Ghosts of TennCare, budget loom for Legislature

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com
The Tennessee 103rd General Assembly resumed its second session on Tuesday. Rep. Jerome Cochran, R-Elizabethton, said while the Legislature's first week was relatively uneventful, issues of funding the state budget and TennCare would again take the forefront for lawmakers this session.
"We expect the big issues to be TennCare along with the budget," said Cochran, who added the Legislature still awaited a TennCare reform proposal from Gov. Phil Bredesen.
Crucial to the Legislature's business is the Governor's Feb. 2 budget address and administration proposals to reform TennCare, the state's $7.1 billion health care program created to serve the poor, disabled and uninsured.
Cochran said the TennCare's $7 billion budget took up more than 33 percent of the state's 2004 fiscal year budget of $21 billion. If the beleaguered program was not reformed to cut down costs, Cochran said, the state could face a critical funding situation within the next five years.
"He ran as the health care expert who was going to fix TennCare," Cochran said of Bredesen. He cited an independent study found that, barring changes, the program would eat up more than 90 percent of the state's normal tax growth within five years.
"Right now the governor may be requesting another $300 million for TennCare this year, which is what he requested last year," Cochran said. "That's not a reform of TennCare."
In issues near to Carter County, Cochran said the 3.9-mile Northern Connector project was on schedule. The $28 million Northern Connector project begins at West Elk Avenue west of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 2166, moves north across the Watauga River then extends east, linking up with the U.S. Highway 19-E and Highway 91 interchange. The section will include four traffic lanes and a continuous center turn lane. Cochran also said Tennessee Department of Transportation officials were expected to initiate land acquisition for the Gap Creek Road extension project later this year. That project will widen Gap Creek Road from its beginning at West G Street to Highway 19-E north of Hampton.
Cochran also said he was encouraged after hearing from the state's new commissioner of the Department of Children's Services (DCS). Commissioner Viola Miller met with House members on Wednesday to discuss the department's past problems and her plans to improve its standing. Cochran said Miller stated DCS would focus its resources on children in extremely dangerous environments.
The department's problems stem from federal court orders, including a federal contempt lawsuit over failure to implement reforms agreed upon by the department. The settlement of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Tennessee's foster children levied 136 separate requirements. Federal court officials decided last year that the state had met less than 20 percent of those goals. After this decision, the administration replaced the head of DCS with Miller.
Most House legislators predicted a short session focused on balancing the budget, TennCare reform and education improvements.
Cochran said lawmakers would pass legislation equalizing scholarship opportunities for home-schooled students who were omitted from lottery scholarships last year.
Cochran is also one of several lawmakers who have questioned the salary and bonus contract granted to Tennessee Lottery Education Corporation president Rebecca Paul. Paul was hired away from the Georgia Lottery Corp. Paul's salary including a potential bonus could be up to $752,500 a year exceeding that of lottery directors in California, Texas or Florida, according to those lottery corporation numbers.
"I think what we are paying is well above average for a lottery director," Cochran said. "There's no reason why we are paying this much money to run a lottery."