Chamber coffee provides forum for legislative wrap-up

Retiring Chamber executive director Fred Forster, left, board member Joy Bishop and Sen Doug Overbey chat before the Chamber legislative coffee begins.

Retiring Chamber executive director Fred Forster, left, board member Joy Bishop and Sen Doug Overbey chat before the Chamber legislative coffee begins.

Participating in the legislative coffee at the Blount County Chamber were Sen. Doug Overbey, left, and Rep. Joe McCord, right. Doug Horn, center, is the chair of the chamber board.

Participating in the legislative coffee at the Blount County Chamber were Sen. Doug Overbey, left, and Rep. Joe McCord, right. Doug Horn, center, is the chair of the chamber board.

If the state legislature hadn’t passed a provision allowing hospitals to pool a portion of their revenues to cover the costs of TennCare, the affects could have been disastrous throughout the state, State Sen. Doug Overbey told those gathered for a legislative coffee at the Blount County Chamber of Commerce.

Speaking at the June 11 coffee that featured Overbey and Rep. Joe McCord, Overbey said the policy will “sunset” in a year, with the option of being reinstated for a second year. About $659 million would be generated through the move.

“The hospitals asked for it be placed on themselves, and the proceeds don’t go into the general fund. They go into a trust fund to pull down matching federal monies that will then be redistributed back to hospitals in order to restore cuts in the TennCare program,” he said.

Overbey said this legislation preserved hospitals throughout the state from large facilities to small ones. “I’m not given to hyperbole, but without this assessment, you would have seen specialty centers close at UT and in Memphis. The only option is that if you don’t have the $659 million, you kiss community hospitals goodbye,” he said.

Dr. Bob Proffitt, a Blount County commissioner, said the move is a serious “Band Aid.” “As long as people can come in (to hospitals) with any type of problem like a mosquito bite or a headache they’ve had for 10 minutes, hospitals are going to have to obtain legal protection,” he said. Overbey replied, “The real answer is greater personal responsibility. I don’t know how to legislate that.”

Overbey said the legislative session got off to a fast start with a special educational session and passed legislation that made Tennessee one of only two state to win Race to the Top federal stimulus funds. The state received $500 million, which was more than anticipated.

The sessions slowed down considerably after the special session on education, said the legislators, and, in the end, the budget was the sticking point in both the House and Senate.

“In order to balance the budget, we’re dipping into the Rainy Day fund by $185 million,” said Overbey. “If the economy does in fact improve, and we go back to levels of normal state revenue growth, that should be OK. In four or five years -- maybe three years -- we may be able to match recurring expenses with recurring revenues. If we are hit with a double-dip recession, things will be bleak and many cuts earlier proposed this year that were part of the first budget would have to be back on the table.”

Overbey praised outgoing State Rep. Joe McCord, who is leaving after 12 years in the House. “Joe is a true leader in the House and will be missed,” Overbey said, to which McCord replied with a laugh, “Not by everybody.”

McCord thanked everyone for giving him the chance to serve for 12 years. “It has been a great opportunity for me. I’ve tried to represent Blount County values,” he said.

McCord said there is an uneasiness now in the public he hasn’t seen in 12 years in the House with regard to the economy. “Everybody is pent up and angry, and it is just unusual,” he said. “We’re challenged like never before to live within our means.”

McCord said he did not agree with the governor’s plan to give state employees a one-time 3 percent bonus when people in the private sector aren’t getting bonuses, but overall the budget is reasonable. “We’re living within our means and maintaining a Triple-A bond rating.”

McCord said he wished he could’ve gotten more legislation improving workers’ compensation law and also wanted to institute laws that would require those receiving state money for college tuition to be required to take at least 15 hours a semester. “We can educate more students if we make them take 15 hours a semester,” he said. “I really pushed that. I faced stiff opposition from higher education, faculty primarily.”

The pair said they disagreed with a resolution commenting on the Arizona law recently passed in that state regarding enforcement of immigration laws by local/state law enforcement. “Near the end of the session we had enough to do trying to balance budget in tough economic times,” Overbey said. “It’s almost slippery slope commenting on what other states are doing. We need to take care of Tennessee.”

McCord said there are controversies aplenty in this state without manufacturing more. “In defense of the governor and out of fairness, he took a lot of cuts that were pretty bold,” he said.

Both legislators praised Rep. Bob Ramsey, who was unable to attend, for his smooth transition into state government.

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