on the political realities behind the resolution vote, and the questions that currently don’t have any answers right now due to the circumstances of the situation, though that seems to be shifting. Over the past few days the coverage has shifted some to a so far unsubstantiated charge by Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland that there was a back room deal to secure the majority of the vote. Roland asserts he has “proof” of such a deal, but as of yet, has not been forthcoming with that “proof”.

One example of legitimate questions that need answers is this post from Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter’s campaign site.

Since his posting of these questions, some have been answered, many have not. Over the coming days I hope to match up some answers to these questions here on the blog. I’ll also be working on a more comprehensive section of the blog to address issues as they arise.

While there are many questions that need to be answered, there have also been some attempts to create controversy about the vote in areas where none should exist. The previously mentioned charge put forth by Commissioner Roland, which borders on libel unless he has something other than circumstantial evidence, is one example.

Another example is this site put together by the same people who opposed the metro charter vote back in the fall. The site makes a list of “reforms” that they feel must be accomplished during the transition process to merge the districts…a process which hasn’t yet begun. Among these are limiting collective bargaining, increasing instructional time for teachers, eliminating optional schools, outsourcing services, approving new Charter Schools, funding home-schooling, and firing all MCS middle management.

It should be noted that not all of the “ideas” on the site are bad, however, it seems clear that the intent of this “list of demands” is to make MCS teachers, administrators, and some parents FEEL as if their livelihoods are on the line or the future of their schools are in danger should the referendum be approved.

While there is probably a good bit of duplication between the two districts, that doesn’t mean that there is any less need for teachers or administrators going forward, particularly through the transition. In most large school consolidation transitions I’ve studied there is a two to three year period of transition before any “efficiencies” are acted upon. There’s no reason to believe the same wouldn’t be true here and there’s no way to know what those “efficiencies” would look like.

Further, state law provides that teachers would keep their current contracts through the term of the contract in any consolidation, and that district wide parity would have to be achieved over time meaning most county teachers would likely see a pay raise.

As for the future of specific schools and/or programs, there are a lot of questions going forward. However, before any dramatic changes are made there will have to be a reapportionment of the resulting Board of Education and a new election. The fate of schools and programs will not be decided until all the constituents of the resulting district are represented on the resulting legislative body. Any attempts to move unilaterally before such a time will most definitely result in litigation.

So, these are a few examples of a group or individual seeking to poison the well of public opinion against something that I believe is in their best interest, but there are others. Notably, former Nashville English Only activist John Crisp who in an email clearly states he wants to gin up as much fear as possible among key constituencies.

There’s also State Sen. Brian Kelsey who has launched a full frontal attack on the Memphis City Schools from his perch in Nashville.

The point is, consider the messenger, not just the message, and that includes me. I’m biased in favor of this proposal, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. The difference is, I will not play on your emotions. I will seek to provide the best information I can find out there, even if it doesn’t further my position.

Ultimately, this is about the kids and the future of our community, not the power brokers seeking to save their own skins or make some kind of political gain. If it were only about power the MCS School board would have NEVER approved the vote for a referendum.

As long as we all keep these things in mind we can make the most informed decision in the upcoming election.

Dec 18 2010

It Hasn’t Worked Thus Far, Why Would It Work Now?

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, Shelby County

In this morning’s Commercial Appeal, MCS School Board Member, Dr. Jeff Warren pens an Op-Ed prescribing the conditions necessary for a stand-down in the current stand-off between Shelby County Schools (SCS) and Memphis City Schools (MCS).

The column, entitled “Let’s get MAD about our schools face-off”, calls for the two districts to come together to work for an equitable solution that affirms the dedication of both systems to the education of all the children of Shelby County.

Playing on the acronym MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) that many have applied to the possible consolidation of the schools, Warren proposes the idea of Mutually Assured Dedication, a series of agreements with consequences for both SCS and MCS should either breach the terms as well as a shared interest in the education of all the children of Shelby County.

Further, Warren calls on Senator Norris and Representative Lollar to publicly state they will work to ensure that Shelby County is excluded from any Special School District status legislation should the issue come up in the state legislature this session.

As a general statement, I agree with the ideas that Dr. Warren says created the current situation. Even though I was only 1 year old, and didn’t live here at the time, I agree that forced busing in the 1970′s caused many people a great deal of dissatisfaction and the consequences of that decision led many to vote with their feet, moving into the county and ultimately, building up the county school district to its current size, not to mention the large number of thriving private school institutions that have arrived on the scene or expanded since.

Warren likens SCS’s push for Special School District Status to creating

permanent inequality by instituting a special school district that will never have to be involved with poor inner-city children.

I also agree with this assessment. Whether those served by SCS want to admit it, they are currently negatively impacted by the abject poverty and other conditions present in the City schools. This impact is felt in the struggle to attract high quality, good paying jobs to our area. Simply put, the challenge of seeking broad based economic opportunity for all residents of Shelby County has been made more difficult by the mass exodus of students from MCS (either through private education or moving to county schools), and people from the City core, starting in the 70′s and continuing to this day.

With this in mind, it’s clear that there already exists a fundamental disconnect between many outside the city school system and the hard realities inside the city borders. There is currently no real dedication by Shelby County residents as a whole, to reverse the conditions of poverty and want that ultimately sustain the dire outcomes for so many of our children in the City system. So why, even under the threat of consolidation, anyone would think a shift in philosophy so extreme would occur now is beyond me.

Currently, public education in Shelby County sustains a “separate but equal” system, whereby children with more economic advantages are paired with economic peers as are those with fewer advantages thanks to political boundaries that are both irrational and arbitrary. The consequence of this arrangement is a further widening of the gaps between the two rather than providing both with equal educational opportunities and a sense of shared destiny. In short, sustaining the current scenario in a “stand down” agreement is merely maintaining a system of inequality that has persisted for generations, not a solution. Nothing about this condition serves the people, or the children of Shelby County well.

Further complicating the issue is the political situation outside Shelby County. The politics of this issue are not confined to just the SCS Board, the MCS Board, Senator Norris or Representative Lollar. There are 32 additional State Senators and 98 State Representatives, any one of whom could propose a private act that would ultimately give Special School District status to SCS. Given the massive shift in the political makeup of both the State Senate and House, and the presence of quite a few ideological bomb throwers, Sen. Brian “last vestige of slavery” Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) among them, does anyone actually believe that both Norris and Lollar can maintain the line in Nashville? For goodness sake, Sen. Kelsey almost killed a bill he supported with his “last vestige of slavery” remark. Does anyone believe he can keep it together long enough to not “accidentally” screw this up? Color me skeptical.

While I agree with Dr. Warren on many of the conditions that have created the current situation, I disagree with him and City Councilman Jim Strickland on the potential outcomes of school consolidation. Writing in the Commercial Appeal on December 16th, Strickland opined that

it is safe to assume that the suburban residents would have stronger negative opinions of merging their school system with the city’s than they did about the consolidation issue debated this fall. One MCS board member has publicly worried that a schools merger would result in increased flight from Shelby County.

Where, I ask, are they going to go? Tipton? Fayette? DeSoto? Perhaps, but they do so at their own peril. None of these districts can provide the educational opportunities that a combined MCS/SCS can. They lack the bricks and mortar as well as the instructors to deal with a massive influx of students. Further, most of the people who live outside the City limits work in Memphis. Are they honestly going to try to sell their homes in this market, and move to an unproven district with fewer resources just to get away from Memphis? I don’t think so, but if they do, it again proves my point that these individuals have no interest in building all quarters of our community up for the common good. It is a sad commentary on our society.

I applaud Dr. Warren’s efforts to negotiate a “stand down”, however, I generally agree with Rep. GA Hardaway’s assessment as reported on the 14th

(Shelby County schools will) push the pedal to the metal, headed to special school district. If you let this window of opportunity pass you by, I have no reason to believe they won’t put that pedal to the metal again.

For the majority of MCS students, 90% of whom are African American and 86% of whom are on free or reduced lunches, the specter of a further loss of funding, which would further negatively impact their already dire educational outcomes, is not something I’m willing to chance to an agreement that relies primarily on the good will or good intentions of individuals who have sought no remedy to our problems until now, when their system of “separate but equal” is challenged. I agree with John Branston of the Memphis Flyer, we haven’t been able to reach a compromise so far, there’s no reason to believe we will now, and we have to end the “us” versus “them” mentality that continues to divide our community.

Will the surrender of the MCS charter be messy? Absolutely. If the School Board decides to put it on the ballot in March, I fully anticipate that SCS will initiate a full court press to not only maintain, but expand the inequality between the two systems. I think everyone involved understands that the ultimate outcome will be decided in the courts.

What about the children, won’t they suffer? Not any more than they are now. The current scenario will likely be “frozen” by a Federal court injunction until the issue is resolved, which may be a few years down the road. Anything the State or SCS tries to do after MCS starts the referendum process will likely be viewed unfavorably by the Federal Courts as an attempt to circumvent a long codified and widely understood process that was law upon the initiation of the referendum. That said, I am not, nor do I claim to be an attorney. I am interested in hearing the thoughts of attorney’s out there on this particular issue.

Ultimately, this is a question about the sustainability of Shelby County as an economic engine for our region. Coming together, recognizing the potential for the common good, and working to reverse the abject economic and educational poverty in our community, which is the true “last vestige of slavery”, is the only way to positively impact the outcomes of all our children. In order for this to work, we all have to have skin in the same game, not two different games with differing agendas. To that end, I humbly ask the MCS School Board to vote to surrender the charter, and allow the people of our City, who make up 70% of the population of Shelby County, to have the ultimate voice in the decision.

Dec 01 2009

Election Day in SD31

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County, State Politics, TN Senate

If you live in SD31, today is Election Day. You have before you, the choice between Brian Kelsey (R ) and Adrienne Pakis-Gillon (D).

Kelsey has made a name for himself in his five years in the State House as a serial self-promoter. This self-promotion has manifested itself in him taking credit for things where no credit is due. The Commercial Appeal detailed some of Kelsey’s more blatant truth stretching exercises in a November 22nd article, prompting City Councilman Bill Morrison to say, “You don’t take credit for somebody’s stuff. That’s not cool.”

Kelsey has also declined to appear in ANY forum with his opponent, as I detailed here, calling the League of Women Voters the League of Liberal Women Voters and skipping a forum sponsored by the Memphis Area Women’s Council for a birthday party. Obviously, he’s more invested in his social calendar than representing the people of SD31.

Today the voters of SD31 have an opportunity to rid our state government of Brian Kelsey. While armchair pundits and some members of the political class have written off this campaign as a gimmie for Kelsey, Adrienne Pakis-Gillon has been working tirelessly to earn the right to represent the people of SD 31. Along the way she has gained an impressive list of endorsements.


It’s time. Just over 4900 people voted early. For Adrienne to win she’ll need as many supporters as she can get to show up to the polls and cast a vote for sensible, honest representation.


If you’re not sure that you live in SD31, or where to vote, check out the precinct locator. Most importantly, go vote.