It was a fascinating prospect, after a hundred years of Democratic dominance of the state Legislature, to watch it change to a Republican majority. After decades of being on the backbench, shut out of power, and regulated to watching from the sidelines, would the Republicans be able to govern? It is one thing to sit on a committee, quite another to chair the committee and be in charge of producing legislation.
Luckily, the Republicans had some veteran legislators who could step up to leadership and the transition has been relatively smooth. House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, with help from some good committee chairs, have much to be proud of in recent years. They cut taxes and still balanced the budget. The state is on an even keel while many other states are reeling from tax increases, budget deficits, and out-of-control pensions.
Unfortunately, the hard work by Republican leaders is often overshadowed by state and national coverage of the Wacko Caucus, a small group determined to embarrass themselves and their colleagues.
But there are some issues coming along this session that will be a real test on whether the Republican majority can govern responsibly or whether a minority of loud members will be allowed to rule. It will also be a test to see if Gov. Bill Haslam will have the courage to step up.
The major issue is whether the state will accept hundreds of millions of dollars in new Medicaid funds so that the working poor can pay medical bills and the hospitals will get a much-needed infusion of cash. Those of us who have health insurance have seen premiums increase because we are paying the bills of those who cannot afford insurance. It’s called cost-shifting. Somebody has to keep the doors of the hospitals open. If people can’t pay their bills, then the system looks around for someone who can. That would be the people who have insurance.
There is certainly some concern about expanding Medicaid. We went through an expansion of TennCare in the 1990s and the costs almost bankrupted the state. But this Medicaid expansion provides 100 percent federal funds for the first three years. It is hundreds of millions of dollars that people with insurance won’t have to fund and it allows the working poor to get coverage.
Yes, the increase in Medicaid money is part of the Affordable Care Act. Yes, it is what Republicans call Obamacare. And yes, I understand that Republican legislators hate President Obama. There is even the idea among Republican legislators and governors around the country that if enough of them refuse to participate, Obamacare will collapse.
I have some news for you: There are states with Democratic majorities that will be happy to step up and take the hundreds of millions of dollars you intend to turn down. If you refuse the money for Tennessee, do you think it won’t be spent somewhere else?
During the health-care debate, the nation’s hospitals agreed to a cut of $155 billion in reimbursements in return for getting the increase in Medicaid money. So do we take the cuts in Tennessee and let some other states get the Medicaid increase?
If you are concerned about the costs in future years, there is a solution. Take the money into a separate pool to be used to pay bills for more Tennesseans and then put in a “sunset” provision. The program would be reevaluated in three years and a decision could be made at that point on whether the state should continue in the program.
If Haslam, Harwell, and Ramsey allow the anti-Obama animus to reject these funds, then you can thank them the next time your Blue Cross premium goes up because you are continuing to subsidize the medical bills of the people who can’t pay.
It’s time for the Republicans to demonstrate that they can govern responsibly instead of reverting to rabble-rousing backbenchers who have nothing to lose. Unlike the previous decades, what you do now has consequences.