From Richard Locker:
Hoping to end criticism over their plans to tighten eligibility for lottery-funded scholarships, Senate Republican leaders said today they would delay the tighter standards if lottery revenue remains up by $10 million a year through the spring of 2015.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham and Senate Speaker Ron
Ramsey said they will present an amendment tying the new eligibility standards to lottery revenue when the bill is reviewed in the committee Wednesday.
The amendment declares that the tighter standards the bill would impose on freshmen entering college in the fall of 2015 would not go into effect if the lottery sustains the $10 million increase in education proceeds that it’s generating in the current fiscal year through the spring of 2015. If revenues fall short of that goal, the new eligibility standards would go into affect.
The bill sponsored by Gresham, R-Somerville, would require public and private high school students to earn both a 21 or higher on the ACT college entrance exam and a 3.0 or higher grade-point average in high school to qualify for the $4,000 per year Hope Scholarship at four-year universities starting in 2015.
Under current law in effect since the program began in 2004, students qualify for the full award by achieving either one of those two standards.
The bill would allow students who achieve one but not both of the standards to receive a reduced $2,000-per year grant that they could use either at two- or four-year schools and then earn the full $4,000 starting their college junior year if they maintain eligibility standards through their freshmen and sophomore years.
The bill is an attempt to close a projected annual deficit of $17 million to $20 million between the Tennessee Lottery’s proceeds for the scholarships and what the scholarship program will be paying out. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission estimates that 5,257 fewer students, or about 22 percent of first-year Hope recipients, would qualify for the full award in the first year it’s in effect. Students already in college would not be affected.
But the scholarship program has over $360 million in reserves, built up in the early years of the program when the scholarships were gradually phased in over time. Critics of the planned changes say that’s enough to cover the deficits well into the 2020s when the deficits are projected to decrease.dramatically. Note: News release below
Center for Child Welfare to Close
The governor’s budget would effectively kill MTSU’s Center for Child Welfare by ending a contract with the Department of Children’s Services next fiscal year, reports the Daily News Journal. The center, which is responsible for training social workers across Tennessee, employs nearly 60 people who are based at the Bank of America building in Murfreesboro. It runs social worker training with eight universities across the state through a $14 million state contract with the Department of Children’s Services.
Interim Director John Sanborn predicted 80 to 90 people would lose jobs if the contract is not renewed. It is the center’s main contract and makes up 99 percent of its work.
“We will no longer exist if this happens,” Sanborn said.
Under Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget proposal, the state would see a savings of $11.7 million, some $3.1 million of which would be from the state level, according to a state spokeswoman.
DCS would bring the training service “in-house” and hire several positions to replace those lost through the Center for Child Welfare, Suddarth said.
— Family Service Agencies Cut
Some local folks are decrying a cut in Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed budget that could mean the end for the Family Resource Center, which provides a myriad of important services for Sevier County residents, reports the Mountain Press. A letter-writing campaign is being mounted in support of the local agency, which is led by Kim Loveday, and the 103 other ones across the state in hopes Haslam or state lawmakers will be swayed to save the funding. If he doesn’t, it could slash a big hole in a safety net that protects at-risk children, provides education for new parents, allocates resources to help pregnant teens and watches out for the elderly.
Loveday, an eternally busy woman who speaks quickly and with deep passion about the cause she leads, says there’s no certainty what will happen if the state funding is lost. While the agency also gets money from county and federal coffers, it’s unlikely those sources would be able to step up to cover the shortfall, meaning she may have to close her doors.
“We just don’t know because there could be a way that it survives, but who has the money right now to make that up? Everybody is trying to keep their budgets tight,” she says. “Right now it looks like all the centers are likely to be closed unless something is changed.”
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) — The VA medical center in Murfreesboro has suspended housing for veterans seeking substance abuse treatment after officials said they don’t have staff to oversee the patients 24 hours a day.
Chris Conklin, a spokesman for the Alvin C. York campus, said after reviewing the supervision at the lodging area, VA leadership including Tennessee Valley Healthcare Systems Director Juan A. Morales decided to put the housing on hold Jan. 31.
“Leadership thought it was appropriate to suspend the boarding program until the issue regarding 24-hour supervision could be resolved,” Conklin said.
Conklin told The Daily News Journal that last year more than 1,600 patients participated in the 28-day program and about 400 annually used the lodging on the campus (http://on.dnj.com/wnFPwp).
Conklin said there were no safety incidents reported in the housing. The treatment program will continue and those veterans needing housing will have to find it through the VA’s social work program, Conklin said.
“The substance abuse treatment program has always been an outpatient program,” Conklin said.
Bill Mitchell, a retired VA substance abuse counselor, sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Diane Black, who represents Murfreesboro, stating his concerns about the housing suspension. He told the newspaper that a majority of veterans who are treated for substance abuse are homeless and enrollment in the program dropped to just four people when housing was stopped.
“To me, there was a real need for this program because it addressed the substance abuse issue and the homeless piece,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said in the past a recent graduate of the substance abuse program would be paid a small stipend to oversee the housing and it was renovated two years ago to add more beds, including some for women.
The first signs that HOPE scholarship changes made last year are hurting some Georgia students and colleges are starting to crop up just as Tennessee considers imposing even tougher academic requirements of its own, according to the Chattanooga TFP. Georgia Northwestern Technical College’s enrollment is down about 10 percent — from 6,407 to 5,777 — and school officials said the lottery-funded program is largely to blame.
“Students are more leery of taking that first step of going into postsecondary education, whether to seek retraining or an associate’s degree, because they know the extra expense is there,” said Steve Bradshaw, associate vice president of student affairs.
In the winter quarter of 2011, 95 percent of Georgia Northwestern students received HOPE funding. That number fell to 81 percent for the current spring quarter.
By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican leaders in the General Assembly plan to forge ahead with efforts to reduce the state’s inheritance and Hall income taxes despite Gov. Bill Haslam’s concerns that Tennessee’s economic situation isn’t healthy enough to make up for the lost revenues.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he wants to take an incremental approach toward getting rid of the Hall tax on income from interest and dividends.
“I think it is doable,” the Blountville Republican said. “Obviously I think we should wait a little longer before we say ‘no’ to something like this.”
Meanwhile, Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville said in a phone interview she wants to focus on cutting the state’s inheritance tax.
“I respect that the governor has concerns about filling potential budget gaps, but House Republicans have wanted to address this issue for a long time,” Harwell said
“The fact that we don’t have an income tax has done wonders for the state,” she said. “The Republican caucus just wants to move that ball down a little bit further and work on specifically the death tax.”
From an Andrea Zelinski story on the Department of Environment and Conservation’s budget proposal: The department is requesting a $166 million state budget, although $85.8 million comes from dedicated state funding such as fees and revenues. TDEC oversees 53 state parks, which welcome 30 million visitors annually, but is also a major enforcer and administrator for state and federal government regulations like those that address clean air and water.
Cuts that would reduce the department’s budget by 5 percent, as requested by Haslam, include reducing funding to maintain and fix parks and equipment, and leasing out or closing parks with outdated facilities and limited visitors. But moves to close those state parks would result in more than $1 million in lost revenue, and eliminating 23 jobs in the Bureau of Environment would mean losing more than a half-million dollars in federal funds and fees, (TDEC Commissioner Robert) Martineau said.
..Separately from the cuts, TDEC is asking Haslam for a $6.8 million permanent increase in dedicated funds instead of one-time money to help local governments and the state acquire park space and another $1.4 million next year to leverage federal money for a clean water program.
The state Department of Health is proposing budget cuts for next year that go beyond the governor’s request for 5 percent reductions, reports Andrea Zelinski. The agency is offering to hand back $40 million if budget realities require it, Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner told the governor during a hearing last week.
“While we fervently wish these reductions were not necessary to propose, our economy and lack of further sources of non-recurring funds suggest regrettably that they are,” Dreyzehner said.
Dreyzehner’s office is suggesting scaling the department’s current $566 million budget back 7 percent next year.
The bulk of the cuts, about $25 million, would come from a drop-off of federal and state one-time funding for programs such as those that address shaken baby syndrome, epilepsy, diabetes, smoking cessation, and breast and cervical cancer.
The rest would be made by eliminating unfilled positions, shifting around state and federal dollars and chipping away costs in other programs.
Dreyzehner said these cuts would pose the “least impact” but contends continuing to encourage Tennesseans to live healthy lifestyles with fewer funds will be more challenging.
The funding mechanism that rescued TennCare is in the deficit reduction crosshairs, creating a billion-dollar worry for Tennessee hospitals that could turn into real health-care woes for the state’s poorest residents, according to The Tennessean. “I just can’t imagine that the state of Tennessee or the federal government would want to see the health-care safety net eviscerated,” said Dr. Jeff Balser, the dean of the School of Medicine at Vanderbilt University.
Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the patients it serves are particularly vulnerable as the 12-member congressional supercommittee considers lowering the cap for matching Medicaid provider fees.
Vanderbilt serves more TennCare patients than any other hospital in the state. They comprise 22 percent of Vanderbilt’s patient mix. The percentage is even higher for many rural hospitals.
Tennessee hospitals came up with the idea of using provider fees to keep the state from losing federal matching money when the legislature slashed TennCare’s budget. Hospitals replaced the state money last year and this year by agreeing to pay an “enhanced coverage fee.” (Note: Actually, the preferred term at the Legislature was ‘enhanced coverage assessment,’ since ‘fee’ sounds too much like a ‘tax.’)
That fee will generate about $450 million and leverage just over $707 million in federal funding — adding up to more than $1 billion for TennCare. But now Congress may decrease or stop its matching money for the provider fees.
But now Congress may decrease or stop its matching money for the provider fees.
“It would devastate a lot of our safety-net hospitals,” said Craig Becker, president of the Tennessee Hospital Association. “We’re not talking about just the Metro Generals of the world but our rural hospitals as well. They are extremely vulnerable and they do a lot of TennCare.”
…Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have some type of Medicaid-related provider fee, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The only states that don’t are Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii and Wyoming.
In Tennessee, there are actually two provider fees: a bed tax paid by nursing homes and the hospital “enhanced coverage fee.” The hospitals asked the legislature to allow them to assess the fee as a temporary measure.
By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The fate of about $242 million in federal dollars that the state health department depends upon could be in jeopardy if a special deficit committee in Washington proposes drastic cuts, the agency’s chief said Tuesday.
Tennessee Health Department Commissioner John Dreyzehner gave the news to Gov. Bill Haslam and top members of his cabinet during a series of budget hearings.
In anticipation of a serious loss of federal money, the Republican governor has asked each state department to propose how they would spend 5 percent less than planned next year if necessary. Haslam has said he hopes the cuts won’t be that deep.
Nevertheless, the Health Department is proposing to spend $40 million less, which would do away with a number of primary health care centers for low-income Tennessee residents.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A federal delay may cause rate cuts for TennCare providers in areas including nursing homes, home health providers, transportation services, dentistry and labs and X-rays.
The state’s expanded Medicaid program announced Friday that it no longer anticipates receiving the federal money in time to stop the rate cuts from growing from 4.25 percent to 8.5 percent in January.
Lawmakers last session approved a TennCare budget contingent on receiving an estimated $82 million from the federal government to make up for billing mistakes for people eligible for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services now expects it will require federal legislation to resolve the money owed to the states.
Gov. Bill Haslam said three weeks ago the state may face deep cuts in federal funding, with services for the poor and disabled disproportionately affected.
TennCare would possibly cut up to $2.2 billion. The program serves 1.2 million people.
See also The Tennessean, which focuses on nursing home cuts. An excerpt: Staffing is the only place nursing homes can cut back, said Jesse Samples, executive director of the Tennessee Health Care Association. Labor accounts for 70 percent of costs, he said, while the other 30 percent are for fixed costs.
“You’re looking at personnel,” Samples said. “It’s not like the facilities are going to be taking care of the same number of patients with less staff. What they are going to have is less patients to go along with that less staff. What will happen will be an access problem.”
An explanatory note to media from TennCare officials is below.