Tennessee lawmakers kick into election-year session

January 9, 2018

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, presides over the House on the opening day of the legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers gaveled in Tuesday for a legislative session colored by the year’s upcoming elections, and the conversation in the Republican-led House turned into a spat over health care.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh was the first of several Democrats to call for the revival of a 2015 Medicaid expansion proposal under former President Barack Obama’s health care law that failed in the legislature, despite Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s backing. The governor has no plan to revive the proposal, said Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals.

Republicans were quick to call the speeches a political stunt. Legislative leaders and Haslam say opioid abuse will be the main focus of the monthslong session as the pressing issue has broad support heading into state elections for governor. All 99 House seats and 17 of 33 Senate seats will be up for grabs in November.

As pro-Medicaid expansion demonstrators crammed into the Capitol lobby, Democrats pointed to the planned closure of the Decatur County Hospital, where the county commission has said Medicaid expansion would mean hospitals would lose less money because there would be fewer uninsured patients who can’t pay their own way.

“Our governor has proposed Insure Tennessee, and for political reasons, it did not move very far. But those political reasons are gone now,” said Fitzhugh, a Ripley Democrat who is running for governor.

House Majority Leader Glen Casada, a Franklin Republican, said Fitzhugh sounded like he was on the campaign trail. He said Republicans were proud to vote down the measure in 2015 because expanding the government program isn’t the answer. Lower patient populations have been the main driver of rural hospital closures, Casada added.

“I appreciate the gubernatorial speech you gave. It is greatly appreciated,” Casada told Fitzhugh. “And if I was a Democrat, I would vote for you. But I’m not.”

Fitzhugh is joined in the gubernatorial race by House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville in a field of five major Republicans and two Democrats looking to succeed Haslam, who is term-limited.

Haslam hasn’t release his slate of bills yet. But Casada said one of the governor’s bills seeks to offer some type of incentive or reward for community colleges, technical schools, and four-year institutions that graduate students at a higher percentage rate.

The legislation is part of Haslam’s ‘Drive to 55’ initiative, which aims to boost the rate of higher education degrees or certificates among Tennesseans from the current 38 percent to 55 percent by 2025.

The Senate opened more amicably Monday, as Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, was sworn into office after a narrow special election win.

Election-minded lawmakers can’t raise campaign funds during the session, so they have incentive to finish quickly. The candidate filing deadline is April 5 and the primary is Aug. 2.

During a caucus meeting before floor sessions began Tuesday, House Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams told his party peers of a branding plan with a new logo, videos and others components. The Cookeville Republican said he is using his campaign funds to hire a firm for the effort.

Williams noted the room for improvement after he cited the party’s recent high-profile losses in Alabama and Virginia.

“As the House Republican Caucus, one of the things that I think we have not done a very good job of sometimes is touting the accomplishments that Republicans have done in some kind of statewide branding role that we all use,” Williams said.

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