NASHVILLE — While the 108th General Assembly won’t truly get down to business until later this month, state lawmakers kicked off the session with reorganizational business at the Legislative Plaza here Tuesday.
The Republican Party boasts a two-thirds “super-majority” in the legislature in the wake of November’s election, which would indicate little resistance for Gov. Bill Haslam’s legislative package.
State Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, said that while the governor hasn’t met directly with the GOP majority, he will likely unveil his intentions to Republican lawmakers this week.
“(Haslam) seemed to indicate, from reports I’ve read, that there are no major new initiatives so much as there will be tweaking existing programs that have already passed the legislature,” Yager said.
Prescription drug abuse
In addition to worker’s comp insurance reform and education initiatives, Yager expects Haslam to focus on public safety — specifically, drug control efforts.
“Last year (Haslam) appointed a public safety sub-cabinet group and I think they’re going to come out with some proposals that will probably involve the meth crisis that we continue to experience, as well as the continued issue of prescription drug abuse,” Yager said.
Yager, who represents Scott County as part of the 12 Senatorial District, will likely play a primary role with such legislation, having emerged in the 107th General Assembly as a key player in the area of strengthening laws to restrict illegal access to drugs.
Yager indicated that a personal priority will be providing help for those who are hooked on drugs and want it.
“We’re obviously stepping up the criminal side of prescription drug abuse, which we should, but there’s another side to this issue and that’s the people who want to get free of prescription drugs,” Yager said. “We may look at some programs that will assist people who want to rid themselves of addiction.”
Yager said one bill he is working on would help drug-addicted expectant mothers to keep their babies if they participate in recovery programs.
“We have a real problem in Tennessee with babies who are born addicted to prescription drugs because their mother was addicted,” Yager said. “Under the current law in situations like that, the DCS would move in and take custody of that child. The worst time in the world you can separate a child from its mother is at birth.”
Working with the Tennessee Medical Association, Yager intends to offer legislation that would interrupt that process.
“The bill would stipulate that if mothers will enter into and complete a drug detox program, we’ll provide a safe harbor for them,” Yager said. “As long as they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing in the program, they’ll be able to keep their children instead of having them removed by DCS.”
Part of Yager’s package on prescription drug abuse will include a bill that he’s working on with Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, that would focus on the criminal aspects of the illegal sell and purchase of prescription painkillers.
Yager said there is also a focus on restricting the access to prescription drugs through TennCare.
“The number one drug TennCare pays for is prescription pain kills,” Yager said. “Quite frankly, the federal regulations are preventing us from trying to restrict that. When we did the bill last year on pill mills, I got calls from every county in my district, from family members of addicts who said that TennCare is paying for this. We’ve been looking into that to see if there are ways we can put limits on that, but so far we haven’t been able to get around all the federal regulations.”
A topic that is certain to emerge during the legislature’s upcoming session is whether to expand TennCare.
The 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly dubbed Obamacare, called for state Medicaid programs to be expanded to include 138 percent of the poverty level as one of the chief ways to expand health care coverage to all Americans. Last summer’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that upheld most of the health care reform law struck down the part that made it mandatory for states to participate in the Medicaid expansion.
Haslam has yet to take a definitive stance on the issue, but that will likely change in the weeks ahead.
“I have some real reservations about that but I want to hear from both sides,” Yager said. “There are 49,000 people in my district currently on TennCare and we’re trying to pin down the number on what it would be if we expand it.”
He acknowledged that the legislature’s decision on TennCare will have a significant impact, regardless of what that decision is.
“Before I agree to expand TennCare, I have to consider the cost and I just don’t know if we can afford it,” Yager said.
Part of Obamacare calls for reimbursement to the states for Medicaid expansion for a finite period. However, Yager said, the question of cost is still an unsettling one for state lawmakers.
“Our question is what do we do when that period is up,” he said. “And, frankly, I question whether the federal government will have the ability to reimburse us over the next 10 years if their financial situation doesn’t get any better.”
TennCare participation in the 12th District is higher than the state norm. In Scott County, for example, 30 percent of the population is currently enrolled in TennCare. Statewide, 19 percent are enrolled in the program.
In Yager’s eyes, the Republicans’ stronghold on the legislature should not hamper the tradition of bipartisanship in the Senate.
“Obviously, the two-thirds majority would allow us to change the rules if we chose to do that,” Yager said. “(But) I have heard no discussion of any intended abuse of that. I would hope we continue to work in bipartisan fashion.”
That does not mean the 2013 session will be without its usual controversies, however. One bill that divides even Republicans is the so-called “guns in parking lots bill.” Introduced last year, the bill would prevent employers from discipling or terminating employees who have guns in personal vehicles parked in employer parking lots.
After last year’s bill stalled in the legislature amid strong resistance from the state’s corporate lobbyists, the National Rifle Association criticized lawmakers and played a key role in the defeat of Rep. Debra Maggart, Republican Caucus chairwoman who played a key role in stalling the bill. Maggart lost a primary race to challenger Courtney Rogers amid opposition from the NRA.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has announced his intention to reintroduce the guns in parking lots bill.
Yager, who voted for the bill in the Senate’s Judiciary Committee last year, said he hopes for a compromise on the bill that will make it more acceptable, enabling passage of the bill so that lawmakers can move on to other matters.
“I’m a strong proponent of the Second Amendment and I voted for this bill in committee,” Yager said. “I understand the rationale behind the bill. Frankly, I have a gun permit and when I’m traveling I carry my gun with me in the car. I understand the need for employees who feel like it’s in their best safety interest to do that. I would just like to see us work our way through that issue.”
Another gun bill that is likely to pit Republicans against one another is a proposal to allow concealed carry in schools.
Efforts to ban mountaintop-removal mining in Tennessee have become an annual issue in Nashville, and Yager does not expect that to change with the 108th General Assembly.
However, with some proponents of the bill losing their seats — including last year’s sponsor of the bill, Democrat Eric Stewart, who opted not to seek re-election in an effort to unseat U.S. Congressman Scott DesJarlais — Yager does not see the bill dominating legislators’ time this spring.
“I don’t think it will have any more support this year than it did last year,” Yager said of the initiative, which calls for banning surface mining on ridge tops above 2,000 ft. in elevation. “I don’t think it will be a big issue because there isn’t majority support either in committee or on the floor.”
One of the key areas of the session, as usual, will be the adoption of a budget. Yager said the state’s financial condition continues to improve in the wake of the 2007-2009 economic recession, but added that there is still a ways to go.
“We’ve had two years of positive revenue growth but to put it in perspective, we’re still not back to 2008 revenue levels,” he said. “It will probably take us another year to get back to that level.
“We had $300 million in revenues last year that exceeded what we budgeted,” he added. “But the cost of the Affordable Health Care bill to the state may eat up a lot of that money.”