A Hurricane Headed for Tennessee?

Buried in all the news this week about Hurricane Sandy coming to shore was a little noticed story about another storm that may be brewing. But this one is in Tennessee, and it’s predicted to hit the state Capitol in late January. I went through a storm like this myself and it wasn’t pretty.

If the storm I’m talking about hits land, it will have been precipitated by a bill that sitting State Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and soon to be seated State Representative Jeremy Durham (R-Franklin) have said they intend to file in January. The purpose of the bill is to prevent the state from expanding the scope of its Medicaid coverage under Obamacare.

Under Obamacare, federal funds are being offered to the states to help them expand Medicaid coverage to more people. But, expansion will require the state to come up with the state tax funds necessary to match the additional federal funds.

At this point, the Governor has not said what his intentions are in this regard. But if the Governor wants to expand TennCare (Tennessee’s Medicaid program), then I predict this bill is the harbinger of a significant political storm next session. I know the lure of doing more for more people is always a temptation for politicians, but my own experience tells me that this is one political storm that should be avoided by choosing restraint.

As a state senator back in the early 2000’s, I remember sitting with the rest of my Republican Senate colleagues in a meeting with then Governor Sundquist. We were in the middle of a huge political storm. State tax revenue was way down, but the Governor was proposing more spending. Legislators (and taxpayers) were seriously balking (some were honking horns if you were around to remember). It was then that one of my colleagues piped up and encouraged the Governor to keep in mind the “first rule of the hole,” namely, when in a hole, stop digging.

I mention this because what happened then is relevant to the current issue of Medicaid expansion in view of our out-of-control federal deficit.

Back then the idea was floated that we could save some tax money and help reduce the pressures for a tax increase by shutting down some state parks and reducing the operating hours at some others. But no. The dictatorial federal government stepped in to let us know that it might not let us do that. Why? Because federal money had helped build sidewalks and other improvements in those parks! We could not reduce citizen access and availability to the improvements made with federal dollars.

The point is that the federal government wasn’t concerned about our state’s financial problems back then, and nothing since then should lead any state official to believe its attitude would be any different today or in the years to come.

So, when the federal government can no longer afford to make its contribution to Medicaid, which it already can’t really afford to make, I doubt seriously it is going to care how much the states have to kick in to make up the difference. And if Tennessee makes the amount we’re spending even greater by expanding our TennCare (Medicaid) program, then the inevitable hole in our budget will be even greater.

The “first rule of the hole” is clearly one that the federal government has yet to learn. But I hope there are enough veteran heads in the legislature to know that by expanding Medicaid in the face of the federal government ‘s inevitable severe belt tightening (if not financial collapse), they will be digging an even deeper hole some day for the state’s taxpayers.

And with all the federal programs we’re in, when that day comes, the hole will be deep enough as it is. So I commend our two legislators for wanting to stop the digging. Now we just need to climb out of the hole by looking for ways to get out of some of the federal programs we’re already in.