Dec 31 2013

Win, Lose or Draw – State of the State (TN), 2013

Posted by Steve Ross in Policy, State Politics

This is part 2 in a series of 3 posts (part 1 is here) that will look at who came out ahead, who came out behind, and who didn’t move an inch in the past 12 months. As with all these type lists, they are both subjective and incomplete, so make any additions/corrections in the comments. Thanks and have a Happy New Year. -SR

#Winners

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey – The State Senate strongman, and person who’s actually in charge of the state has had a downright awesome year. He can say whatever the hell he wants and knows he only has his constituents to answer to, all while ensuring the good Governor doesn’t get to mamby pamby on his conservative credo, by offering legislative strong-arm tactics as a response to even the slightest flinch of liberality…(is that even a word? Who cares, this is Ramseyland…the dictionary is full of liberal lies!)

Sure he had a run-in with the twitter, but no one in Ramseyland pays any attention to that stuff….or the impact of public policy on people for that matter. Nope, its all horse racing and cow milking contests for legislative coverage…and legislators these days…so Ron Ramsey can carry on to enjoy the spoils of his office…as the true head of state.

2014 Outlook – What could go wrong?

Education “reform” – Reform is a tricky word. It literally means “to make changes”. You’ll note, there is no value statement in that definition. For years many have looked at Education Reform as a positive. Any change was seen as good. When “No Child Left Behind” was passed, it was good, until it wasn’t. The more recent batch of reforms, which include a doubling down on testing, more oversight of teachers, less pay for teachers, and teacher evaluations based on student performance on said testing, has been focused on…teachers.

This doesn’t mean its been a good year for education. Just “reform”. The results of that “reform” will take years to calculate…though this years test scores were hailed as a victory. Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re adequately educating out kids…we’re just passing more tests now.

2014 Outlook – More

“Friends of Bill” Haslam – Y’all got your taxes cut on investment income, and a whole bunch of you FOB’s (friends of Bill) got gubament contracts to boot! Way to go rich people!

2014 Outlook – Cake

Honorable Mention: TN House Democratic Caucus – Its a long-shot, but I have to give a shout out to the only currently functioning state Democratic organization right now…the TN House Democratic Caucus. Sure, they’re not flashy…and they haven’t developed a stable cast of characters beyond leadership, but at least they’re doing something…which is more than I can say for their colleagues across the plaza.

Usually timely, and pretty well on point, especially since the session ended. The House Caucus is still a work in progress. But they’re working, which is more than I can say for…oh never mind.

fitzandturner1

2014 Outlook – Keep the faith

Losers

Hospitals/sick people – One lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the decision to not expand Medicaid, the other lost the opportunity to not go into financial ruin just because they were sick. Both suffered. But who cares, right? At least the state is screwing over President Obama’s signature legislative achievement! That’s all that matters these days in Tennessee.

2014 Outlook – sicklier

The poor – Speaking of screwing people over, 80% of everyone in the US is on the brink of poverty. What does that have to do with Tennessee? We’re in the bottom 25% of all the states in the US, which means we’re more screwed than most everyone else. Yay us!

2014 Outlook – poorer

Unemployed – It took all year, but preliminary numbers from the Dept. of Labor show that unemployment finally dropped to 8.1% down from 8.5%. Don’t get too excited. Future drops will only reflect those who no longer qualify for unemployment because their benefits weren’t extended by the Feds. State politicians will take this and try to sell you that things are getting better. They aren’t and things getting better for working people isn’t anywhere on their menu.

2014 Outlook – Still out of luck

Rural Communities – If there’s one thing that guaranteed the GOP’s victory in 2010, it was the support of rural communities. Which is why its puzzling that rural communities are getting screwed over so hard under GOP rule. I mean, screwing over Nashville and Memphis (and soon Chattanooga and Knoxville), that’s a no-brainer. But when most of your elected officials owe their position to rural folks, screwing them over as well is…well…ballsy to say the least. But that’s what’s happened. Unemployment is high, hospitals are closing their doors, and the only opportunity right now is the opportunity to move or continue to suffer.

The worst part is, there are no signs folks in rural TN see the connection. They’re still buying in to it being Washington’s fault.

2014 Outlook – #DANG

Teachers – If any one group has gotten a raw deal in the past several years its teachers. At once blamed for “failing schools” and tasked with bringing up achievement, teachers have had their pay cut, lost the right to collectively bargain, and had more paperwork thrown at them…which takes time away from doing what they trained to do…which is teach. Honestly, I don’t understand why anyone would do this to themselves.

2014 Outlook – Lots of retirements

Draw

Helping those who don’t need it over those who do. Gov. Bill Haslam – To say that 2013 was an unremarkable year for Bill Haslam is to say that the remarkable revelations about his administration were largely either ignored, or didn’t get the full hearing they deserved. From contracts to cronies, to the intense pressure to eschew his moderate image to both save himself the indignity of a primary, and avoid a standoff with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and his band of merry men. And then there’s the PILOT investigation, which shined a light on the inner workings of a company he both benefits greatly from, and seeks to minimize in the public as just a little company his family owns. For all the stories in Tennessee this year, at least from a political perspective, Bill Haslam, his family, his friends, and his general impotence as a state leader… those were the stories…even if they didn’t get the full hearing they deserved.

The saddest part is it looks as if Haslam will run unopposed from the Democratic party…unless someone steps in at the last second to be the sacrificial lamb, which means Tennessee will never hear a full accounting of these stories, and will have no alternative if they decide they don’t want the teflon coated co-governor at the front and center of state politics…at least in appearances.

You’ll note, I haven’t even gotten into the depths of his relationship with the Lt. Gov., who pulls the real strings in the state. There’s just not enough time. But pay attention, and see if the two cross. I think you’ll find they won’t publicly. The Governor just doesn’t have the juice to take him, or any other legislative leader, on.

2014 Outlook – Shady, with a side of puppetry.

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***

Apr 22 2013

Just another session wrap-up post

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

The Three Ring circus adjourns...for now.

The Three Ring circus adjourns…for now.

On Friday, the Tennessee General Assembly adjourned for the year, an event that was largely overshadowed by a series of national and statewide events that dominated coverage last week.

There have been a lot of post-session roundups. From the measured but extensive coverage of Tom Humphrey, to the more snark driven flourishes of Jeff Woods.

The one thing Tennesseans can take to the bank is that the GOP led state legislature focused on just about everything except helping them take more to the bank through economic development or reducing healthcare costs.

Focused on Magic Beans

The one thing the legislature did focus on was legislation intended to further the ideological aims of those who seek to send public money to private companies en masse. The school voucher bill, a top priority for the Haslam Administration, died when a certain Senator from Germantown wouldn’t let go of his designs on upping the ante.

Another school related bill suffering the same fate was House Speaker Beth Harwell’s pet project, an expansion of the state charter authorizer…an outright dig at the Metro Nashville School Board, who thwarted a charter operator over the ruling of the State Dept. of Education in the fall.

One final school related bill that did make it out of the contentious final days was a bill that allows “for-profit” organizations to operate charter schools. This bill happened so late in session, and among so many other things that I had to call the Senate Clerk’s office to confirm that it had been passed as the vote hadn’t been updated on the General Assembly website. As a side note, they were very helpful and tracked down the vote for me in mere minutes. Good job on that.

Subverting Justice

There were several bills that dealt with different kinds of justice. One such bill, which was actively pursued by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, would have changed the way judicial districts were drawn in the state and reduced them by two. That bill failed Friday in a battle of wills. There’s no word as to whether it will come up again next year, as petitions for judicial elections will be released near the beginning of session.

While people expecting speedy justice from the judicial branch were spared, others were not so lucky.

Abused animals to the brunt of legislative beatings in the passage of a bill that would make it harder to document animal abuse.

Workers seeking justice for their injuries were injured when the legislature approved changes to the workers compensation system that further tilts it against them.

Municipalities seeking to ensure workers employed on government funded jobs likely took a hit to their bank accounts as a bill seeking to overturn local living wage ordinances made its way to the Governor.

People living on fixed incomes, especially those who were likely poor to begin with, may hunger for a change as they see one of the most popular programs anywhere cut. Meals on Wheels, the popular program that helps poor elderly people eat, got cut $2.3m because the state’s “rainy day fund” was more important to the Governor and Legislature than elderly people that can’t get around on their own.

And finally, property owners, seeking to, you know, make the rules regarding what is or isn’t allowed on their property, a foundational concept of common law, will now have to allow the storage of guns in vehicles by permit holders. Its like a liberty vs. liberty deathmatch.

One good thing on the legislative front. The Shelby County Public Defender’s office did receive additional funding from the state to bring them closer to parity with other smaller PD’s. Don’t think this was kindness. Chances are, the state would have been sued by the County if this hadn’t happened.

Pandering, Pennies, and Professional Development Pullback

Taking a cue, perhaps, from his from his brother’s business practices, Gov. Haslam sought to bully the Feds into acquiescing to his less kind, less expansive form of the much touted but barely formedArkansas Plan” for Medicaid expansion. While the language may have been the normal flavor of milquetoast we’ve come to expect from the Governor, make no mistake about it, he was pandering to the far right wing of his base.

In an article in Saturday’s paper the Governor give a quick “post-mortem” of the session saying:

“I do think there was a lot accomplished,” said Haslam. “We passed a great budget that cuts taxes, adds to the Rainy Day Fund, gives a raise to employees, has really one of the largest increases for K-12 (school) funding that we’ve had in a long time and gave a significant amount of capital (construction funding) for higher education.

“And some significant legislation passed: one of the key issues I think is increasing access to and controlling the costs of higher education … allowing more families to afford college.”

I both covered and predicted this would be a post-session talking point. For a good explination of just who benefits from the tax cuts, check out paragraphs 6-8 at this article in the CA. Pretty sure you won’t find your income on the list.

Finally, in a dig to professional development in the state, the Governor closed 34 carreer centers statewide despite the unemployment rate increasing to 7.9%. I’m sure this money ultimately goes to business tax cuts somewhere, I just haven’t found it yet.

Thank God its over

While the worst may not have happened, this time, there’s still next year, and plenty of GOP majority to push it through. The State House and 17 State Senators, along with the Governor will be in campaign mode as they push to the November election. Expect lots of pet projects to come up again, and less strife between the House and the Senate as they push to get back to their districts as soon as possible so they can amass the cash needed to try and win another trip to Disneyland on the Cumberland.

In the mean time, take a breath and know you’re safe for a few short months…assuming, of course, the Governor’s Administration doesn’t go full on Rick Scott on us.

After this session, I’m not ruling anything out.

Apr 03 2013

The Value of Work

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

In these hallowed halls, your rights are slowly slipping away via wikipedia

In these hallowed halls, your rights are slowly slipping away
via wikipedia

Over the past several days I’ve been writing about Gov. Haslam’s decision on Medicaid expansion. While this has been going on, a bill, supported by the Governor, has been steamrolling its way through the state legislature. A bill that would further shift power away from workers and workplace protections by creating new hurdles for people hurt in the workplace.

On Monday, the State Senate passed their version of HB 0194, a bill that would create a new mechanism for workers to receive compensation while hurt on the job, and reduce their rights even if the injury was through no fault of their own.

The bill is currently in the final stages of passage in the State House.

The proposed changes dramatically shifts the burden from employers, who have a duty to provide a safe work environment, to the government and employees.

What’s more, it creates a new special judicial system, administered by the State Dept. of Labor, which was recently reported to have grossly mismanaged the Unemployment Insurance program to the tune of $73m.

You may recall, the head of that department recently stepped down, just days before the announcement of this report, following a trend of Haslam appointees who have resigned due to poor management.

This trend of mismanagement follows another trend of “worker reforms” that began with the limiting of collective bargaining for teachers, among other efforts.

Through the Governor’s support of these bills, he has sought to do what so many other GOP leaders seek, to tilt the balance in favor of business under the rationale that it will be good for workers. This of course, couldn’t be further from the truth.

Work, an American Value

Workers built America

Workers built America

One of the values that Americans hold dear is the idea that hard work will be rewarded with a certain measure of success.

I think we all understand that not everyone will be Warren Buffett rich, but we have a national expectation that your work will not be in vain. An idea of “merit”, that hard work has value.

This is an idea that starts before our revolutionary beginnings, continued during our early westward expansion, carries its way through the the gilded age, the Great War, Great Depression, WWII and to this very day.

Its an idea expressed in the writings of Horatio Alger through books like Ragged Dick, the story of a poor worker who rose to the Middle Class. Something that was not very easy in the late 1800′s.

Over the years we have romanticized these rags to riches stories. They have become a part of the mythology of America. An oral history that, like most tall tales, has been exaggerated over time.

The stories of early industrialists, like Andrew Carnegie, who started working at age 12, and through the course of many years of hard work and helpful benefactors became a real life example of the mythology of merit.

While there’s no question about Carnegie’s humble beginnings, particularly in comparison to his ultimate wealth, the reality is, without the help of a great many people, who steered him to the right investments, helped him raise capital to build his empire…not to mention some of his more cut-throat practices against investors, labor, and anyone else that stood in his way, he would not have risen to the level of wealth he eventually acquired.

The forgotten reality is that hard work doesn’t necessarily make you rich. It can help make you “not poor”.

Birth of the Middle Class

Home Ownership was the hallmark of the growth of the Middle Class

Home Ownership was the hallmark of the growth of the Middle Class

In the post-WWII era, the combination of increased business regulation, government spending on infrastructure, and compulsory education that began during the Industrial Revolution led to the creation of a robust middle class in America.

I think we like to believe that a large Middle Class has always existed in this country. That couldn’t be further from the truth. If it were so, works like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle wouldn’t have had the impact that they did.

The premise of the book was, at first, derided by the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, who called Sinclair a “hysterical crackpot”. Upon further inspection, Roosevelt’s view of the work evolved, culminating in the first real labor reforms of the 20th century.

In the wake of the Great Depression, which was brought on by wild speculation, among other things, more worker reforms were passed like the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which acknowledged that in wage negotiations, capital had the upper hand. Take it of leave it is not a negotiation. In order to level that playing field, NLRA allowed workers to band together and bargain as a group for the common good.

It is interesting that the rise of the middle class, and unions came hand in hand, though that shouldn’t be surprising. The Treaty of Detroit, one of the first large victories of labor, led the way to workplace reforms that became the standard both in the marketplace, and eventually Federal law.

While there’s no question that the overall economy during the post WWII era (1946-1965) had its ups and downs, overall, people benefitted from the collaboration of labor, capital, and government, as income became more evenly distributed throughout the workforce.

Devaluing Work

Pres. Reagan speaking on the Air Traffic Controller’s strike
via Wikipedia

One of the most stunning contradictions of the past 40 years is the way we have come to revere work while deriding labor. It is a mindset that says that some work is more important than other work.

I have a difficult time with this idea.

From my perspective, the most important work is that which I have no desire to do. Things like trash collection, construction and farming, public safety (police, fire, EMS) or teaching for that matter. These are jobs that are necessary for our society to function, grow, and thrive, but the reality is, no one is getting rich doing any of these things.

You wouldn’t know that to hear some tell it.

In recent years, the push to crush labor has taken many forms. From the first truly successful assault in 1981 with the firing of air traffic controllers to more recent efforts, like those in Wisconsin and Michigan to cripple labor through “right to work” laws.

Full Circle

Wage stagnation has become a feature of the new economy

Wage stagnation has become a feature of the new economy

While the value of work in the American psyche and ideas of merit have gone largely unchanged over the past 40 years, the reality for workers has gone through a massive transformation.

As the chart to the left shows, real wages have remained largely stagnant for workers in the United States since 1989. The reality is, its been going on longer than that.

All the while, the very people who have sought to shift the balance of labor from an equal playing field, to one that places greater importance on “job creators”, have, at the same time, used the rhetoric of bootstraps and hard work to fool voters into believing their ideas are somehow going to benefit them.

The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

In every measurable way, the effort has resulted in a race to the bottom for average people while a very few benefitted the most.

This is not merit, as most Americans understand it, but a value judgement that puts a wealthy few above those who actually do the things that move our economy along.

It is an injustice, that hasn’t been committed by a few small acts, but a systemic and concerted effort over the years.

That injustice, and the fight against it will be the topic of tomorrow’s post.