Politics » Politics Feature

Wasting No time

As 2014 gets underway, state government cranks it up; Kelsey and Chumney make waves.



Lots of activity on the news front: As the Tennessee General Assembly ended its first week of the newly convened 2014 session last Thursday, Governor Bill Haslam called a press conference to announce a proposal for strengthening controls on the sale of pseudoephedrine so as to control the spread of methamphetamine production in Tennessee.

The governor's plan would restrict an individual's purchase of the decongestant cold remedy, used as a key ingredient by illegal meth producers, to 2.4 grams each month, with pharmacists allowed to dispense another 2.4 grams. Beyond those amounts, totaling a 20-day supply for normal medicinal use, purchasers would require a doctor's prescription.

Mark Gwyn, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, made a point of noting that the "scourge" of meth abuse, which began in East Tennessee, had mushroomed enormously in West Tennessee, particularly in Memphis. Who knew?

Later in the press conference, Haslam as much as conceded what many have suspected — that his "Tennessee Plan," a private-sector-based plan that the governor has proposed as a means to gain a federal waiver for purposes of Medicaid-expansion funding — may not actually exist.

Acknowleding that an expected visit to Nashville this month by representatives of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has not yet been arranged, Haslam said, "Until CMS [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an HHS unit] comes back and says, here's what we can do, there's not a plan to debate. We don't know what it will look like until they say, 'Yes, we'll let you do that; we won't let you do that.'"

The bottom line: The likelihood, already dim, of Tennesse being able to receive an amount estimated as high as $7 billion, something the state's increasingly cash-poor hospitals desperately want, diminishes further.

The governor did, however, take a stand against a bill by state Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) that would block any possible future expansion of Medicaid by the state (TennCare is Tennessee's version). "We're looking for a bill that provides a better plan concerning health care [in] Tennessee," Haslam said. "To pass a bill that blocks that option, I think, is short-sighted for the state."

On an educational issue likely to be acted on in the current legislative session, that of public vouchers for private schools, Haslam renewed his support for a modest pilot program, like his proposal last year to allot 5,000 vouchers to low-income students in schools designated as failing. That bill was yanked at the governor's request when the aforementioned Kelsey indicated he was determined to amend it so as to expand its scope.

"We strongly favor an approach that addresses the needs of children in the highest-need circumstances, low-income kids in low-performing schools," the governor said. "We don't have to have an expansive plan that I don't think Tennessee is ready for right now."

Asked if he'd had any conversations with Kelsey, who has expressed a determination to renew his more ambitious voucher proposal, Haslam said, "We haven't this year. No." (In a separate session with reporters, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, who, like Kelsey, wants to see a larger voucher plan, said he favored expanding the quota in the governor's plan to maybe 10,000 and making any vouchers not claimed by low-income students available "first come, first served" to whoever applied, "regardless of income.")

The extent to which Kelsey is pushing the envelope in Nashville is further indicated by a controversy that has arisen regarding one of his proposed measures — Senate Bill 1484. The bill, which so far lacks a House co-sponsor, would, in the language of the bill, "abolish ... Parts I and V of the Circuit Court of the 30th Judicial District effective September 1, 2014, and provides that no person will be elected at the August 2014 (Shelby County) general election to serve as judge of the abolished parts."

The senator's bill is based on the findings of a publication entitled, Tennessee Trial Courts Judicial Weighted Caseload Studies. The document, prepared for the state by the National Center for State Courts as the result of a legislative mandate, is thick with statistics and evaluations of trial frequencies, judges' workloads, and extrapolated caseload data. The bottom line: The state's 30th Judicial District (Shelby County), which has nine Circuit Court judges, and three Chancery Court judges, has an excess of presiding civil jurists — 2.76 too many, in fact.

Shelby County senior Circuit Court Judge W.A. "Butch" Childers led a group of other Shelby County judges and lawyers to Nashville last week to protest the bill.

As Childers noted at an appearance by the group at a luncheon of the Shelby County legislative delegation last Wednesday, the weighed caseload study ignored population figures indicating that Shelby County already possessed fewer civil judges per citizen than any other urban county. He and others noted such factors as the higher incidence of poverty line residents in Shelby County, a fact resulting in disproportionate number of "pro se" (self-filed) litigation and a huge backlog of untried cases, especially medical malpractice cases, even as the number of malpractice filings may have dropped following legislation imposing caps on damages.

"Why isn't my docket getting shorter?" asked Circuit Judge Karen Williams regarding the study's presumption of dimished caseloads in Shelby County. She said that since 2008 the number of cases to be tried in Shelby County rose in all but one year. A former legislator, she called for the Shelby delegation "to speak with one voice" against the proposed legislation.

Trial lawyer Tim Smith, in what he called "a statement against interest," also attested to the fact of a large and growing case backlog, which would worsen if the county lost two judges. "If you take away two judges in Shelby County, you might as well call it the lawyer-enrichment act, with small businesses having to pay the tab," Smith said. "This will cause your businesses in your district more money, and this will result in more money for lawyers."

Asked about the reaction from the Shelby County legal community (one which has already caused a potential cosponsor of the bill to withdraw his name), Kelsey responded thusly: "As the Republican Party, we are the party of small government. If we're not willing to start by following up on the studies that we've funded, where are we going to start? This is my responsibility as chairman of the committee, to make difficult decisions, and sometimes the best decisions for the entire state of Tennessee may be the most difficult to make as a committee chairman, but that's what we're sent here to do — to look out for what makes Tennessee a better state and what takes care of our taxpayers and insurors."

• At the very end of what had otherwise been a remarkably well-attended, harmonious, and optimistic installment of the Shelby County Democratic Party's annual Kennedy Day dinner at Bridges Saturday night — one keynoted by California Congresswoman Barbara Lee — former State Representative and City Council member Carol Chumney rose to make some jolting remarks.

Calling on Democrats to "stick together," Chumney said there was something locally called "the Republi-Democratic" party, by which, as she elaborated, she meant Democrats capable of supporting Republicans for office or of looking the other way in contests between Republicans and Democrats.

"If you're the Democratic nominee, then the Democrats should support the Democratic nominee," she said. A few sentences later, referring to a race she lost two years ago, she made what can only be called an accusation. "Very few people would say I was not qualified to be district attorney, but somehow one of our congressmen seemed to think that. He said he 'birthed' me. ... I'm going to talk about the elephant in the room."

The reference was clearly to 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen, a major presence at the dinner, who, in endorsing several candidates in 2012, passed on endorsing in the district attorney general's race, which pitted Chumney against the ultimately victorious Republican incumbent, Amy Weirich. Cohen did recall at the time that he had been a vigorous supporter of Chumney in her victorious maiden race for the legislature, quipping that she was someone who "I gave birth to in 1990."

The congressman, who had been warmly praised by keynoter Lee, whom he introduced, understandably took umbrage at Chumney's remarks, especially when supporters of his primary opponent, lawyer Ricky Wilkins, cited them in Internet posts later on.

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