‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 19(65)’

People had varying opinions going into the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Some predicted it would be an informative discourse on Insure Tennessee.

But far more people did not think that.

Okay, here’s the rationale behind that camp. Members convened for the purpose of discussing the legal issues surrounding the governor’s health expansion plan. But, at that point, the resolution had not been introduced, and at this point, it’s still unclear whether this committee would even see this measure.

On top of that, Sen. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) had posed several questions to Attorney General Herbert Slatery earlier this month. That list of questions was the only item on the agenda.

Then, one day before the meeting, Slatery issued the opinion on his website. He told me this was an intentional move by his office.

“We felt like it would be a benefit to the members,” Slatery said. “We think the way [the governor’s office] proposed [Insure Tennessee], there’s no legal obstacles to it.”

But the meeting moved forward.

Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), the chairman of the committee, said several things in his opening remarks.

-Kelsey asked his fellow members to discuss legal issues – policies could be debated another time, he said.

-Kelsey voiced his concern that Tennessee taxpayers would be left paying for the plan if the federal government changes the rules involving Insure TN. The feds will fund the pilot program for the first two years, then hospitals have pledged to pick up the tab. Some Republicans have argued it just can’t be that simple.

-Then, Kelsey turned to classic rock.

“I’m concerned that this will be like the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’, where you can check in, but you can never check out,” Kelsey said.

That’s when the sparks started flying – well, as much as sparks can fly in a committee meeting, at least.

Apparently, Sen. Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) thought they were all just prisoners there, but not of their own device.

“Ever since you called me a couple Sunday nights ago and mentioned this meeting, I have been wondering what the purpose of it is,” Overbey said. “And so far, it seems the purpose of it is to advance your opposition to Insure Tennessee.”

Overbey continued:

“Why are we reviewing a member’s request to the Attorney General for an opinion?…We now have it, we have that opinion, which to me, underscores as to why we are having this hearing.”

It should be noted now that Gov. Haslam announced yesterday Overbey will carry the legislation in the Senate.

Kelsey maintained he had legitimate questions about the legal issues. So he called on two experts to testify before members.

The first, Robert Alt, heads the Buckeye Institute, a public policy nonprofit. He previously worked at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Alt called the plan a “bad gamble for Tennessee,” claiming it’s foreseeable the feds would change the matching rates, leaving a tax burden on citizens.

This info seems contrary to what Gov. Haslam’s office is telling us. The state could drop the coverage expansion without hurting existing Medicaid dollars or financial penalty, according to a letter from Sylvia Burwell, the secretary of the Health and Human Services released Tuesday.

The second speaker, Vanderbilt professor James Blumstein, conveyed a milder reservation. He said the choice of discontinuing the program down the road, would be a “painful” decision. The ordeal would involve backing out of an expansion that deals with people’s lives, people’s health insurance. His bottom line to the committee? Wait. Talk to the feds. Learn more about this agreement.

One might argue that the AG opinion answered many of the questions that prompted the meeting in the first place. In general, I genuinely hope people glean something anytime they must sit through a three-hour meeting.

But on Tuesday, even if onlookers didn’t learn anything new after reading the opinion – at least one thing became a bit more clear: the true leanings of their lawmakers when it comes to Insure TN.

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