published Monday, May 17th, 2010

Ramsey's 'boot' misses the fix for health fund

Audio clip

Gary Odom

NASHVILLE -- Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey states in gubernatorial campaign ads that he won't shrink from giving the federal government "the boot" when necessary.

In the meantime, the Blountville lawmaker and other Senate Republicans are depending on Uncle Sam to foot part of the bill for their alternative to Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen's latest budget proposal.

The Senate Republican plan assumes the Democratic-controlled Congress will approve a six-month extension of federal matching fund rates for Medicaid programs such as TennCare.

If Congress extends the more favorable match rates, Tennessee would received an additional $341 million to address budget issues, according to Bredesen administration estimates. The higher Medicaid matching rates were approved last year as part of the federal stimulus package.

As the General Assembly moves into its final weeks, the Senate GOP budget plan attempts to avoid Gov. Bredesen's proposed tax and fee increases. Their goal would be assisted by using about $120 million of the federal funds to pay for a new Safety Department communications system and driver's license computer system instead of issuing bonds as proposed by Gov. Bredesen.

House Minority Leader Gary Odom, D-Nashville, accused Lt. Gov. Ramsey and Senate Republicans of trying to have it both ways by attacking Washington spending while relying on congressional Democrats to give them more money.

"I consider it hypocrisy, which is nothing new from many of my friends on the other side of the aisle," Rep. Odom said. "They say one thing and do something else. It is a 'terrible program' until you use the proceeds from the program to balance the budget."

Efforts to contact Lt. Gov. Ramsey on Sunday through his campaign were unsuccessful.

In an e-mail campaign fundraising appeal Saturday, the Ramsey campaign stated, "We've launched some new things on our website, including the unveiling of the 'Give 'em the Boot' logo and a plea for 1,000 donors in the next 60 hours."

Lt. Gov. Ramsey said his boot-Washington slogan doesn't extend to federal flood relief efforts for Middle and West Tennessee counties. He made the distinction in an interview with the Kingsport Times News published Sunday.

"I'm talking about things like the (federal) health care plan that will force the state to spend $250 million in taxpayer money," he said. "I'm talking about those unfunded mandates continuously coming down from the federal government, not things that are legitimate functions of government like protecting the national security and helping with catastrophic events like this (flooding)."

Federal flood aid also has been supported by Mr. Ramsey's major GOP gubernatorial rivals, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.

Lt. Gov. Ramsey has criticized Rep. Wamp for his previous support of federal spending, including specially designated funding such as "earmarks."

While Rep. Wamp backs federal flood relief, he said via e-mail that he consistently has opposed the increased federal Medicaid matching funds because congressional Democrats are including them in far larger spending measures that he opposes.

"I have voted against it twice already as part of larger spending packages," the congressman said. "The extenders bill (current legislation) will take us further down the road to bankruptcy as a nation. What happened in Greece will happen to us if we don't reverse this trend."

Almost every Republican in Congress opposed the original federal stimulus bill and more recent comprehensive measures that include the enhanced Medicaid match rates, expected to cost about $25 billion for six months.

Michael Bird, the National Conference of State Legislatures' senior federal affairs counsel, said the U.S. House and U.S. Senate have included funding in different bills. He hopes the House will approve it in a comprehensive bill that may be considered this week.

He said he doesn't expect many -- if any -- Republicans to vote for it. There are problems in the U.S. Senate, too, Mr. Bird said.

Laura Herzog, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., stated in an e-mail that the Federal Medical Assistance Percentages increase was included "in the $787 billion stimulus bill, which wasn't paid for and adds to our out-of-control debt."

Continue reading by following these links to related stories:

Article: State sales taxes grow for first time in 2 years

Article: Williams says political ambitions threaten budget talks

Article: House Democrats push use of reserves for budget

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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