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Front Page - Friday, February 7, 2020

TANF, health care reform top Sexton’s agenda




Cameron Sexton, Tennessee’s speaker of the house, is a Republican from Crossville. He represents Cumberland, Putnam and Van Buren counties. - Photo by Michelle Morrow | Hamilton County Herald

When Cameron Sexton and Tennessee’s other Republican House members adjourned in May, they probably couldn’t foresee how the raucous drama of that legislative session would dog them through the summer.

The House had helped the newly elected Republican governor, Bill Lee, achieve major legislative goals such as authorization to seek federal block grants for the state’s Medicaid program, TennCare and implement a school-voucher type of program to help income-eligible families in Nashville and Memphis move their kids from public to private school.

Veteran Williamson Republican Rep. Glen Casada, who started the 2019 session with wide party support as House speaker, had successfully pushed these two historic bills as well as other conservative measures through the House. But just weeks after the session ended, Casada would lose a vote of confidence by a decisive margin of his fellow GOP lawmakers. The no-confidence vote followed news reports of text messages with derogatory remarks about women and discontent over his arm-twisting leadership style.

After the no-confidence vote, Casada said he’d step down as speaker in August, but would remain in the legislature. Gov. Bill Lee called an August special session of the legislature to choose a new speaker, and Republicans gathered in July to make their party’s choice for speaker. Ahead of that meeting, six House members, including Sexton, signaled their interest in the speakership. Sexton became his fellow Republicans’ choice July 23 and officially became speaker the following month.

Sexton, 49, lives in Crossville and represents Cumberland, Van Buren and part of Putnam County. He has served in the legislature since 2011, after successfully challenging the Republican incumbent state representative in the 2010 primary and then winning the general election with 67% of the vote. In four succeeding elections, he has won by greater margins.

Before becoming speaker, Sexton was the House caucus chairman for the Republican majority. Most of the bills he introduced last year were related to health care, including hospitals, pharmacy benefit management, TennCare and opioids.

Sexton spoke with Ledger contributor Kathy Carlson to talk about the current legislative session, his leadership style and issues he considers important to the state. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you talk about major legislative issues this year?

“We still have the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) working group out, so they’re going to give us some recommendations in early February about a direction to try to go. We’re looking forward to that.

“Second, health care reforms: There’s telemedicine, CON modernization again (a certificate of need is a formal permission from the state to establish or change in health care facilities or services at a given location), and then, potentially, transparency in costs, as well.

“Education: It’s a discussion we started having recently, which was childhood literacy rates and how to improve them.

“We’re waiting for the governor’s criminal justice package.

“We’re also looking at the truth-in-sentencing type of guidelines; we’re trying to think about moving the state in that direction.’’

Does transparency in costs relate to no-surprise billing for medical care?

“That could be a part of it … balanced billing is what it’s called. Also, other states have put into place a database for the top 200 procedures. We’re looking at trying to do that as well, where you can go online and look up an MRI on the right knee in your ZIP code.

“New Hampshire has such a program.

… I think (the procedure database) would be designed in such a way that you wouldn’t have a lot of graphics and wouldn’t need a lot of bandwidth. Nowadays, with people having cellphones, it opens up a whole new world (for obtaining information).

“You don’t have to be at a computer desk to access information. … There are some spots (in Tennessee) where you don’t have cellphone coverage, (but) for the most part, between cellphones and the internet, hopefully it would cover almost the entire state.’’

Does the childhood literacy part relate to reading levels of children in third grade?

“I think roughly 33% (of public school third-graders in Tennessee) read at a grade-proficient level. Really, it’s about bringing focus to (childhood literacy) … focus, resources and time.

“If you can’t read or if you can’t write it’s hard to do science and math and social studies. We’re really trying to refocus on those K-3 grades, which are really the very foundational grades.

“We’re also focusing on how to get more Level 4 and 5 teachers [those receiving the highest performance ratings on a 1-5 scale] to teach in the K-3 grades. K-3 and eighth grade are the building blocks as (children) go through school.

“I’m in Leadership Tennessee. We hear from a lot of school systems (and that some school systems place lower-performing teachers in early grades). It creates a very detrimental situation. (The question is) how can you get the best teachers into the most critical grades.’’

Any more information about criminal justice reform?

“(Regarding the governor’s package of proposals), we’re in the wait-and-see mentality; we’re hoping sooner rather than later.’’

Can you talk about your connections with Knoxville?

“I wasn’t born in Knoxville but I was raised in West Knoxville and went to Bluegrass Elementary School, all the way through the Farragut system, then went to Oak Ridge High School and I’m a UT graduate. My parents and brother still live in Knoxville.’’

Do you hear from people in Knoxville, in your role as House speaker?

“I get some questions (as speaker) from people in Knoxville, but I try to work through our members in the delegations in those areas, to let them be a sounding board for me.

“In Knoxville there were some BEP formula (Basic Education Formula) concerns last year. …

“There was a recent story with Blue Cross Blue Shield’s specialty pharmacy mandate that they just passed. (Some hospitals) were not happy with that. We’re trying to work on that issue as well.’’

How about your working relationships with Gov. Bill Lee and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, especially relating to immigration?

“Lieutenant Governor McNally has known me since I was 16 years old, so it’s been an honor and a privilege to work with him when I came into the General Assembly. It’s been indescribable to work alongside of him with being the speaker. … We have a long relationship together, which helps.

“With Gov. Lee – we’re still working on a relationship. I haven’t known him but a year now, a year and a half.

“My philosophy is, I’m not one that if I disagree with you on an issue, I’m going to automatically disagree with you the next time. I’m not going to hold that, right? … One doesn’t influence the other.

“The lieutenant governor and I issued a statement that we wouldn’t have done the refugee resettlement. [In December, Gov. Lee said the state will work with the Trump administration to resettle in Tennessee refugees who meet federal vetting criteria.] We would have hit the pause button. At the best of times you’re not always going to agree with your family.’’

How many immigrants/refugees are there in Tennessee?

“We don’t know. … When the refugees come in to America, they automatically get issued a Social Security card. It’s very hard to determine how many we have, how many are here, how many are on government assistance, how many who have kids in schools, what that cost looks like.

“With the Social Security numbers like everyone else’s, they blend in. … You don’t really know (how many refugees are here).

“We’re trying to see if we can collect data points, not to discriminate, but to allow us to know the numbers and what the cost is … (to) just have a better idea (of where refugees are living and what it means to state government).

“(Over time and as national political leadership changes) the number of refugees may increase or decrease; (federal) vetting procedures may change. We need to have a certain process and procedure in the state level where we know what’s going on.

“President Trump’s or any president’s job is to protect America. Our job here in Tennessee is to protect Tennesseans as well.

“We watched what happened in Europe, in Paris, with the Syrian refugees, and we don’t want to go make the same mistake because even though it’s a legal process to get here, there are bad people who try to get in legally through that process and it only takes one. So you need to urge a little bit of caution as we move down that road.’’

Are you working with other states on refugee resettlement?

“We haven’t yet. There’s various pieces of legislation that are going to be filed this year, a resolution and two, three, four bills dealing with refugee resettlement. We’re going to wait and take a look at it and see what happens.’’

Do you anticipate any further legislation on same-sex couples adopting children?

“… It seems like (the bill on adoption agencies, religious beliefs and same-sex adoptive parents) kind of mirrored the Christian counseling bill that we did a few years prior that is based on religious liberties and beliefs. It’s not saying … (to) that segment of society that you can’t adopt. It says that if you’re an adoption agency you don’t have to go against your religious beliefs or faith.

“(The agencies) can refer (same-sex couples) to somebody else who can help them. You’re not turning people away but you’re also allowing people because of their religion (to do what reflects their religious beliefs).’’

How did you get into politics?

“One of the things I’ve said since becoming speaker: Every (House) member is elected by their community. Roughly 65,000 people makes up their district. They’re elected by their communities to come up here and represent their interests, to have voice for their districts, and whether we agree or disagree with them on issues or whether they’re in the same or a different party you have to respect that the voters sent them there to be their representatives. Therefore, we need to make sure that every voice is heard.

“One of the reasons I ran is that locals in the district came to me and said they didn’t feel like their voices were being heard anymore. So I’m trying to stay true to how I got in the race, but also giving respect to other elected officials, even who you disagree with, to be able to represent their communities that they’re here to serve.’’

What concerns did the people have who urged you to run?

“They felt like they weren’t being listened to, just didn’t feel like their opinions didn’t matter anymore. It was local elected officials, members of the party, just members of the community.’’

What do you hear the most from your constituents?

“At least half of my bills – and we carry 15 a year (in the House) – always came from the community. That’s one of the things I’ve loved about campaigning. The best ideas don’t come from me; they come from the people who live here.

“The first legislation I ran (started with) Vietnam veterans (who) had a tent on the courthouse lawn in Crossville. They said, why doesn’t the flag at the Tennessee Capitol fly at half-staff when a Tennessean soldier dies?

“We started researching and guess what, it was only for the National Guard. (His first bill changed that, to recognize all members of the armed services killed in the line of duty.)

“I’ve worked on a lot of water utility issues, a lot of veteran’s issues. A few years ago we worked on wind turbine issues. It was coming on the ridge and we wanted to protect property owners’ rights, set the right balance (among individual property owners and their neighbors).’’