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VOL. 131 | NO. 255 | Friday, December 23, 2016


Sam Stockard

Karen Camper Crosses Aisle to Tackle State’s Most Pressing Issues


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Editor’s note: This is part two of Nashville correspondent Sam Stockard’s feature on Memphis state Rep. Karen Camper. Read part one in the Thursday, Dec. 22, edition of The Daily News or online at memphisdailynews.com.

State Rep. Karen Camper, the Memphis Democrat from Whitehaven, has been learning to work with majority Republicans and is growing her influence in the state Legislature.

Camper won selection this year as an executive member at-large of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, a post she is honored to take considering the organization was founded by the late Memphis Rep. Lois DeBerry. She also was reelected treasurer of the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus and is a key voice in the Legislature’s Black Caucus, a group she says she believes can make a “greater impact.”

“I think we’re poised to do that now,” she says.

Black legislators make up more than half of the Democratic Caucus and are gaining leadership positions, which means, she says, they can be “at the table” when policy is being formed.

“The opportunity is great. A lot of our members have great relationships here,” she adds.

“We have people we have served with, came in with, on both sides of the aisle. They’ve been friends with (them) forever, they understand them, they can get in a room and talk to them and make them see things their way.”

One area of focus is economic development and making sure minority-owned and black-owned businesses gain access to government contracts, Camper says. Out of a $33 billion budget, those types of businesses get an $87 million piece of the pie.

“That’s not a lot,” she says. “We’ve definitely got to move the needle on that.”

The governor’s Office of Diversity may have optimistic goals, but nothing is mandated and “there’s no real aggressive push to make sure they meet the goal,” Camper explains.

Criminal justice will be another focal point in 2017, and Camper is working to realign juvenile justice in Tennessee.

Initially, she thought it needed its own department and commissioner because juvenile justice is a sub-department within the Department of Children’s Services.

In taking on realignment, she discovered juvenile justice is “very decentralized” with no one agency pulling it all together, but rather than try to create a new department, she is working toward more cohesion to reduce expenses.

Housing violent offenders costs an average of about $100,000 annually across Tennessee, and in Memphis, it rises to about $125,000, according to information that came out of hearings over the summer. The extra care and protections put in place for juveniles makes those costs rise, she says.

“Some over here know what’s going on and others don’t,” Camper says.

Better coordination between agencies is a necessity if the state is to become more efficient and extend justice to juveniles, she points out.

As a member of House Speaker Beth Harwell’s 3-Star Healthy Task Force, Camper remains optimistic the state will be able to expand TennCare, its Medicaid program, to serve the uninsured and underinsured.

With President-elect Donald Trump set to take office in January, uncertainty surrounds any measures regarding state insurance programs. But she says the 3-Star Healthy effort isn’t floating in la-la land.

“I’m still optimistic. I’m still hopeful. I know there’s a lot of concern about the fact that now we have someone of a different party coming in at the White House level. I just don’t believe it’s going to be rescinded,” she says, “I think because there are a lot of people, here again, regardless of party, that’s benefiting from the Affordable Care Act.

“Now, there may be some things we can do different. There may be some compromises we could make. I personally think Tennessee, with TennCare, was really the model for what other states are doing.”

Led by state Rep. Cameron Sexton, a Crossville Republican, the 3-Star Healthy initiative is an effort to come up with an alternative to Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal, which never garnered enough support to come to a floor vote in the Senate or House.

So far, 3-Star is a pilot plan projected to serve tens of thousands of people suffering from behavioral health problems in its first year and then catch the rest of those in a gap between TennCare and Affordable Care Act subsidies.

Nobody knows where it’s heading, Sexton says, but he hopes to gain more direction from the federal government by February or early March as the committee continues to work on a broad approach.

Nevertheless, Camper will play a role in guiding the state’s response.

“Karen is a common-sense legislator that looks at the issue and tries to work toward some type of solution,” Sexton says. “She understands the most complex issues that we face, and she’s always been more than willing to work with anybody to come up with a solution that will benefit all of Tennessee.”

No doubt, dealing with matters such as state-sponsored health insurance and juvenile justice will take a good dose of bipartisan cooperation, the hallmark of Camper’s legislative career.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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