Gov. Haslam holds firm on his limited voucher plan

Gov. Haslam holds firm on his limited voucher plan

March 26th, 2013 by Andy Sher in News

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE -- Gov. Bill Haslam said he is holding firm to his proposed limited school-voucher plan and put fellow Republicans in the Senate on notice Monday that if they want to go beyond that, "they should run their own bill."

Haslam also told reporters he expects to make his final decision soon on whether to recommend Tennessee expand its Medicaid program, TennCare, to an estimated 181,000 low-income people under the federal Affordable Care Act.

And on another health care front, Haslam voiced strong concerns about a bill moving in the House that would bar state-licensed insurers such as Chattanooga-based BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee from participating in the federally run health insurance exchanges under Obamacare.

Haslam said his voucher plan is the result of recommendations from a yearlong task force, headed by Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman.

"It's not like we're people who say it's just our way or the highway, the Legislature shouldn't have input," Haslam said. "But on this issue we really have worked hard to say this is where we really think the right place is. ... We think if somebody thinks something different, they should run their own bill."

Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, of Blountville, said last week he wants vouchers expanded beyond the limited program Haslam is offering.

Haslam has said his bill is intended to see how vouchers would work. He proposes allowing 5,000 low-income students from the bottom 5 percent of public schools to participate in its first year.

"So far I haven't seen anything that makes me think that what we're proposing isn't the right answer for Tennessee," he said.

Senate Republicans want more students to be able to use taxpayer funding to attend private schools and are pressing to raise the family income level for those eligible to $75,000 annually.

OTHER LEGISLATIVE ISSUES

Haslam also said he has concerns about a bill that would ban state-licensed insurance companies from offering insurance products in the federally operated health insurance exchange set to start next year.

Several Republicans are pushing the bill, saying it is the "Achilles' heel" of the federal Affordable Care Act.

"One is we would be limiting Tennessee companies, which really doesn't make sense. Second, we think that would cost us, the state, some money. Having the exchanges set up allows us to do away with some programs we currently have in place," Haslam said.

"We think there could be a fiscal note that would be in the eight-digit range to do that," he said.

That would mean it could cost the state at least $10 million and as high as $99 million annually.

The House Insurance and Banking Subcommittee last week approved the bill by Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, on a 6-2 vote.

Insurers say the plan won't block the exchanges and would instead hurt Tennessee-based companies such as BlueCross.

As for the Medicaid expansion, the governor said he expects to reach a decision this week on whether to recommend pursuing the proposal.

"We literally still are in the middle of a lot of last-minute discussions with a lot of people," he said. "I just think it's prudent to make certain that we know as much as we can before we come to that decision."

Later this week, a Republican-backed bill is coming up in a Senate committee that would block the expansion of Medicaid to what the state projects would be 180,000 low-income Tennesseans.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfree press.com or 615-255-0550.