That’s about to change as Haslam weighs putting his popularity at risk on two contentious matters: Should he recommend expanding Medicaid or just say hell no to ObamaCare? And should he stick to his plan to give school vouchers only to low-income students in failing schools, or agree to add many more children—perhaps even some from well-off suburban families?
Both issues could spark ugly fights with conservatives in the legislature, showing whether Haslam means it when he insists he'll do what's right for the state regardless of politics. After speaking to business people at a luncheon today, the governor talked with reporters about some of this:
Q: What are your latest thoughts on Medicaid expansion?
Haslam: We’re going to make the recommendation that we think is the right thing. It’s a complex decision. You have the impact on the state, the impact on people who potentially would be insured, the impact on hospitals. So anybody who thinks this is a no-brainer decision either way, I don’t think has really done the work on it. We’ll have an answer back in a couple of weeks—a recommendation, let me say that.
Q: Do you make it more difficult for yourself politically with the legislature to wait until the end of the session to make your recommendation?
Haslam: I think potentially we do. We want to make sure we’ve done all of our homework. There’s new information that comes out all the time. The easy thing would have been to come out early and say what it is you’re going to do, but we really want to try to get this right.
Q: What about doing it for three years when the federal government is picking up all the cost and then cutting back once the state contributions begin? How much is the Bredesen administration’s experience in cutting the TennCare rolls informing your decision?
Haslam: There’s no doubt that particularly those folks who were around when we cut 150,000 people from the rolls, that’s weighing on a lot of people’s minds. For those folks who say let’s just do it for three years and then if we decide to change our mind when the feds are less than 100 percent, we’ll just do that—I’m not sure those folks understand the difficulty of cutting back the rolls last time we did that.
We still could, but even to do that, you realize there’s some pain involved. A lot of people say, ‘Hey, that’s an easy call. Just expand three years 100 percent and then walk away at that point in time.’ I don’t think you can easily walk away. Now, we still could try to do it conditionally.
Q: If you recommend expanding Medicaid and you lose in the legislature, what does that do to you politically?
Haslam: You know I’ve had some people ask me that. The real answer is I don’t know. But we’re trying our hardest to make the right decision regardless. A lot of people say the governor should never propose something that he or she can’t pass, but I guess I haven’t bought into that theory. Whatever we decide to recommend or propose, we’re going to obviously argue for.
There are some people who say on a big issue like this, don’t propose unless you’re 100 percent sure you can win. I don’t know that’s going to be true in this. Again, we haven’t made the call but if we decide to do it, honestly there’s a lot of selling to do.
Q: In your State of the State speech in January, you criticized the media narrative that Republicans will fight among themselves this session. Given the Medicaid expansion issue and the voucher issue, do you concede now that media narrative was correct?
Haslam: There are good fights and bad fights. This is legitimate philosophical difference. This is a big issue for the state. I knew all along that this is one of those that everyone wouldn’t be in agreement on.
Q: Medicaid expansion or vouchers?
Haslam: Actually both. It’s a fair case in both. My point there wasn’t that Republicans are always going to vote—all 70 in the House and 26 in the Senate—are all going to vote the same. That wasn’t the point at all. The point was there’s a good way to have discussions and arguments and there’s a bad way.