Sexton agenda as House speaker includes health care, sentencing, early childhood reading

Rep. Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) speaks to the House Republican Caucus after winning their nomination for speaker on July 24, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

New Speaker Cameron Sexton gave a wide-ranging speech to the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce last week, outlining his agenda as he takes the reins of the Tennessee House of Representatives. The Crossville Republican took aim at health insurance companies for acting like “big brother” by blocking information about taxpayer-funded services and for having “absolute control over the marketplace.” He also called for stronger truth-in-sentencing laws, better funding for early childhood reading programs, and a long-term approach to spending Temporary Assistance for Needy Families reserves.

Sexton speech was in contrast to his predecessor, Glen Casada, who often appeared more driven by political considerations than political ones. Sexton also placed several stakes in the ground that could end up being at odds with the plans of Republican Gov. Bill Lee as he heads into his second session.

Here is a transcript of Sexton’s speech:

It’s great to be here this morning and see so many familiar faces as we look forward to what next week may bring. One of the question and I usually I get all the time is ‘When do you think we’re going to get out?’ I get 50 variations of the question because I usually won’t answer it, and they say, ‘Well, you know I’m planning and trip and it’s looking like this date.’ And my question back to them is: ‘well, is it refundable?’ We make no promises, but we’re hoping to have a very good session, a very productive session, and we’re hoping to announce in the coming couple days or week some processes and changes we’re making to hopefully make it more efficient and flow a little bit better.

I’d like to start out the day by saying, isn’t Tennessee doing great? The Tennessee Vols won the Gator Bowl and the Tennessee Titans beat the Patriots. And oh yeah, we have a pretty good economy in the state of Tennessee as well. But one of the things I have learned is it doesn’t really matter what’s going on, if the Tennessee Titans and Tennessee Vols are doing well, Tennessee is happy, so everything looks pretty good in the state and as long as we keep that going, we’re going to do very good. So everything looks like it’s settling in right into place four months into my speakership. Tennessee’s happy, so I’m happy.

But it’s an honor to be here today, and I very much appreciate this opportunity to speak with you. Back in 1994 – I know some of you know this and some you may not – I worked on my first political campaign after graduating from the University of Tennessee. It was a state Senate race and I worked for a great candidate, although have we ever really met anyone who says they hadn’t worked for a candidate – everybody’s candidate is great. But I can tell you this candidate was really, really good. And if you fast forward 26 years to today, I have this opportunity to lead the House, and I’m very fortunate to have this opportunity, but I do beside that very same state Senator I worked for in 1994, Lt. Governor Randy McNally, as he is preparing to lead the Senate, and I look forward to the partnership with him as we continue to move Tennessee forward.

We have been very fortunate as a state to have had many great leaders who have laid a solid foundation for us, and each one has passed the torch to the next person and everyone has taken it and continued to move. And now it’s is in our hands and we have to fill the purpose and the destiny that they helped us get to. 

But I don’t want to just hold serve, I don’t want to take a knee, and I sure don’t want to run out the clock. I believe we are tasked to accept it and make it shine brighter for all Tennesseans. Because isn’t that what America’s greatest generation did for us many years ago when they sacrificed and made things better for us?

Rep. Cameron Sexton presides over his first session as House speaker on Aug. 23, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

By working together over the last decade, as you look around there’s evidence that Tennessee is doing good. In fact, there are some that would say Tennessee is looking very good. You have historically low unemployment, we’re a low-debt state. Incomes are rising, we’re the fastest in the Southeast and we’ve been ranked the most stable state in America for our financial house. So our house is  stable, it’s in order and our economic touch is shining really, really bright in the state of Tennessee.

But the questions is: Is it shining bright in all areas of the state of Tennessee? Some would say the light looks good enough or maybe it’s even bright enough on some days, but on some days it may be flickering and some days it may be dim. But I want our torch to shine brightly as it does for our economy in other areas of our state like  healthcare, education, public safety, and self-reliance. 

A mentor of mine used to say, make today better than yesterday, and tomorrow better than today. In essence what they were saying was have the light shine bright every single day. The question is, what will it take? Well, it will take a very disciplined approach, a true realization that government is not the sole solution to all that ails us, and a long-term vision of where we want to go. We should challenge the current system and never settle for being just good enough. Our shared vision in this year and years ahead should focus on a Tennessee that’s great for all citizens. Great schools, great jobs, great infrastructure, and great  healthcare are essential to our overall success.

Not all communities and not all citizens are thriving in our state. For them, the torch is dimmer. Whether you live in an economically distressed county, or if you live in the one economic attainment county in our state, we can all agree that Tennesseans still are struggling to overcome certain obstacles that stand in their way of their hopes and their dreams. As we build a very competitive marketplace in the economy that adds jobs, that increases income, controls costs, and fosters innovation, a good paying job is essential for survival. But there are many obstacles getting in the way.

While we let the marketplace work in a few sectors we don’t utilize the same principles that have made us successful in other areas like we do in the economy into the healthcare marketplace.

[Healthcare]

Healthcare costs are escalating much faster than the normal rate of inflation. One of the many reasons in my opinion, is the lack of a free, competitive marketplace. 

Some people don’t think it is possible to have a free, competitive marketplace in  healthcare. I believe we can do it, but we must be disciplined and patient. Cost transparency, improved access, and less government intervention will yield better outcomes and promote affordability. We must strive to create a healthcare system that empowers the patients and the providers, not third-party administrators.

Currently a huge problem is the fact that some of the players are acting and behaving like the ‘Big Brother.’ There really are no checks and balances, and everything or a lot of stuff is considered privileged information – even that information that is funding with taxpayer dollars.

I am against government run healthcare-for-all, but if we think about it, isn’t our healthcare system just like an insurance company monopoly? They have absolute control over the marketplace – they have the insurance plans – they determine the cost, the pricing. I think they actually have more mandates than the government imposes, they own the big PBMs, or pharmacy benefits managers. They own pharmacies, and now they’re branching into the EMS, or emergency management services. Sounds like to me a utopian-type monopoly.

Is it too late to change the direction, to change the course of how we’re going? I don’t think it is. But it’s not a single solution to fixing healthcare. It’s too vast, it’s too complex. And competition is being stifled. Things that have made our economy great are not being utilized in the in the healthcare marketplace, like true competition and open marketplace.

As we try to untangle this monopolistic approach, we can start opening access through telemedicine, which is the gateway to bring specialized healthcare into rural areas, a concept which has been fought tooth-and-nail by the insurance companies for over a decade.

Bringing transparency to the reimbursement disparities for providers, transparency in costs through solutions like a public database, so that patients can compare costs and uncover what the true cost of the procedure is. And transparency of ownership in the healthcare marketplace are essential in transforming healthcare. Removing barriers to competition by modernizing the Certificate of Need process is needed again, and is an essential part of fixing the healthcare system.

Finally, we must also determine what is a basic healthcare claim. There is a lot of debate and I know there is a lot of people in this room where if you ask you will get about 15 different answers about what a basic healthcare claim is. But it’s very hard to move forward when we can’t agree on what’s essential and basic to the patient and what the intended use of it is. This healthcare monopoly wasn’t created overnight, so it will take time an effort to correct by controlling pricing, providing more access, and creating transparency. Together, we can regain and control of the healthcare torch and make it shine brighter for all patients in the state of Tennessee.

As we put our conservative economic principles into the healthcare market, we must continue to focus on the workforce.

Rep. Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) speaks to colleagues before a House Republican Caucus meeting to nominate a new speaker on July 24, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

[Education]

Tomorrow’s workforce starts with solidifying the academic foundations of Tennessee’s current and future generations. We’ve made considerable progress; in the last eight years, we have invested over $1 billion dollars in K-12 education, and we’ve made the largest combined investment in teacher salaries, which is more than at any other point in our state’s history. 

There is no denying the success we have experienced from these investments, and we are seeing transformative results. The motto in Tennessee used to be, ‘Hey, at least we’re not Mississippi, thank God’ when we were talking about education. And now, our children are the fastest improving in the entire nation for math, reading, and science. But we still need more for them. 

Despite these successes, we have experienced a few hiccups on the way, including a lack of uniformity across the state in the reading program, RTI, which is Response to Instruction and Intervention. We only partially fund it, so we put a lot burden back the local education associations.

Additionally, we cannot accept that two-thirds of our students aren’t reading proficiently by the fourth grade. If someone cannot read, how can they write or achieve success in math, science, or social studies?

Our primary focus must be on improving early childhood literacy rates across this state. Every year that we wait, is another year that our students are falling. Let me be very clear – this isn’t falling through the cracks, because that would mean we’re not aware that we have a problem. And we are very aware that we have a problem.

One of the most formative periods in a child’s academic development is between kindergarten and the fourth grade. How can a child move along their education journey and life when they aren’t proficient in reading?

We must have a disciplined focus on K-through-third grade through targeted investments, retaining and incentivizing the best educators to teach in those important and formative grade levels, and fully fund the RTI program and create uniformity through best practices, as well as a mastery of skills that are narrow and deep, instead of wide and shallow. 

I also think it’s important to expand the Imagination Library program from it’s current birth to age 5 model, to a birth to third grade model. We don’t need to stop fostering a love for reading and providing books to students at the time in their life when they want to start to love to read. We also have some great examples of success in public education, whether it’s with public schools or public charter schools.

Recently I was able to visit a public charter school in Memphis called Collegiate. I left there amazed at the success and the results they are having at that school. Collegiate’s average ACT for a senior is 24. In the state of Tennessee, it’s 20. And when you ask, what is the leading factor in that success and that transition, is it discipline, is it parental involvement, is it the Christian-based learning environment, the headmaster, the educators, the combination of all these things? I don’t know the exact answer to that, I think it’s a combination. Bu you can see the tangible results of kids who have a similar demographic background put into a different system with different thoughts and a different process and how they blossom and mature and how the potential has been there all along.

Our goal must be to ensure that every student has the same opportunity for success at all public schools across our state. Solidifying the foundations of our students earlier in their education careers will make the education torch sign brighter for our current and future generations of leaders.

[Mental Health]

As we remain focused on education, we must realize there are issues and struggles with things adverse childhood experiences and mental health within our state. Mental health is a serious issue inside of Tennessee. Over the last few years, we have invested tens of millions of dollars for behavioral issues like mental health and substance abuse. However, we have also followed the national norm by closing mental health hospitals and in-patient facilities, resulting in a shift toward another type of inpatient facility – we just call that place a jail.

This has increased incarceration costs, produced lagging resources, jeopardized safety and provided limited treatment options. Often, our law enforcement officers are having to release someone who is still a threat to themselves and others because there aren’t adequate facilities to transport them to for their conditions.

We should devote more resources and money on the front end – to help people earlier in the process, rather than on the back side through imprisonment and other government run programs.

Our approach has been in my opinion left-side backwards. We need to make mental health and substance abuse a priority – treatment at diagnosis, not after an arrest. Having an innovative telemedicine program will also allow us to better focus on helping this population.

We need to start looking at increasing the number of inpatient facilities, having a thriving, innovative, specialized healthcare marketplace and network, and creating a specialized prison for individuals who are incarcerated with behavioral health issues. It doesn’t make sense for them to receive treatment while in a general population prison with murderers, child molesters, and drug abusers.

Individuals can and will be successful with their disease if they receive the proper treatment earlier. We must remember we have an entire population of able-bodied individuals who can add value to our workforce if we want to focus on the front and not on the back.  

[Sentencing]

As we tackle these issues and others, we must prioritize our responsibility of keeping Tennesseans safe. We are a society of laws and we follow the rule of law. As I have traveled throughout this state in recent months, I have met with law enforcement, district attorneys, public defenders, and our judges. During these meetings, the concepts of truth-in-sentencing and mental health are almost always brought up. The federal sentencing guidelines are clear and concise. However, Tennessee’s are based on percentages, levels of offenders and varying degrees of reductions. We need to better mirror the federal system. 

We can be smart on crime but not at the expense of safer communities. Not at the expense of law enforcement. And not at the expense of our judicial system. Compassion is a great quality – but not if it jeopardizes public safety.

Truth in sentencing laws are designed to hold violent and repeat offenders totally accountable for their actions, reducing the possibility of early release and keeping bad individuals off the streets. 

Truth in sentencing is clear, concise, and very easy to understand. It may cost some additional money and resources, but getting away from the ‘5 means a 2’ to the ‘5 means a 5’ sends a strong message to criminals and an even a stronger message to those who protect and serve us that we stand with them.

[Welfare]

Even though our state has enjoyed an unprecedented 40 consecutive quarters of positive economic growth, we still have Tennesseans who are in need of help – in need of assistance. We have all been in need at some point in our lives – whether we have asked our families for help, our church for help, or sometimes the government for help, there is nothing wrong with needing help, asking for help, or being helpful. We should help. But when government helps, we have to be cautious. Because most of the time, government doesn’t help the solution, it just creates more issues.

The current welfare system has produced obstacles, penalizing citizens for earning money, and creating confusion about resources, whether it’s limited childcare and transportation benefits, which ultimately limits their work ability. All of these taken together can make someone retreat and become even more dependent on public assistance. We need to understand that merely giving money to someone only treats the symptoms, but not the underlying issues.

Helping someone make a house payment is good but it only solves this particular issue for that month. They may need additional help, additional wrap around service, maybe some financial help or wrap-around services. We should look at the whole picture for every citizen that’s in need. 

We can and have a helpful and beneficial and accountable government model that is designed to provide solutions to every individual’s issues, while also ensuring this model doesn’t become their way of life. 

In our current TANF program, we have a great opportunity, because we have the flexibility in the program and with the amount of money in the reserves to truly provide benefits and wrap-around services, which will propel individuals to achieve self-reliance. Lt. Gov. McNally and I created a working group to develop a long-term – not a short term – direction to fundamentally change how we approach government assistance.

By working together, we will find innovative solutions to the obstacles keeping families and single moms from achieving independence. This starts with incentivizing work, understanding unique situations, enhancing workforce development, and meeting their true needs — not just their monetary needs.

[Conclusion]

A fundamental issue that touches upon all these subjects is poverty. Poverty doesn’t discriminate based on age, gender, or location. Poverty has a strong influence on educational success. Healthcare outcomes, prison populations, and a host of other items. We must tackle generational poverty head on. That is our war, as we move forward. That is the common denominator for a lot of issues we are facing in our state.

So as we look at the end of session this year, what does success look like this year? What do we want to achieve this year?

A renewed emphasis on a healthcare system that focuses on the patient. This includes cost transparency, increased competition, and improved access through innovation.

Advancing our efforts to build a public education system that gives all students the same opportunity for success. That strengthens our students’ foundations during their formative years, but also provides resources throughout their academic journeys.

Maintaining law and order by better protecting our families and continuing to build safe neighborhoods all across our state.

Finally, strengthening our local and statewide economies through sound conservative economic policies that have been laid for us over the past decade.

Every single one of us can make a difference, we can all be successful, and we can all help in making this state’s torch the beacon of hope for a better life for themselves and for generations to come. Now is the time to start. Those who came before us have given us a tremendous opportunity to make a difference.  

Four months ago, I asked our General Assembly to answer the cal. Today, I stand before you here asking for you to answer the call, so Tennessee’s torch shines brighter for everyone. Let’s use our freedoms and our collective ideas to build each other up, instead of trying to tear each other down.

We can start by making today better than yesterday and tomorrow better than today – showing, helping and giving citizens the torch of opportunity – or an entrepreneur spirit – is what we should do to allow our state to continue to grow and prosper.

I very greatly appreciate the opportunity to be here today. I’m honored to be the speaker of the House and work along a colleague of mine. And I’m reminded every single day, when I travel our state, how diverse and unique we are. But at the same time, when the time comes, how well we bond together for the common cause to make Tennessee the place that we call home, that we love.

11 Responses to Sexton agenda as House speaker includes health care, sentencing, early childhood reading

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  • James White says:

    State Government is going to continue to teach children not to read. Evidence is the reading ability (or non ability) of Tennessee high school graduates. If they would teach exclusive hard core phonics, then there would not be so many non-illiterate graduates. But the latest federal mandated failure after another will be pushed upon the helpless child.

    • Mark Anderson says:

      You know the government doesn’t actually teach anyone, right? It appropriates money to hire teachers to do it. Teachers who care about their students and want to see them succeed.

      But—according to your logic—we shouldn’t try to fix problems because Gubmint is bad? But if they would only teach “hard core phonics” (not a real thing) it would solve the problem?

      If you know the best way to teach reading, when was the last time you volunteered to tutor young students?

      Do you honestly care, or do you just like to complain?

      • James White says:

        If you volunteer to teach in public school, you will have to do it Their way, Look-Say. Not phonics.
        And yes there is such thing as teaching only phonics and Not Look-Say. But not in gubmint skools.
        Yes I believe that schools should be answerable to the parents and tax payer and that the less government in education, the better for the student.

  • James White says:

    not be so many illiterate graduates

  • Phil Lassiter says:

    What about refugees? Swept under the rug?

    • Lenny says:

      Yep. What about 12 week vacations for state employees and vouchers for illegals? No more checks and balances. Impeach Governor Bill Liberal.

  • Phil Lassiter says:

    Those retirement villages in Cumberland County would make a FANTASTIC place for refugees

  • Stuart I. Anderson says:

    “Sexton’s speech was in contrast to his predecessor Glen Casada, who often appeared more driven by political considerations than political ones.” So that’s the well considered reason why the mainstream media likes Sexton so much better than Glen.

    • Perry Aubric says:

      Actually, they might “like” Sexton better because he does not trade votes for favors, send spies into the halls of the Capitol to eavesdrop on his colleagues, cover up for a cocaine using flunkie, send and guffaw at vulgar texts that objectify women, or misuse his campaign funds. Among other things. Just sayin’.

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