(This the unedited version of a Sunday column for the News Sentinel. Edited version HERE.)
In commentary last week, Republican legislative leaders basically acknowledged that the proposed Tennessee Health Care Compact is relatively meaningless and inconsequential in the greater scheme of policy things. But that doesn’t mean it won’t pass.
“I don’t think it’s a real issue. It’s not going to happen,” said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga. “Congress is never going to go along with that.”
The compact bill (SB326), which has cleared initial committee hurdles in both the House and Senate, envisions state government taking over all federal health care programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, and all the federal funding involved. About $11.5 billion or so, according to a legislative staff estimate.
And Congress would have to sign off on the idea, happily agreeing to collect all the needed taxes and the political blame that goes with them, then hand it over to states to spend as they wish. Maybe a tad unlikely.
Well, then why spend time and effort on pushing such a thing through the Legislature?
In reply, McCormick observed that there are 99 representatives (64 of them Republicans) and 33 senators (20 of them Republicans) and each has a right to introduce any bill he or she wishes.
“You can’t just tell somebody they can’t have a bill because it’s way out there,” he said.
House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said pretty much the same thing.
“Do I think it will become a reality? Maybe not,” said Ramsey, noting that it still “does make a statement” and serves as a symbolic gesture of discontent with the federal government.
“It’s not a priority for me,” added Ramsey, who earlier in the session joined the bill’s lead sponsor, Republican Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, in a news conference praising and promoting the measure.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson said more than a century ago, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
Along those lines, Republicans have accused Democrats this year of playing political games with a proposed extension and expansion of the “enhanced coverage assessment” pushed by the Tennessee Hospital Association. It’s basically a special fee – proponents insist it’s not a tax — that will be used to draw down $800 million or so in federal money and avoid huge cuts to the TennCare system that would otherwise fall on the state’s hospitals.
Republican Gov Bill Haslam has embraced the not-a-tax assessment this year, just as Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen did last year. Also last year, some Republicans played political games with the not-a-tax assessment.
Ramsey, in fact, voted against the bill when it was being backed by a Democratic governor. Basically, he and a few other Republicans didn’t want to be accused of supporting a tax increase – even though it’s not a tax.
“That was a political vote,” Ramsey acknowledged when questioned about this by reporters after complaining that Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, were “trying to hold this (assessment bill) up for political gain” this year.
Ramsey said he was running for governor at this point last year and, thus, perhaps more in tune with casting political votes. He is not running for governor this year.
But what’s the difference in Kyle using the bill for political gain and him doing the same a year ago?
“One of them’s Jim Kyle and the other one’s me,” he replied, laughing and adding that, this year, he is in tune with the right thing to do.
Bipartisanship does break out on occasion. Say, for example, when Rep. Linda Elam, R-Mount Juliet, presented that would have required all candidates for state, local or federal office to furnish a “long form birth certificate” and other documents to get on the ballot in Tennessee.
Elam, answering a question from said she had “no idea” whether the bill would keep President Obama off Tennessee’s ballot. She said all candidates should be forced to prove they meet the qualifications of office – in the case of a state senator, for example, that he or she is at least 30 years of age.
McCormick expressed surprise to see that he had signed the bill as a cosponsor. Elam said he did so “after I told you it was not a birther bill.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner made the motion to defer the bill until July of 2012, when, of course, the 107th General Assembly will presumably have ended. In other words, the motion killed the bill for the year.
It passed unanimously.