Cochran says first session slow, but memorable

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   The wheels of government move slowly.
   A frustrating fact to the freshman lawmaker representing Elizabethton who said he hoped to see more accomplished in his first session in government.
   "It is amazing how slow the process is in Nashville," said Rep. Jerome Cochran who recently ended his first session with the Tennessee General Assembly. "I had expected to make some changes, especially with TennCare."
   Instead, Cochran saw a relatively uneventful session save Gov. Phil Bredesen's $21.5 omnibus budget bill and the creation of a state lottery. Cochran voted against a budget bill that included a 9 percent cut for most state departments and more than $300 million in new funding to the $7 billion TennCare program. He said despite the rhetoric about the budget cuts, the state's 2004 budget was $1 billion over last year with millions of new dollars being diverted to TennCare.
   "I thought it was irresponsible and I could not vote for that especially when it was taking money from Carter County," he said. The city and county governments saw cuts in state-shared revenues from their 2004 fiscal year budgets. City administration has recently said the state reduction may come in at 7 percent of state-shared revenues.
   Cochran said despite his vote, he did support some parts of the budget such as Bredesen's $26.7 million teacher equity pay appropriation that brought more than $1.3 million to raise the salaries of Carter County teachers. He said he had received telephone calls from a few of his former old teachers at Happy Valley High School asking about his vote.
   "My vote was not because of the small schools plan, but because there were parts of the budget I couldn't live with," he said.
   He gave Bredesen a grade of "C" for the former mayor of Nashville's first term in the state house.
   "I was disappointed that he didn't make his priority to implement real TennCare reforms," said Cochran, who has been a vocal critic of the managed care insurance program for Tennessee's 1.4 million poor, disabled or uninsured citizens. Cochran also said he hoped to see a reform of medical malpractice lawsuits that could go a long way in controlling health care costs.
   Cochran also cast his vote against lottery legislation, citing the county's referendum vote in November.
   Under the lottery legislation, a student would qualify for state-funded scholarships by achieving either a cumulative 3.0 grade point average or 19 on the ACT. Scholarship awards are up to $3,000 for four-year schools or $1,500 for two-year community colleges. Bredesen signed the lottery bill into law on Wednesday.
   Cochran won the 4th District seat in November's general election after upsetting incumbent Ralph Cole in the Republican primary last August. He said was pleasantly surprised with the cooperation lawmakers got from the governor's cabinet members, singling out Department of Safety Commissioner -- and former Washington County Sheriff -- Fred Phillips for praise.
   For next year, Cochran believed getting control of TennCare was the top priority. He held out hope a reform of TennCare could occur, perhaps this summer, as Bredesen had indicated earlier this year.
   "He still may do that and prove me wrong," he said, "but I don't think it's going to happen."