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Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / Tennessee's 60-year-old Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute in Chattanooga could be in store for a $276.5 million rebuild thanks to American Rescue Plan dollars under a proposal from Gov. Bill Lee's administration.

Why throw good money after bad?

Our governor and lawmakers always wave away questions about tax money by bragging that Tennessee has no income tax, a revenue surplus and a low cost of living. That's all nice, but it doesn't mean Gov. Bill Lee and the state's supermajority Republican General Assembly aren't throwing away cash like drunken sailors.

Take for instance Lee's new proposal for a $276.52 million "rebuild" for Chattanooga's Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute, the states's 60-year-old, poorly built, poorly sited psychiatric hospital that serves 52 of Tennessee's 95 counties.

Lee wants to use a little over 7% of the state's $3.88 billion share of federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars to fund the mental hospital's renovation project that would increase its 165 beds only to 200 beds. It also would increase space to conduct assessments of patients — a concern of some of our lawmakers in the wake of COVID-19.

We've no dispute over spending a portion of this money on mental health care. Certainly we need more, not sparing, mental health care — especially for those with no insurance or those whose insurance won't get them treatment at the region's private institutions. Most of the 2,424 patients who received care at Moccasin Bend during fiscal 2021 were there in part because they have inadequate or no insurance. In other words, they are TennCare patients and the state and federal government reimbursement for their care is low.

But we don't need to throw good money after bad at this particular facility — a largely brick and concrete block hospital that was targeted for closure in a master plan by Gov. Ned McWherter's administration in the early 1990s. A decade later it was on the chopping block of the Sundquist administration. Another decade later, it was downsized by forced budget cuts during the Bredesen administration. And in 2011, the Haslem administration again seemed to indicate it might be shut down — long about now.

During all those years, the unofficial plan was that the mental health hospital — which sits on about 105 acres that it mostly does not use — would be relocated or its patients would be moved to private behavioral health facilities and the land transferred to the National Park Service to expand the Moccasin Bend National Archeological District.

That still needs to be the plan — the official plan. Either move the hospital and build it back well this time. Or better still, find a way for the state to partner with the several private mental health facilities locally. Use the American Rescue Plan dollars to pay for more and better care, not for more bricks and mortar.

 

Why enrich attorneys for pride?

We taxpayers spent $249,000 of our hard-earned dollars paying legal fees this year that the state didn't have to incur.

Just this month, the state agreed — was forced, actually — to pay attorneys for abortion providers $249,999 to cover attorney fees after Gov. Lee took unfair advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020 to try banning abortions.

Lee's Executive Order 25 suspended most surgical abortions and all other elective medical procedures, in part Lee said at the time, to conserve personal protective equipment. The order was challenged in court days later by abortion providers, who argued abortions are time-critical health procedures and the unconstitutional order resulted in chaos.

The state lost. Twice. A Nashville federal judge issued a preliminary injunction, barring Lee's order from applying to abortions. State attorneys appealed and also lost that case. While litigation was ongoing, the time-limited executive order quietly ended, expiring on April 30 of last year.

A quarter of a million dollars — gone thanks to grandstanding.

Look for another money drain soon

It wasn't the only time right-wing grandstanding has cost us, and we can likely look forward to being stuck paying for Tennessee politicians' pandering again — and probably soon.

Records obtained by The Associated Press indicate that Gov. Lee's office warned lawmakers, not once but at least twice, that their omnibus COVID-19 mandates against preventive restrictions would violate federal law that protects people with disabilities and put the state at risk of losing federal funds.

But no one listened.

The GOP-controlled Legislature ignored the advice and passed the bill anyway. Less than two weeks later, Lee ignored the advice and signed the shameful legislation into law. This law, too, was quickly challenged in court.

Lee, who is running for re-election next year, has since said there are still "some issues we need to work through." He mentioned concerns about how the law changes hospital visitation rules and what it may mean for the state's ability to control its own workplace regulation going forward, but he has said nothing publicly about compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

When the AP asked why Lee enacted the legislation anyway, governor's spokesman Casey Black responded in an email: "On balance, the bill is a response to the federal government's vast overreach."

So, just to appear to be a strong opponent of President Joe Biden and his common-sense COVID prevention moves, our governor will deliberately put us on the hook not just for more virus exposure, but also for our tax dollars?

What's wrong with this recurring picture?

How Tennessee is spending our money needs far more scrutiny than it is getting.

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