Tag Archives: Craig Fitzhugh

Referendum on Insure TN rejected; Democrats blame Durham

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A proposal to place Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal before the voters in November has been defeated in a House subcommittee.

The House Insurance and Banking Subcommittee voted Wednesday to study the bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley (HB2545) after the General Assembly adjourns.

Haslam last year proposed extending health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans. The Tennessee Hospital Association had pledged to cover the entire $74 million state share of the program to draw down $2.8 billion in federal Medicaid funds over two years.

But Republican lawmakers rejected Haslam’s plan last year amid fears that it was too closely linked to President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

Haslam wants to wait and see who the next president is before deciding how to proceed.

Note: Democrats blame defeat of the bill on Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, who is otherwise facing an investigation into alleged sexual harassment. News releases below.
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TN legislative leaders honor open records request

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — While Tennessee lawmakers do not fall under the state’s open records law, the General Assembly’s policy is to make what officials call a good faith effort to comply with requests from the public.

Under those rules, lawmakers are asked to search their own correspondence and emails for records they consider to be responsive to the request. That’s not good enough for one senior Democrat, who argues that it shouldn’t be up to each of the 132 lawmakers to decide which documents to release.

“To trust the members I don’t think is fully responsive,” said Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris. “The state owns these email accounts, and they should make sure they’re being fully responsive.”

A recent Associated Press request for a week’s worth of emails and daily schedules from legislative leaders in all 50 states was met with as many denials as approvals. In Tennessee, the top two Democrats and top two Republicans complied with the request.
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Fitzhugh: No more cuts to TN’s ‘super lean’ budget

News release from House Democratic Caucus
Nashville, TN: House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley) pushed back today on Governor Bill Haslam’s (R) call for more across the board cuts to essential state services. This comes as the administration begins five-days of budget hearings in Nashville.

“Tennessee budgets are already super lean,” said Leader Fitzhugh who previously served as Chairman of the Finance, Ways & Means Committee from 2005-2011 under both Democratic and Republican majorities. “We have cut through the fat, into the muscle and I fear are headed for bone with more arbitrary cuts.”

With current state revenue collection exceeding estimates by almost $300 million, Governor Haslam has directed his commissioners to prepare budgets for FY 16-17 that reflect a 3.5 percent reduction in funding. This cut would be in addition to the 7 percent reduction to state services requested by Governor Haslam in 2014.

“The Department of Corrections has faced a shortfall of nearly $100 million. Many teachers never saw the 4 percent raise they were promised. Our roads and bridges have a backlog of maintenance projects, while last year’s budget raised property taxes on disabled veterans by 20 percent. More arbitrary cuts are cruel and simply do not make good budgeting sense.”

Economists for Governor Haslam’s Department of Revenue, along with Dr. Bill Fox of the Center for Business & Economic Research at the Haslam School of Business have predicted revenue growth in FY 2016-2017 of up to $525 million. This is in stark contrast to the $348 million growth estimate upon which Governor Haslam and the State Funding Board are constructing their budget.

“Governor Haslam has promised much-needed raises for our corrections officers. He has said he wants to make teacher salaries the fastest growing in the nation. To make these kinds of promises, while asking for more haphazard cuts from each department is unfair, unrealistic and unnecessary. We can and should do better.”

Leader Fitzhugh along with members of the House Democratic Caucus plan to introduce their own alternative budget this spring based on more accurate revenue estimates.

TDOC figures: 322 prison guards have quit since overtime policy change

At least 322 correctional officers have quit their jobs in Tennessee’s prison system since last August, when the state began implementing a new work schedule designed to save money, according to new figures from the Department of Correction reported by Richard Locker.

The agency told House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh, in response to a series of questions he asked, that it is “unable to fully determine” whether the new 28-day work schedule “contributed to their decision to leave.” The department also said it cannot compare the resignation rate to previous years because the new system was not fully implemented throughout the prison system until June.

The department has 2,587 correctional officer positions statewide but it won’t disclose, for security reasons, how many vacancies exist at each prison, TDOC spokeswoman Neysa Taylor said Thursday night. (Note: A department memo to legislators is HERE.)

Fitzhugh, the minority leader from Ripley, said he is growing increasingly concerned about new outbreaks of violence inside the prisons, possibly as a result of understaffing. He said he’s been contacted by prison employees across the state who say they are frightened over the new conditions.

“They feel as if the prisons are understaffed to the point that guards are no longer safe. Individuals whose jobs were never intended to interact with prisoners are now forced to do so by attrition. Many guards are working back-to-back shifts, imperiling their ability to be effective on the job and to travel safely home at day’s end,” Fitzhugh wrote to state Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield on Tuesday, asking questions about prison personnel policies.

“These workers all feel strongly that there is a severe disconnect between what they experience on the ground and what the administration in Nashville feels is actually the case. It is my concern that these chronic understaffing issues are part of a larger plan to privatize our prison system or to close some facilities.”

Taylor said the work schedule, intended to reduce overtime, allows for prison staff flexibility in scheduling, enhanced communication and rotating off days and will lead to better shift coverage.

…Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, said he met Thursday with the warden of the state’s Bledsoe Correctional Complex in his district and found there’s been a “lot of turnover” there. Bailey said the warden told him about 23 new employees have just finished training and a new class of 28 will start soon.

“That’s going to help,” Bailey told the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. “That’s one of the reasons we’re having overtime issues because we simply do not have enough personnel to take care of the pods and prison system.”

Note: This updates, expands and replaces an earlier post.

Harwell, Fitzhugh voice concern over state prison problems

Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell and House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh are expressing concern about troubles in the state prison system, most recently including an escape Wednesday from the West Tennessee prison where eight inmates were injured in a round of violence Friday.

Excerpts from a Tennessean story:

(Fitzhugh said) without changes to how correctional officers are scheduled and paid, the issues plaguing Tennessee prisons won’t improve. The incidents occurred amid a severe manpower shortage after the state switched correctional officers from a traditional 40-hour workweek to save overtime costs.

“What happened in Van Buren County last Friday & in Lake County today are just the beginning of the problems we’re going to see if we don’t do something about the staffing situation at our prisons. People’s lives are in danger,” Fitzhugh said in a statement Wednesday.

“Until we reverse this terrible 28-day schedule and do something about wages, we’re going to continue to lose guards and end up with our prisons back under federal control.”

Wednesday morning Richard K. Roberts, 36, escaped from Northwest Correctional Complex. Roberts walked away from the facility while on a work detail outside of the prison. He was captured Wednesday evening.

In separate incidents Friday, three inmates were stabbed at West Tennessee State Penitentiary during the morning hours and an additional eight were injured in multiple stabbings at Northwest Correctional Complex during the afternoon. Several inmates were transported to the hospital.

There also have been reports of correctional officers, tired after working 16 hours straight, wrecking their vehicles after leaving the Bledsoe County Correction Complex.

…Correctional officers, family members of inmates and others have recently contacted The Tennessean to express concerns about prison safety. Officers say their 40-hour workweek was recently changed to a 28-day work schedule to cut down on overtime costs. However, the change in scheduling, and the relatively low pay for correctional officers, has led to many open positions and officers having no choice but to work double shifts.

…”The things that have been reported are concerning, and the General Assembly will review these policies and the pertinent statutes. We certainly want to ensure our prisons are secure, and our correctional officers are treated fairly and have a safe work environment,” Harwell said in a statement to The Tennessean.

Fitzhugh, Yager question new prison work policy

Two legislators are questioning a new state Department of Correction work scheduling policy amid reports of attacks on guards and manpower shortages at state prisons, reports The Tennessean.

“I do believe there are some unintended consequences that have occurred that need to be addressed immediately,” said Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, who chairs a committee that oversees the agency’s budget and has one of the state’s largest prisons in his district.

Yager spoke with Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield last week. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, talked with the commissioner on Tuesday about conditions at a prison in his district.

Prison security forces have become so understaffed that correctional officers are working double shifts, and some are going across state to temporarily fill vacancies where staffing shortages are the worst. People who work in the prisons have told The Tennessean they worry that the manpower shortage will make a dangerous job deadly.

Yager and Fitzhugh said they are concerned about violence because they’ve heard from their constituents.

…Severe staffing shortages began as the state converted officers from a traditional 40-hour week to a 28-day schedule to save overtime costs. The change resulted in some officers quitting, and those left behind having to work doubles.

…”The commissioner indicates to me strongly that they certainly have the personnel (at West Tennessee State Penitentiary) to make it safe for the inmates, for the guards and for the public. But the question is how long can this go on?” Fitzhugh said.

Yager said he has specifically asked Schofield for an incident report about an assault on correctional officers around July 10. He has also asked for up-to-date figures on turnover rates.

“I am aware of these concerns, and we should take them very seriously,” Yager said. “I am waiting until I get the data that I asked for before I make any further decision. But I will stay with this issue until we have a positive resolution on it.”

The idea of converting to a 28-day work schedule was part of the governor’s “Top to Bottom” efficiency review in 2012. But the staggered implementation at state prisons didn’t happen until 2014 and this year.

Yager and Fitzhugh stressed that Schofield was doing his job in trying to cut department costs at the bequest of Gov. Bill Haslam and the legislature. That budgeting process forced Schofield into a corner, Fitzhugh argued.

“He had to come up with a 7 percent budget cut last year … the governor required that, and he works for the governor, and he did it. And I think he did it the best way he could,” Fitzhugh said.

..”The new scheduling wasn’t tied to the budget exercise,” said Haslam spokesman David Smith.

“This is in line with the department’s long-term goal of being more efficient and effective, and it’s consistent with what many other law enforcement agencies use.”

Some seek removal of Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from TN capitol

Two prominent Tennessee Democrats and the state Republican Party chairman say a bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, should be removed from its perch inside the state capitol building, reports The Tennessean.

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., and state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest has no place in the Tennessee statehouse.

“Symbols of hate should not be promoted by government. South Carolina should remove the Confederate battle flag from its Capitol, and Tennessee should remove the bust of Forrest inside our Capitol,” Cooper said in a statement to The Tennessean.

Fitzhugh said he believes the bust should be displayed in a museum.

“In general, our Capitol should be representative of the people of Tennessee. Right now if you’re a young girl, like my granddaughter, Marley Mac, for instance, and you visit the Capitol, there are no busts in the building that look like you,” Fitzhugh said.

“For African-Americans, there’s only one — a fairly recent addition. So I think, generally speaking, we need to revisit what we have displayed in the Capitol so that it better represents a Tennessee for all of us.”
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes believes the bust should be removed from the Capitol as well.

“If I were a legislator, I would vote to move it,” said Haynes, who recently stepped down from his position in the Tennessee House of Representatives to take over the state Republican Party.

AP story on TN Democrats’ woes

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For a party once accustomed to dominating state politics, the outlook for Tennessee Democrats is bleak.

Over the past decade, Democrats went from controlling all three branches of state government to giving up GOP supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, losing two governor’s races by wide margins and watching as the state Supreme Court appointed the first Republican attorney general since Reconstruction.

The heavy erosion of Democratic power has left them with little sway at the state Capitol on issues like Medicaid expansion, guns, education and abortion. And while Republicans in charge have pushed an increasingly conservative agenda, so far there’s been no sign of a new opening for Democrats.

Still, longtime Republican campaign adviser Tom Ingram said the GOP’s takeover after decades in the political wilderness shows that no party can claim a permanent hold on power.

“When political parties get too successful they usually get arrogant and make mistakes and set up the return of the other party,” he said. “It will turn again. I don’t know when, but it will.”

Democrats hoping to revive their party’s fortunes recognize that there are few quick fixes.
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Fitzhugh writes Haslam: Call legislature back into special session for Insure Tennessee

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, wants Gov. Bill Haslam to keep calling lawmakers back to Nashville for special legislative sessions until they pass the controversial health care plan Insure Tennessee, reports The Tennessean.

“Though the last extraordinary session was unsuccessful, I maintain that this option is still a viable choice. If the General Assembly once again refuses to take action or places unnecessary hurdles before the bill to prevent passage, I would urge another extraordinary session immediately upon the first’s adjournment,” Fitzhugh wrote in a letter to the governor, dated April 23.

“If I were governor, I would repeat this process again and again until the General Assembly did the right thing and passed Insure Tennessee.”

David Smith, a spokesman for Gov. Bill Haslam, confirmed the administration had received the letter.

…Haslam recently said it would be “way preliminary” to discuss calling another special session.

“To go back and try to do the exact same thing without something changing, I don’t think is a real strategic plan. On the other hand we haven’t given up on that being the right idea,” Haslam told The Tennessean last week.

Haslam said he planned to “pull some people together over the summer” and talk about options for Insure Tennessee going forward. That hasn’t happened yet, Smith said Monday morning.

It costs more than $100,000 for every week lawmakers meet in a special session. That’s a small price to pay for Insure Tennessee, Fitzhugh and other lawmakers argue.

“We have a moral imperative to continue fighting for the 300,000 working men and women who have no health care. There are 49 rural counties in our state waiting for action on Insure Tennessee. Please do not let us become the ‘Forgotten 49.’ We need action now,” Fitzhugh wrote in the letter.

‘Two or three’ House Democrats said reluctant to back Insure TN

At least “two or three” of the 26 House Democrats are still on the fence as to whether they’ll support Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal, according to a Tennessean report.

While none of the House Democrats have definitively said they’ll oppose the governor’s plan, the source said the caucus decided in a Thursday meeting it wanted to show its support because Democrats believe advocates are taking a “hands-off” approach to campaigning for the plan.

“After studying this waiver, listening to our constituents and meeting yesterday in caucus, House Democrats are overwhelmingly prepared to support the Insure Tennessee plan. It is not perfect; our members have many questions, but the time has come for Tennessee to address this issue once and for all,” House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said in a statement set for release Friday.

…In early January, Haslam said he needs every Democrat in the General Assembly to vote for his plan for it to survive next week’s special session. Even with every Democrat, Haslam will still need a substantial number of Republicans to back the plan for it to pass in the House and the Senate.

“I don’t think Democrats will be the problem when it comes to Insure Tennessee,” said Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville.

Note: Fitzhugh’s full statement is below.
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