Sunday, March 8, 2015

County Commission Veering Away from Partisanship on Key Issues

Erstwhile consensus on “Insure Tennessee” issue is recapitulated in opposition to education vouchers.

Posted By on Sun, Mar 8, 2015 at 4:54 PM



During a late phase of last Wednesday’s committee day for the Shelby County Commission, Millington Republican Terry Roland, who chairs the Commission’s legislative affairs committee, commended the sense of common purpose he saw in the body’s 7-member delegation (including himself) that had just returned from the annual National Association of Counties meeting in Washington
click to enlarge Shafer and Reaves debate voucher issue. - JB
  • JB
  • Shafer and Reaves debate voucher issue.

Whether “suburban or urban, City of Memphis or Shelby County,” said Roland, members of the delegation were “teaming together” at the NACO meeting and pursuing the “same goals.”

And, indeed, Roland had something. There does seem to be a growing sense of unity of viewpoint in the 13-member Commission, split 7-6 along city/county and urban/suburban lines and, until recently, well-known for its divisive internecine struggles along those lines, as well as along racial and politically partisan ones.

The several months that extended from last September’s swearing-in of a newly configured post-election Commission to the end of the year were, in fact, largely given over to a power struggle— more or less along the same fault-lines mentioned above — between six Democrats, on the one hand, and, on the other, six Republicans plus Justin Ford, the nominal Democrat who had been elected chairman on GOP votes. That dispute was finally settled by a compromise that left Ford in command but loosened his grip on the Commission’s agenda.

The year 2015 has witnessed a difference in attitude — one that owes much to actions of the state legislature in Nashville that are perceived as threatening not only to local prerogatives but to local needs as well. A bona fide flashpoint of this kind was the action, in early January, of a state Senate subcommittee in killing off Governor Bill Haslam’s plan, called “Insure Tennessee,” that would have leveraged billions in federal Medicaid-expansion dollars to reduce a growing financial burden on the state’s hospitals.

Before the vote, the Commission had voted 12-0 to urge legislative acceptance of the plan, which, as Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell had said, could have taken the county off the hook for what, without the federal expansion funds, could be a stiff property tax increase just to maintain the basic functions of Regional One Health (formerly known as The Med). The vote was strictly bi-partisan, with only one Commissioner, the GOP’s Heidi Shafer, recusing because she works for a medical office that does ample business through federal grants.

After the rejection of Insure Tennessee by an ad hoc Senate Health and Welfare Committee, the County Commission voted again to urge a prompt reconsideration. This time the vote was 12-1, with Shafer again recusing.

For several years, the Republicans on the Commission were hand in glove with the GOP members of Shelby County’s legislative delegation on most issues, notably the determination of the county’s six suburban municipalities to create their own school systems, distinct from a new Memphis-dominated Shelby County Schools district.

There was an obvious fissure between the GOP members of the Commission and most Republican members of the legislative delegation on the Insure Tennessee matter, though, and several Republican commissioners, as well as Mayor Luttrell, also a Republican, have highlighted, sometimes bitterly, what they see as the difference between their own pragmatic view of local needs and the less anchored and more ideological attitude toward those needs of Shelby’s GOP legislators.

The same sort of issue was featured in Wednesday’s Commission debate over pending legislation in Nashville that would authorize a pilot program of state financial vouchers to enable students in public schools whose performance is rated in the lowest 5 percent statewide. The vouchers could be used to defray tuition and related expenses of transferring students in those schools to other institutions, including private schools.

David Reaves, a Bartlett Republican who logged several years on pre- and post-merger versions of the Shelby County Schools board, introduced an amendment on the general government committee opposing the voucher legislation.

Reaves made a point of stressing there were now commonly accepted “strategic educational goals’ for all of Shelby County, including both SCS and the six independent suburban districts.

He said, “I support education in Shelby County, first of all, and I believe in what the superintendent [Dorsey Hopson of SCS] is doing, and the second thing is, if this passes it opens up things in the future to affect more than the lowest 5 per cent. …It could, in fact, be amended to affect even the suburban schools….All of these things, including one-off changes in the ASD [the state-run Achievement Schools District, which has taken over several “failing” Memphis schools], specifically affect our basic funding mechanism.”

Said Reaves, noting the money-follows-the-student method of allocating school funding, vouchers would mean a loss to public school districts of $6500 per student — “$11,000, actually, because, once they go to private schools, we lost the federal money as well.”

Reaves’ fellow Republican, Heidi Shafer, made the case for the voucher bill. “I need to speak for the other side of this,” she said, going on to tout the virtues of “competition” and the evils of “bureaucracy.”

Shafer said, “We can’t wait the 30years it takes to reform [a given school]…especially when the pedagogical model that’s being driven down from government is something that doesn’t actually yield good learning result.” Vouchers would “make the public-school system work harder,” she conceded, but said, “I’m glad about that….They need to do a better job with their money….Yes, it [the bill] might create a hardship for public schools, but they have to learn to compete the way the rest of us do,” suggesting the same acid test for hospitals and doctors.

Roland returned to the same themes that Reaves had espoused, and he would add a blast against state Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), a leading supporter of vouchers who had also been a determined opponent of Haslam’s “Insure Tennessee” proposal.

Said Roland: “The ones who are going to get these vouchers are the ones that can play ball or the ones that are smart. The other kids will be left behind….And the second thing I have a problem with, I have a problem with a state senator telling me that it’s okay to give public dollars for people to go to school on, but I’m not going to give you any public dollars to go to the hospital on. To me, that’s kind of disingenuous, especially by the guy that’s bringing this bill.”

The general government committee would vote 4 to 1 for Reaves’ resolution, with Shafer being the only dissenter. The issue is scheduled to come up again at Monday’s full Commission meeting, and, tellingly, is on the consent agenda.

Roland and Reaves had already found themselves on the same side in an earlier debate on the matter of a proposed out-sourcing of food services for the county’s Division of Corrections, both noting that county employees would suffer a loss in benefits and Reaves adding that the quality of the food service might suffer, given what he knew of the proposed private vendor. The out-sourcing issue was eventually deferred until the Commission’s March 25 meeting.

The two Republican Commissioners’ objections on the issue were essentially ad hoc ones, but they were departures from GOP orthodoxy on out-sourcing, all the same, and they were a further indication that ideology — and the partisan divisions that derive from it — might be receding as a determining factor in County Commission matters, even as it continues to dominate proceedings at the state and federal levels.

For the time being, anyhow, the County Commission seems to have cast partisan issues aside and is considering matters pragmatically, on their merits. An issue that had been expected to generate some possible ideological controversy on Wednesday — that of possibly reorganizing the Economic Development and Growth Engine (EDGE) board — fell by the wayside in a non-contentious discussion that ended with general approbation of the status quo for the joint city/county industrial recruitment agency.

The central issue at Monday’s Commission meeting will be a resolution seeking an “interlocal agreement” with the City of Memphis in support of the City’s proposed Fairgrounds TDZ project. If successful, the resolution would ease the way toward the controversial long-deferred development project’s getting an OK from the state Building Commission.

Discussion of it could still fire some tempers. They just won’t be of the partisan kind. n
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