More Haslam recommendations: giving tiny 1.5 percent across-the-board pay raises to state workers with the promise of bigger merit increases to come, squeezing another $20 million out of TennCare with new cuts in benefits, and raising the inheritance tax exemption to $2 million. That latter item will cost the state treasury about $20 million, roughly the same as the food tax cut. So it’s $20 million for a relatively few millionaire heirs and the same amount for everyone else in Tennessee. What could be fairer than that?
Against Democratic criticism, Haslam defended his administration's record of job creation, his stated No. 1 priority. He said 80,000 new jobs have started since 2011, and the state ranks first in the Southeast in manufacturing jobs created in the past year. "That's the good news," he said, "but it doesn't mean we can take our foot off the gas."
The governor also touted his previously announced plan to start the state’s first voucher program, paying for low-income children at the state’s worst public schools to go to private ones.
“If we can help our lowest income students in our lowest performing schools, why would we not do that?” Haslam asked.
Haslam insisted he will resist calls from almost every other Republican in the state to immediately rule out expanding Medicaid to more low-income Tennesseans under the Affordable Care Act. He pointed out the state's hospitals would be harmed financially if Tennessee refuses to expand Medicaid, but didn't mention sick people who would suffer needlessly. He didn't say when he'll decide what to do.
"I am hesitant to commit additional dollars to Medicaid when it's already eating up so much of our budget, and we have to remember what the state went through seven years ago when it made the difficult decision to cut a lot of people from the TennCare rolls," Haslam said. "We have to be very deliberate about making a decision to add that many and more back to the rolls, but I understand that the decision isn't just as easy as standing here today and saying, 'We're not going to expand Medicaid.'"
Now that this speech is over, the fun can start as over the next three months our mighty new Republican supermajority shoves Tennessee even further to the right (if that’s possible) by ramming through a brand new pile of ill-conceived legislation. Already waiting in the hopper are bills to arm schoolteachers, to make it a criminal offense for the feds to enforce any new gun-control laws in this state, and to stop Tennessee from expanding health coverage for citizens under ObamaCare. There’s also our personal favorite: Senate jester Stacey Campfield’s legislation to punish children who don’t do well in school by cutting welfare checks to their mothers.
Lots of GOP leaders and political strategists have urged Republicans to tone down the crazy since November’s election losses. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal went so far as to warn fellow Republicans they "must stop being the stupid party.” In Tennessee, Republicans can't imagine who Jindal was talking about. They mistake their recent electoral dominance over inept Democrats for general public acceptance of right-wing mischief.
At an afternoon caucus meeting, Haslam saluted Senate Republicans and dismissed what he called the developing media storyline for this session, i.e., that Republicans will prove themselves incapable of governing responsibly.
“I mean this sincerely. It’s really good to have you back," the governor said to nervous chuckling in the room. "Some of you are looking at me, like, really? But I’m excited about this session. I personally think that this session will surprise a lot of people in how effective we are. There’s a storyline already being written for this General Assembly, and I think folks in here and other places are going to surprise people with how effective it’s going to be. And I look forward to that.”
We agree with the governor. An effective legislature certainly would come as a big surprise.