Since July 2011, at least seven people who had died were issued unemployment checks by the state of Tennessee, to the tune of about $12,000 in unemployment payments, reports the Tennessean in giving some details of problems in the system. But it’s not just the deceased that a state audit found were being paid benefits by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. It also found that 24 state employees were getting paid unemployment benefits — while still working for the state of Tennessee.
Those findings were among several alarming entries in a scathing audit detailing the overpayment of about $73 million in jobless benefits and other systemic problems with the state’s unemployment system.
For instance, administrative delays in the state Labor Department meant many employers were unable to challenge unemployment claims by former employees and wound up getting charged too much in unemployment premiums paid to the state.
Three of the department’s top officials, including former Commissioner Karla Davis, resigned shortly before the audit was released.
…The department, for its part, has begun trying to recoup the money and has forwarded some of the cases on to federal authorities for possible prosecution for fraud. Officials there say they also have tightened their procedures to try to prevent these problems from happening again.
“In the short time the new interim commissioner, Burns Phillips, has been here, there has a tangible shift in the work environment, not only in addressing the audit findings, but also creating an atmosphere where employees can affect change,” said Jeff Hentschel, spokesman for the department. “Employers, our clients and the general public will see positive results in the coming months.”
NASHVILLE – Legislation tying parents’ welfare benefits to their children’s performance in school advanced another step Wednesday despite contentions that it amounts to a “mean-spirited” attack against vulnerable families.
The House Health Committee approved the bill (HB261) on a 10-8 vote after extended debate, including testimony from spokeswomen from a social workers organization and a group advocating for domestic violence victims.
Both opposed the measure, which would cut benefits of parents of a child failing in school by 30 percent in some circumstances.
The measure is scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor Thursday. (UPDATE Note: The vote was postpone for a week, until next Thursday.)
The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, said the bill as amended would apply only to the “worst of the worst” parents. The bill does not apply when a child has a learning disability or a physical handicap. As amended, it also allows the penalty to be avoided if the parent attends two parent teacher conferences, an eight-hour parenting class, arranges tutoring or enrolls the child in summer school.
“What I keep hearing from teachers and educators is that we need to do whatever we can to make parents more accountable,” said Dennis. “This bill does just that.”
But critics argued the bill effectively makes a child responsible for a family’s financial well-being, increasing stress on the youths.
Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, a teacher, said some children could even face physical threats.
“I know it will be putting some of my kids in danger if their grades go down (and benefit checks go down because of it),” she said.
Similar concerns were voiced by Kathy Walsh, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. She envisioned situations with a mother leaving an abusive situation, causing stress on her children that causes their school performance to plummet – then seeing family income cut to create still more stress.
“It’s just mean-spirited,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville.
But Dennis and some other Republicans on the committee said any pressure will be on parents, who need prodding to help their children get an education.
“I think we’re putting the burden squarely on the shoulders of the parents,” said Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville.
Rep. Barry Doss, R-Leoma, rejected contentions that the bill could leave some children hungry.
“I’m more worried about a child starving for a lifetime (because of not getting an education) rather than for a few days,” Doss said.
All Democrats on the commtttee voted against the bill, joined by two Republicans. All 10 yes votes came from Republicans.
Gov. Bill Haslam, meanwhile, has told reporters he has misgivings about the bill — enough that he would consider vetoing it should the legislation reach his desk.
“Listen, I believe in incentives for the right type of thing,” the governor said. “I’m not sure you have the direct connection there between children’s grades and parents receiving benefits. There’s too many things that can be a disconnect there.”
Republican lawmakers are pushing legislation to slash dependent benefits for unemployed Tennesseans as a way to rein in a program that was expanded in 2009 under the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, reports The Tennessean. The bill (HB639), which cleared a key House committee with little resistance on Tuesday, would save the state an estimated $62.5 million annually, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor. Those savings are necessary, supporters say, because $141 million in federal funds given to the state under the stimulus have run out, and Tennessee employers have had to pick up the bill.
A Democratic leader in the House called the proposal a bad bill that would hurt the unemployed in the state. But Republican leadership, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, said the state was fixing what amounted to an unfunded mandate.
Consideration of the bill comes one week after the Department of Labor’s unemployment benefits program was blistered in a state audit that found fraud and mismanagement that “threatened the integrity” of the unemployment benefits system.
“This is the very definition of an unfunded mandate,” said state Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, adding that the state needed to halt the expanded benefits in order to preserve the health of the unemployment insurance fund. “Experts say there’s no way our fund could withstand another recession.”
Under current state law, unemployed workers receive $15 per week for each dependent, with a cap of $50 per week, in addition to their regular unemployment check. The bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, and in the Senate by Ramsey and Johnson, would end such dependent benefits.
Unemployment checks for individuals are capped at $275 per week. A family with four or more dependents receives an additional $50 each week.
The bill cleared the House Consumer and Human Resources committee Tuesday with a voice vote, though Democrats such as Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, expressed their opposition.
Legislation to cut welfare benefits of parents with children performing poorly in school has cleared committees of both the House and Senate after being revised to give the parents several ways to avoid the reductions.
The state Department of Human Services, which worked with Republican sponsors to draft the changes, withdrew its previous opposition to SB132. But the measure was still criticized by Democrats, including Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah. It calls for a 30 percent reduction in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to parents whose children are not making satisfactory progress in school.
As amended, it would not apply when a child has a handicap or learning disability or when the parent takes steps to try improving the youngster’s school performance — such as signing up for a “parenting class,” arranging a tutoring program or attending a parent-teacher conference.
Dennis told the House Health Subcommittee the measure now only applies to “parents who do nothing.” He described the measure as “a carrot and stick approach.”
Johnson, a teacher, said the bill will still put “the burden of the family budget on children’s performance in school” and that would mean a “huge stress on a young person who is trying to do what he can.”
A state Senate committee passed an amended version of a bill reducing federal welfare benefits for families with students who fail a grade in school, reports The Tennessean. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield, would reduce a parent’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families payments by up to 30 percent for students who fail a grade. It was amended to limit maximum penalties to parents who do not attend parent-teacher conferences, enroll their child in tutoring or attend a parenting course.
Special needs students would be exempt from the law. The original legislation garnered national attention, although current Tennessee law already allows for a 25 percent reduction in some benefits based on a student’s truancy rate.
After the legislation passed out of the Senate Health Committee in a 7-1 vote, the Knoxville Republican said his intent was to help parents give their children the best education possible.
“It’s really just something to try to get parents involved with their kids,” he said. “We have to do something.”
Though state legislators talk about working for low pay, in reality, they take home more money as part-time lawmakers than most Tennesseans do in a year, reports Andrea Zelinski. Looking at annual salary alone, lawmakers take home no less than $20,000 a year. Factor in their per diem for food and lodging, health insurance benefits and 401K, and it’s closer to $60,000.
…Lawmakers collect a legislative salary of $20,203 a year. Add in $12,000 a year for a home office — regardless whether they’ve set one up — and lawmakers make $8,000 more annually than the average Tennessean.
According to the U.S. Census, the per capita income in the state was $24,197 as recently at 2011.
State legislators also collect $173 in per diem expenses to cover their food and lodging while working at the seat of government or conducting government business, an amount tied to federal government rates. The daily automatic pay breaks down to $107 a night for lodging and $66 for meals and incidentals, whether the money is used for those reasons or not.
Sitting senators last year took home more than $14,600 on average in per diem, according to a review of state records by The City Paper. Legislators in the House of Representatives averaged more than $13,800 each in per diem.
…Lawmakers can also opt into the state’s health insurance program for state employees, which covers 80 percent of the premium. The state’s share of monthly premiums ranges from nearly $6,000 for individuals to $15,400 for families.
Long-term, sitting lawmakers also qualify to cash in on pension benefits once they leave office. After hitting 55 years of age, lawmakers who have served at least four years can begin collecting a pension that boils down to $81.73 per month for each year in the General Assembly. That’s a minimum of almost $4,000 a year for a lawmaker who spent the four years in the legislature needed to qualify.
University of Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek defended himself Monday as faculty members asked pointed questions about why the administration refused to work toward providing health care and other benefits to unmarried same-sex and opposite-sex couples.
More from the News Sentinel: Members of the Faculty Senate pressed Cheek on why he wouldn’t lobby the Legislature to change current laws, why the school couldn’t offer financial compensation for faculty whose partners aren’t eligible for health care, and why the school couldn’t offer other benefits, such as tuition compensation, for employees’ partners.
“We always have to weigh, anytime we bring something to the General Assembly and board of trustees, the probability of it being supported and whether or not it will compromise other things we’re trying to get done,” Cheek said. “We just don’t see a way forward.”
He declined to outline how his former institution, the University of Florida, found a way to work around a conservative state government to offer domestic partner benefit packages. He also refused to say why UT couldn’t offer tuition reimbursements.
Though he didn’t want to respond to these questions publicly, Cheek did offer to sit down individually with those who wanted more detailed explanations.
Complex state insurance plans, constitutional hurdles and political consequences have all kept the University of Tennessee from delivering health insurance and other benefits to unmarried same-sex and opposite-sex couples, reports the News Sentinel, citing a letter UT leaders sent faculty members earlier this month. In the letter, Chancellors Jimmy Cheek and Larry Arrington acknowledged that the school’s biggest challenge is a conservative Legislature that could react with a heavy hand — particularly when it comes to funding — should the school attempt to offer benefits for same-sex couples.
“As we have expressed to you in person, the political issues are the most challenging,” the two wrote. “As leaders of a publicly funded institution, we are responsible for acting in the best interests of the entire institution. For this reason, we ultimately concluded that the University is not in a position to pursue the Faculty Senate’s resolution.”
The letter, dated Jan. 10, is the second such response requested by faculty hoping to open a dialogue about the possibility of offering insurance, bereavement and education credits to unmarried couples.
…”If that truly is what is behind the issues, I understand where that fear could come from. But I think that you’re deciding not to act based on something that hasn’t happened yet,” said Keith Kirkland, chairman of UT’s Commission for LGBT People.
“You have to allow people to react to things. This is something that needs to be done because it is the right thing to do.”
Kirkland said he is discouraged that he has not had a conversation with Cheek or even exchanged emails since becoming chairman of the commission last spring.
State Sen. Stacey Campfield has proposed legislation that would cut welfare benefits to parents whose children fail to make “satisfactory academic progress” in school, a move he says should inspire parents to take a more active role in helping students learn.
While the Knoxville Republican says SB132 is a step toward “breaking the cycle of poverty,” Linda O’Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, says it could make life more difficult for parents and children who are already struggling.
Campfield said in an interview that the best way to “break the cycle of poverty” is through education and a child’s success in schooling rests on a “three-legged stool” – teachers, schools and parents.(Note: His blog post on the bill is HERE.)
He said Tennessee has already embarked on education reforms designed to improve the quality of teachers and the quality of schools. There should also be a focus on the “third leg,” parents, he said.
“We’ve set the tone (through legislation) to push and improve teachers and schools,” Campfield said. “Now is the time to push those parents. This bill is giving them motivation to do more to help their children learn in school.”
News release from Office of Inspector General:
NASHVILLE, TN – A Giles County man is charged with using drugs he purchased using TennCare benefits to manufacture crystal methamphetamine, a street drug that’s been a primary target of concern by state officials and police officers.
The Office of Inspector General (OIG), with the assistance of the Giles County Sheriff’s Department, today announced the arrest of John B. Robinson, 32, of Pulaski. He is charged with TennCare fraud, and accused of using TennCare benefits to obtain a prescription drug that contains pseudoephedrine, a precursor in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Charges say he then used the prescription to make methamphetamine.
The Giles County Sheriff’s Department also charged him with one count of manufacturing meth, one count of drug paraphernalia, and one count of child abuse.
“This type of criminal activity will absolutely not be tolerated in the state of Tennessee,” stated Inspector General Deborah Faulkner. “Prescription drug fraud is against the law–the Office of Inspector General will continue to aggressively go after anyone who commits TennCare fraud. This case is especially egregious.”
The TennCare fraud charge against Robinson could result in a two year sentence if convicted. District Attorney General Mike Bottoms is prosecuting.
The OIG, which is separate from TennCare, began full operation in February 2005 and has investigated cases leading to over $3.5 million paid in restitution and recoupment to TennCare, with a total estimated cost avoidance of over $173 million for the TennCare program, according to latest figures. To date, over 1,700 people have been charged with TennCare fraud.
Through the OIG Cash for Tips Program established by the Legislature, Tennesseans can get cash rewards for TennCare fraud tips that lead to convictions. Anyone can report suspected TennCare fraud by calling 1-800-433-3982 toll-free from anywhere in Tennessee, or log on to www.tn.gov/tnoig and follow the prompts that read “Report TennCare Fraud.”