Surprise Announcement

Earlier this week, Governor Phil Bredesen announced the establishment of a new Office of Children's Care designed, he said, to coordinate services and programs for children across the state.

"We have too many children in Tennessee who are falling through the cracks," said the governor. "We are asking [the new office] to start focusing on health-care issues first. I have high hopes for this office, and the children of Tennessee deserve no less."

Bredesen said he intended that the new office not be just another bureaucracy but one that could pull together existing positions within the state.

That's all good, considering that he announced the creation of the office just prior to a meeting of his regular Children's Cabinet, a 13-member group formed by the governor last March with the aim of "coordinating and streamlining the state's efforts" on behalf of Tennessee's children. What does the new office add to what's already there? Asked about that, gubernatorial spokesperson Lydia Lenker said merely that no specific duties of the new office have yet been formulated.

That's one mystery. Another stems from the almost anticlimactic announcement by Bredesen that he was asking current TennCare director Manny Martins to head the new department, which is to be structured as an administrative arm of the governor's office itself.

Compounding the sense of surprise, Martins had confided word of his reassignment to TennCare associates only on Monday. Having served as TennCare deputy commissioner since July 2002, Martins will vacate that position in early July concluding what may turn out to have been the most turbulent phase of the troubled health-care agency's existence. No word yet on a possible replacement.

"To my knowledge, there's not a line of people at the door [for the TennCare position]," said bureau spokesperson Michael Drescher something of an understatement concerning an agency that has been newly slated for the chopping block and which some legislators still want to eliminate altogether.

Drescher said further about Martins' departure from TennCare: "It is widely known that he is committed to kids and this is another way for him to work with them. We're going to have to fill the slot, but his absence is not going to make us miss any crucial time frames or deadlines."

In the background of the Martins job switch is the fact that several state audits found a lack of coordination between the departments of Children's Services, Human Services, and TennCare itself. A recent suit filed by the Tennessee Justice Center, in fact, cited TennCare for failing to formulate a health-care improvement plan for the state's children.

Several questions remain: Does the reassignment of Manny Martins indicate that his special talents are required on the front end of a new governmental undertaking? Does it mean that a significant part of the action is shifting from his old agency to his new one? Is the move a kick upstairs? Or a planned rescue from a sinking ship?

One thing we have learned already about the administration of Governor Phil Bredesen is that he makes few moves that are merely symbolic in nature. This newest one should be closely watched for what it reveals about the shape of things to come in state government.

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