Haslam Tips Hand on Agenda 

Tennessee Governor indicates little change in stance on vouchers, Medicaid expansion.

Some hint of what Governor Bill Haslam has in mind for the 2014 session of the Tennessee General Assembly was revealed to reporters last Thursday, after the governor had spoken at the ceremonial grand opening of the new Electrolux plant on President's Island.

In a Q&A session, Haslam briefly addressed several subjects.

On school-voucher legislation: "We're going to make our recommendation next week. As you know, we favored a more limited approach to school vouchers. I still think that's the right one, because it's focused on those lowest-performing schools, which are actually ... a lot of which are our responsibility now in the Achievement School District and others.

"So in something like this, we think it makes sense to take a more measured approach as you look at vouchers, and let's see the impact. There's a lot of concern as to the effect it has on an existing school system, and how much difference does it make for the student. As the physician operating on ourselves first, we think, makes a lot of sense."

The governor was asked about a more extensive (and expensive) voucher program proposed last year by state senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), who has said he will offer it again this year. At the end of last year's session, Haslam asked his legislative sponsor, state Senate majority leader Mark Norris, to pull the more moderate gubernatorial pilot program rather than submit it to the changes desired by Kelsey.

"You know, we obviously last year felt much more comfortable with our position. We want to come up with something that's the best idea. Last year, we didn't hear another approach that we thought made sense, given everything else we have going on in education."

On prospects for minimum wage legislation proposd by Assembly Democrats, Haslam said, "I'd be surprised if that gets much traction."

On the outlook for the Tennessee Plan, a private-sector alternative to Medicaid expansion under President Obama's Affordable Care Act (ACA), Haslam said, "We've just had an additional conversation with [Health and Human Services] Secretary [Kathleen] Sebelius, and several folks from CMS [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] are coming down to Tennessee, I think, next week to have additional conversations."

Federal subsidies for Haslam's plan under the ACA (aka Obamacare) would require a federal waiver, which thus far has not been approved.

"I don't want to mislead anybody into thinking we have something imminently worked out, but we do think we're making some progress," the governor said.

On the rape-kit controversy that has flared up in Memphis and nationwide: "Senator Norris has some legislation on that." He thinks a statewide approach is in order and acknowledges having had conversations with Mayor A C Wharton on matters of state responsibility and state funding support for working through backlogs, but he did not elaborate.

• Mark Billingsley, director of the Methodist Hospital Foundation, won election as the newest member of the Shelby County Commission Monday, as anticipated by many observers.

Billingsley was selected on the second ballot, running ahead of four other nominees from an original field of 15 applicants, most of whom were interviewed by commissioners last week. Runners-up were George Chism, Diane George, Dennis Daugherty, and Frank Uhlhorn.

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