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NASHVILLE — The majority of Tennesseans favoring an expansion of the state's Medicaid program is now 60 percent, but most still don't like the federal law that allows it, according to a new Vanderbilt University poll.
The survey of 813 registered voters also found that Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's job approval rating remains high at 63 percent despite turmoil over his administration's handling of child abuse cases.
Another finding: depending on how the question is asked, Tennesseans are conflicted on the issue of the state being able to collect sales taxes for online purchases. Fifty-five percent called it a bad policy, while 38 percent called it good.
But when asked whether the current system is fair or unfair to local businesses that do have to collect the sales tax, registered voters were evenly split at 47 percent each.
Meanwhile, 35 percent of Tennesseans favor a limited school voucher program.
Thirty-one percent favor a broader, statewide program. And 26 percent oppose allowing parents to use public tax dollars to send their children to private schools.
The nonpartisan survey was conducted from May 6 to May 13 on behalf of Vanderbilt's Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. Its purpose is to see what Tennesseans think of the state's political leaders and a variety of pressing issues. The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 4 percent.
Support for the Medicaid expansion grew from 51 percent to 60 percent between December and May, according to the poll. Those supporting Haslam's decision not to expand the program for now fell from 42 percent to 33 percent.
"The data are compelling and -- in this case -- worth discussing," Vanderbilt political science professor John Geer told reporters at a news conference.
A slender majority of Republicans still oppose the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare, but that's down from Vanderbilt's December survey.
Haslam for now has rejected the Medicaid expansion, which would cover an estimated 181,000 poorer Tennesseans, with the federal government picking up the entire cost the first two years before gradually scaling its share down to 90 percent.
But the governor is trying to work a deal with federal officials in which the state could use the federal money essentially to "buy" lower-income residents on to a federally operated health insurance exchange where they could find private insurance.
Haslam spokesman David Smith said Haslam and state officials continue to talk with federal officials "about the Tennessee Plan, true health care reform specifically tailored for the state."
With regard to pending legislation in Congress on allowing states to require online vendors with no physical presence in the state to collect sales tax on purchases made to Tennesseans, Smith said. "This is a tax already owed, and when it's discussed in the context of being fair to your neighbors with in-state stores, the poll numbers even out."
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., voted for the online sales tax bill when it passed the Senate. Six of the seven GOP U.S. House members from Tennessee remain undecided.
Small wonder given what Tennesseans are saying when they are given more information, Geer said.
"It isn't an easy sell, so part of what politicians need to do from time to time is educate the public," he said. "The instinct of most citizens is to be against taxes, but if you tell them the full context of this there's more support for it."
Approval ratings for Alexander, who faces re-election next year, and Corker were 53 percent. Geer said Alexander's support among self-identified tea party members is higher than Corker's and that could deter serious GOP primary opposition.
The Tennessee General Assembly had a 51 percent approval rating in the poll, based in part on a strong showing of support from Republicans: 61 percent of those answering the survey.
Fewer than half of independents -- 48 percent -- and only 44 percent of Democrats approve of what the GOP-dominated legislature is doing.
Then again, state lawmakers look pretty good compared to Democratic President Barack Obama and Congress. Obama's approval rating is 40 percent, down 5 percent from six months ago. Congress' rating is in the sink with 21 percent approval.
Other findings include:
• Ninety percent support criminal background checks on gun purchases, while 80 percent favor requiring mental health background checks. Mental health checks passed in this year's legislative session.
• Voters' No. 1 priority remains the economy with almost 50 percent citing it. That was followed with 18 percent favoring education and 15 percent on health care.
• About two of three respondents said they supported charter schools.
• Seventy-one percent support armed guards in schools. Only 46 percent favor allowing teachers to go armed. But support for the latter goes up substantially among gun owners.
• Haslam's 63 percent approval rating is down from 68 percent in December. But given the poll's margin of error, Geer and associate political science professor Josh Clinton said that's insignificant. Haslam has the fourth-highest rating among the nation's Republican governors.
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, ...