published Sunday, January 12th, 2014

Tough questions loom for General Assembly: TennCare expansion foremost among the issues

Maintenance mechanic Chad Langdon, left, takes down and cleans the chandeliers in the House chamber at the Tennessee state Capitol with the help of worker Skip Hicks last week in Nashville.
Maintenance mechanic Chad Langdon, left, takes down and cleans the chandeliers in the House chamber at the Tennessee state Capitol with the help of worker Skip Hicks last week in Nashville.
Photo by The Tennessean /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Poll
Should TennCare be expanded?

The Tennessee General Assembly reconvenes Tuesday for what is expected to be a breakneck session, one that Republican leaders hope will bring resolution to some of the most difficult questions lawmakers have grappled with in recent years.

GOP leaders hope to settle the perennial debate over whether to let grocery stores sell wine. They are expected to confront bills on health care and education that hold the clear potential to divide the wide Republican coalition.

The leaders, at least, hope to avoid one usual-suspect subject -- that of where Tennessee gun owners should be allowed to take their weapons. But they will be forced to take on a state budget in which tax revenues have failed to meet expectations.

With elections on the horizon, lawmakers are expected to finish their work quickly so they can return to their districts to campaign. But bills that would require a prescription for pseudoephedrine, set a state minimum wage and reorganize the state's process of reviewing textbooks could complicate those plans.

Perhaps the biggest issue facing Gov. Bill Haslam and state leaders is whether to expand TennCare, the state's Medicaid program. Haslam has delayed a decision on expansion, citing its potential to become a drag on the state's budget.

He has said he prefers to develop a "Tennessee plan" in which the estimated 175,000 Tennesseans who could become eligible if TennCare were expanded would receive coverage similar to private insurance. But he remains caught between federal officials' skepticism toward such an approach and Republican lawmakers' opposition to expansion.

Hospitals have blamed recent job cuts in part on the decision to delay expansion. They say rural hospitals will be forced to curtail services or shut down unless TennCare is expanded. But Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and others say the state should stand down to avoid taking on a huge new obligation for its taxpayers.

"I understand the humanitarian part, that you want more people to have health care coverage," Ramsey said. "We're doing the right thing."

Democrats have made clear that they do not plan to let the issue fade from public consciousness during the legislative session.

"There are some serious issues out there in Tennessee right now, Medicaid expansion probably being the most important one," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, who represents Old Hickory. "If we don't really push it hard, I doubt they'll address it."

Several debates over education are expected to resume in a big way this year. House Speaker Beth Harwell still supports a bill that would give state authorities the final word on charter school applications. Haslam is expected to put forward a bill that would create a limited school-voucher program. And raucous fights could develop over Common Core, a nationwide initiative to raise learning standards in public schools, as well as textbook reviews.

Gun rights advocates still hold the potential to create controversy. Last year, the legislature passed a bill that said workers with handgun carry permits cannot face prosecution if they bring their weapons to work with them, provided they keep their guns locked up in their cars.

But over the summer, the state's attorney general issued an opinion stating that the law does not prevent employers from firing workers for violating their gun policies. That has prompted calls for a second law protecting workers from retaliation.

On the lighter side, GOP leaders have voiced optimism that the legislature can pass a bill that would let local governments hold referendums on allowing the sale of wine in grocery stores in their jurisdictions.

The issue is popular with voters, but Democrats say it reflects backward priorities on the part of Republican lawmakers. With growth still slow and unemployment high in Tennessee, they say lawmakers instead should debate some of their proposals, which include creating the state's first minimum wage law, separate from the $7.25-an-hour federal standard, and tax credits for small businesses.

"People are still out of work," said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley. "We still think that jobs are important, education is important, people are important."

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