federal funding

Haslam: Gas tax hike gives TN ‘a step up in the game’ under Trump’s infrastructure proposal

Gov. Bill Haslam says the state fuel tax increase approved by the legislature last year puts Tennessee in a good position to leverage federal transportation funding under the new infrastructure plan proposed by President Trump on Monday, reports Michael Collins.

The Trump proposal envisions $1.5 trillion in new investments in highways, bridges and mass transit over a 10-year period, but only $200 billion would be in new federal money – the rest in state and local funding or private investment, according to the New York Times. States would have to put in a bigger share of the money for projects, or get private investment, to trigger the new federal funding.

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TN politicians comment on government shutdown

Comments from some members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation on the partial government shutdown.

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DesJarlais: If earmarks are restored, ‘I can be more of a spokesman for the people’

Even some conservatives – including Tennessee’s U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais — seem open to return to earmarks since President Trump floated the idea, reports The Hill.

But don’t call them earmarks: lawmakers say they’re in favor of “congressionally directed spending.”

In a sign of the changing attitudes on Capitol Hill, conservatives are divided on whether to reverse the earmark ban in place since Republicans took over the House majority after the 2010 midterm elections.

Conservative leaders like House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) reject the idea, warning that allowing lawmakers to carve out spending for projects specifically designed to benefit their districts would undercut Trump’s “drain the swamp” message.

…But even some Freedom Caucus members sound open to a return to earmarks ahead of House Rules Committee hearings next week on whether to revive the practice.

“I don’t know that I’m opposed to it,” Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), a Freedom Caucus member, told The Hill. “We’re spending more money than ever and it’s still going out, but it doesn’t seem to come to my district.”

If earmarks were restored, “I can be more of a spokesman for the people in Tennessee who need it,” DesJarlais continued. “There is an overpass in Rutherford County that we need to get funding for. We’ve got things up in Nashville, the Percy Priest Reservoir … so yeah, I would like to have a better voice.

“I don’t know if earmarks is the answer. I’ve never had them, so I don’t know if it’s good or not.”

Other conservatives also expressed openness to allowing earmarks or something similar, saying that ensuring money for specific projects would give the legislative branch more power.

… Trump said at a White House meeting with roughly two dozen lawmakers on Tuesday that Congress should consider allowing earmarks again.

He suggested that doing so would allow Congress to function better, lamenting that the “levels of hatred” among Republicans and Democrats are “out of control.”

“Maybe we should think about it,” Trump said. “Maybe all of you should think about going back to a form of earmarks. You should do it.”

“We have to put better controls because it got a little out of hand, but that brings people together,” Trump added.

Fed funding of health insurance for 74,000 TN children threatened; TN Democrats see ‘political games’

Absent action soon by Congress, funding for a federal program that provides health insurance coverage to 74,000 Tennessee children and pregnant mothers could soon run dry, reports the Times Free Press. State officials, including Gov. Bill Haslam, are worried about the possibility.

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Feds restore Medicare billing privileges to West TN doctor who had bipartisan backing

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has restored Medicare billing privileges to  Dr. Bryan Merrick, who was cut off last year over what appeared to be very minor paperwork errors. Tennessee Star has quotes from some political figures who got involved – notably including Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who had called for Senate hearings on the regulation used in cutting off Merrick, and former state Democratic Chairman Roy Herron, who was acting as the physician’s attorney.

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On a rural West TN doctor’s fight with feds, backed by area politicians appealing to Alexander, Kustoff

The federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has shut off payments to Dr. Bryan Merrick after finding clerical errors in billings through McKenzie Medical Center for a handful of Medicare patients. The move threatens to shut down the center – which serves around 4,000 patients in a rural area with few medical providers — and has brought a bipartisan outpouring of pleas to help Merrick from West Tennessee political leaders to members of the Tennessee congressional delegation, so far without results.

The latest plea was a letter last week from McKenzie Mayor Jill Holland to U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander as chairman of the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee, asking him to convene a hearing with the goal of “revocation or modification of a particularly egregious Obama-era regulation” that CMS used in stopping Medicare payments to Merrick that is now “jeopardizing health care to hundreds and eventually thousands of citizens” in Carroll, Weakley and Henry counties. As of this weekend, Alexander had not responded to the letter or a reporter’s email inquiry seeking comment.

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HHS chief’s June Washington-to-Nashville trip cost $17,760

A June trip to Nashville from Washington is being cited in national news media as an example of how U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price flew by charter airplane at taxpayer expense rather than taking less expensive commercial flights.

From Politico, which says Price has taken 24 charter flights since early May at a cost of more than $300,000 to taxpayers:

HHS officials have said Price uses private jets only when commercial travel is not feasible.

But many of the flights are between large cities with frequent, low-cost airline traffic, such as a trip from Washington to Nashville that the secretary took on June 6 to make a morning event at a medication distributor and an afternoon speech. There are four regular nonstop flights that leave Washington-area airports between 6:59 a.m. and 8:50 a.m. and arrive in Nashville by 9:46 a.m. CT. Sample round-trip fares for those flights were as low as $202, when booked in advance on Orbitz.com. Price’s charter, according to HHS’ contract with Classic Air Charter, cost $17,760.

A Tennessean report of Price’s visit to Nashville at the time says he made a morning visit to Dispensary of Hope, a subsidiary of Saint Thomas Health and Ascension that ships medications across the country to free clinics and charitable pharmacies. He called it “wonderfully inspiring.” In the afternoon, Price made a speech, centered on opioid addiction, to a conference on drug abuse organized by Healthy Tennessee and Vanderbilt’s School of Nursing.

UPDATE/NOTE: In another report, Politico highlights an August chartered private jet trip to St. Simons Island, Ga. — where he owns property, and had the jet arriving Friday for a Sunday meeting – along with providing more details on the Nashville trip. Seems he owns a condo in Nashville and his son lives in the city — and they had lunch during the trip. Excerpt on the Nashville part:

The afternoon (Nashville) event was the first-ever Healthy Tennessee Summit organized by Dr. Manny Sethi, an orthopedic surgeon and prominent local Republican who’s met with President Donald Trump and was featured as an “Obamacare victim” in a White House video posted in June.

Sethi, who says he hasn’t given money to Price, has nonetheless donated $15,000 to the Tennessee Republican Party since May 2016; the party’s Twitter feed hailed Sethi last year as “one of our closest friends.” Sethi also said that Price has been a mentor for years.

In his remarks, Price reminisced about his longtime fondness for Sethi, and both men referenced Price’s personal ties to the city — chiefly, that his only son went to Vanderbilt University and still lives in the city. Price also owns a condominium in Nashville valued at more than $150,000, according to county records.

Price’s agenda in Nashville, which was planned just days in advance and came as Senate Republicans were trying to pass a bill repealing major parts of Obamacare, was also lightly scheduled, say individuals with knowledge of Price’s travels. Price spent less than 90 minutes combined between his two scheduled events — about an hour touring the Dispensary of Hope medication dispensary in the morning, and about 20 minutes giving his speech at the Healthy Tennessee Summit in the afternoon

Dept. of Safety returning $112K in misspent fed forfeiture funds

The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security had $112,614 in inappropriate spending on food and catering that it received from federal forfeiture funds, according to a U.S. Department of Justice audit. Department officials say they will  reimburse the federal government for the questioned expenditures.

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Most TNGOP congressmen vote no on debt ceiling/disaster relief

Most Republicans in Tennessee’s congressional delegation voted against a bill that raises the national debt ceiling and provides $15 billion in hurricane Harvey disaster relief — legislation finalized after President Donald Trump reached an agreement with Democratic congressional leaders.

The bill was approved 80-17 in the Senate on Thursday with Sen. Lamar Alexander voting yes and Sen. Bob Corker voting no.

The House approved the bill today on a 316-90 vote. Tennessee’s two Democratic representatives, Steve Cohen of Memphis and Jim Cooper of Nashville, both voted yes. So did two East Tennessee Republicans – Reps. Phil Roe of Johnson City and Chuck Fleischmann of Chattanooga.

But five Tennessee Republicans voted no. They were Reps. Diane Black of Gallatin, Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood, Scott DesJarlais of South Pittsburg, John J. “Jimmy” Duncan Jr. of Knoxville and David Kustoff of Memphis.

In response to an inquiry, a Corker spokeswoman emailed this comment on his vote:

“We continue to kick the can down the road on our fiscal issues instead of changing the trajectory of spending,” said Corker. “This bill added $7.4 billion in Community Development Block Grant money that the president did not even request that should have gone through the normal appropriations process.”

Note: A Washington Post overview story (one of many in national media) is HERE. The Senate roll call vote is HERE and the House roll call vote HERE.

McPeak pushes continued fed subsidies to U.S. senators

Tennessee Insurance Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak urged Congress on Wednesday to continue federal cost-sharing payments to insurers, arguing the subsidies are the key to strengthening insurance markets and potentially bringing down costs next year.

Further from Michael  Collins’ report:

Appearing before a Senate panel, McPeak insisted the payments should not be seen as an “insurer bailout.”

To the contrary, she said, cost-sharing funding “ensures that some of our most vulnerable consumers receive assistance for copays and deductibles that are required to be paid under federal law.”

McPeak’s testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee came during the first of four hearings focused on strengthening the individual health insurance market after the collapse of the GOP’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the panel, said he hopes lawmakers will reach a consensus by the end of next week and approve bipartisan legislation by the end of the month to stabilize the individual health insurance market and guarantee that affordable coverage is available for those who want it.

Note: Gov. Bill Haslam speaks to the panel today.