Blake Farmer

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says he will make up his mind on whether to expand the state’s Medicaid program by the end of the month. He says he’ll leave time for the state legislature to consider his decision.

There’s no pressing deadline except that the state legislature intends to wrap up work in April and Haslam needs lawmakers to sign off either way. If he does go along with the Affordable Care Act and expand the state’s Medicaid program, it could take a lot of convincing.  

“If the decision is no, then their discussion is short I think. If the decision is yes, then I think they’ll need a decent amount of time to discuss that,” said the Republican Governor.

Two Republican lawmakers are still trying to advance bills that would bar the state from expanding Medicaid. They argue the state still can’t afford it even though the federal government pays the bill for the first three years.

The Tennessee House will consider creating an entirely new panel for authorizing charter schools at the state level. It’s part of a compromise set to be heard in an education committee Tuesday.

The original bill is a direct response to the repeated rejection of Great Hearts Academies by Metro Schools last year. It gives the state board of education power to OK charter schools and oversee them.

But the state board has concerns about possibly taking on the job of managing privately-run, publicly financed schools. Rep. Mark White says he now hopes to create a completely separate board appointed by the governor and speakers of the House and Senate. 

“Now with this panel, this will be something that shows we’re serious about this. We want good charter applications to come to this state, but we’re going to do it right,” said Rep. White.

A bill that would allow handgun permit holders to store firearms just about anywhere they park is poised to become law. The so-called guns-in-trunks legislation now goes to the governor after being passed by the state House.

There would have been very little debate but for 13 amendments proposed mostly by Democrats at the last minute. Most would have exempted certain property owners.

Sponsor Jeremy Faison of East Tennessee says he had no intention of allowing any amendments.

“Absolutely there are some good ideas, but at the end of the day, I gave my word to business people and to common sense gun owners that we were going to pass this bill just like this, and it has something for everybody,” said Faison.

The state Senator shepherding Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s school voucher bill through the legislature says it doesn’t go nearly far enough. He says he will offer an amendment making many more students eligible to have their private school tuition paid with public money.

With proposed restrictions limiting vouchers to poor students attending struggling schools, Senator Brian Kelsey says just 3.5 percent of Tennessee students would qualify. And only a fraction of those would take the offer.

“After we do all this heavy lifting to work on this bill this year, if we end up with only two-thousandths of one percent of students being helped by it, I will be sorely disappointed,” said Sen. Kelsey.

Kelsey has yet to outline his amendment and says he will discuss it with the governor, who earlier this week said he likes his voucher bill the way it is.

A proposal allowing Tennessee handgun carry permit holders to store firearms in their cars nearly anywhere they are parked is headed for a final vote Thursday morning.

Democrats want to make schools, long-term parking lots and unemployment offices off limits. 

The bill’s sponsor has said he is not interested in exemptions. But Nashville Democrat Mike Turner says they should at least be considered, like one allowing any employer to opt out.

“If I’m a business owner, I probably don’t want you carrying on my property and I at least want to have the choice to deny you that right if I want to," said Turner.

Tennessee's largest employers have been less vocal about their opposition to the guns-in-trunks legislation this year. The bill gives the property owner immunity if anyone is hurt with a gun stored on site. It also is restricted to Tennesseans with handgun permits.

Tennessee lawmakers raised several reservations but ultimately passed Governor Bill Haslam’s school voucher program in its first test.

Two members of the House Education Subcommittee voted no, including one Republican. The former school superintendent says he doesn’t believe public money should be diverted to private schools.

Democrat Joe Pitts of Clarksville voted no after asking if private schools would be forced to still provide a free lunch. Only poor students could qualify for vouchers under the plan.

“I’m just really concerned that we’re targeting that at-risk population, but we’re really not doing anything else to supply that basic human need, which is food,” said Pitts.

Bills in the Tennessee legislature that attempt to block the enforcement of federal gun laws in the state are unconstitutional, according to a just-released opinion from the state’s top lawyer.

The Tennessee Attorney General memo says the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause trumps state statutes, making it unlawful to nullify firearms laws made on the national level. He goes on to say the state legislature also can’t take a backdoor route and criminalize the enforcement of gun laws in Tennessee, which is exactly what a bill from Senator Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet does.

“I think he has an opinion just like the rest of us have an opinion,” says Beavers.

She says she will continue to push her legislation anyway, arguing that the Tenth Amendment gives states the right to govern themselves.

A new retirement system being contemplated by the Tennessee legislature would require new state employees and school teachers to potentially work more years. And their guaranteed money would be cut by roughly a third.

State Treasurer David Lillard says change is necessary because any new hires are adding to the state pension’s unfunded deficit. His plan would move to what’s known as a hybrid pension system, which has been adopted in states like Georgia and Virginia. It shifts more of the responsibility of saving for retirement to individuals in an effort to decrease the state’s exposure to volatility in the stock market.

However, the new retirement plan would include some guaranteed money, which Lillard says is important.

“We do believe that in order to get an employee a much better opportunity to have a truly sufficient benefit, you need a floor, basically,” says the Tennessee Treasurer.

The traditional state pension would begin to be phased out under a plan to be presented to Tennessee lawmakers Monday. In recent decades, the rap on state jobs is that the pay may be less than the private sector, but the benefits are good – especially the retirement plan.

Lester Hines took a job in the state codes department seven years ago. “It was good deal for me," he says. "I was almost 50 years old and didn’t have a pension."

Tennessee’s state pension system is less generous than some states. It’s also more financially sound. But those who manage it say the system is unsustainable.

If a proposal from the state treasurer gets approval in the legislature, the state would be more involved in helping workers save for retirement rather than promising a set amount.

Lawmakers in Tennessee are watching Florida closely after the state’s conservative Republican governor went along with a major piece of the Affordable Care Act. Governor Bill Haslam is still on the fence about expanding the state’s Medicaid program – known as TennCare.

For the first three years, the federal government would pay the entire cost of insuring thousands of new TennCare recipients.

In Florida, Governor Rick Scott said he could not “in good conscience, deny the uninsured access to care.” Tennessee Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says having such a conservative leading the way could provide “cover” to lawmakers. But Governor Haslam would still have to sell an expansion, Ramsey says.

A bill to create an authorizing body for charter schools in Tennessee has been delayed. The sponsor now says he’s listening to critics, who say the legislation unfairly singles out Nashville and Memphis.

As written, the bill would give charter schools a way to open in Tennessee’s two largest urban areas without asking the school board – officially known as the local education authority or LEA. 

Rep. Mark White is the sponsor and says he could be on-board with a true statewide charter authorizer if local school boards do the initial vetting.

“If we go back to the LEAs – letting them have first input on this – this will be a statewide application,” said Rep. White.

There is confusion among the sponsors of so-called ‘Guns-in-Trunks’ legislation in Tennessee.  They disagree on whether employers could fire a worker for keeping a gun in their car at the company parking lot, even though it could soon be legal.

During a hearing in the House, Rep. Jeremy Faison said he believed a business owner could still terminate someone storing a weapon in a vehicle.

The legislation doesn’t specifically address the issue, but Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says he believes gun-carrying employees will be safe from their bosses.

“I feel confident that if they fired someone and they said that was the reason, that employer would be in for a lawsuit and he would lose," says Ramsey.

A few Tennessee lawmakers are voicing concerns with a bill that aims to end any preference shown to minority groups on public college campuses. The legislation was delayed after a long committee hearing at the state capitol.

The proposal comes from out of state. A former university Regent in California who is an African American has helped pass similarly worded constitutional amendments in a few western states.

Ward Connerly says he’s attempting to re-level the playing field after years of informal affirmative action.

“We have evolved this theory that as long as we’re discriminating for good things, that that’s alright," said Connerly.

The so-called “guns in trunks” bill is up for a vote in the full Tennessee Senate Monday, and it now appears set for smooth sailing in the state House. Speaker Beth Harwell says the controversial measure will likely pass her chamber.

The bill is revised from last year, when Harwell and other Republican leaders prevented it from coming to a vote at the wishes of big employers.

“By limiting it to gun carrying permit holders put some safeguards in place. And the liability issue, we just had to address that. That’s just something we had to do for business,” said Harwell.

The legislation includes immunity for the property owner if someone is shot with a gun stored in their parking lot. However, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce is still opposed, saying that business owners should have the right to prevent firearms from being brought on to their property, including parking lots.

Tennessee's hospitals are playing out the “what if’s” as lawmakers consider whether to expand Medicaid as part of the federal health care overhaul. Their study says 90,000 Tennessee jobs could be lost if the expansion does not occur. 

Without expanding who is covered by Medicaid – known as TennCare in Tennessee – hospitals say there could be a “recessionary impact.” Hospitals agreed to cuts that total billions of dollars, believing they would see fewer uninsured. But that assumption is in jeopardy.

State Senator Brian Kelsey is trying to prevent the state from expanding Medicaid.

“Look, my job is not to bail out the special interest hospital lobby. My job is to represent Tennessee taxpayers," said the Germantown Republican.

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