Our Republican governor, Bill Haslam, is a pleasant and no doubt well-meaning man, and, in some ways — on the issue of using public money for private school vouchers, for example — a genuinely moderating influence on his party's excesses.
As an example: The governor has proposed a modestly funded pilot program involving some 5,000 low-income students in demonstrably failing schools. While that might be characterized by public-school advocates as the proverbial slippery slope, what other Republicans on Nashville's Capitol Hill — notably Germantown state Senator Brian Kelsey and Lietenant Governor Ron Ramsey — would prescribe amounts to the chasm itself, an open-ended voucher program whose stipends at some point could be made available to students from any family, regardless of income.
We cite this difference of opinion as evidence that the governor has a mind of his own and can, when he chooses, resist pressure from his rank and file. Unfortunately, there are issues on which this admirable quality seems to become, in the Nixonian phrase, inoperative.
A case in point is on the matter of whether to accept upward of $2 billion in federal funding under the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) to expand the state's Medicaid coverage (administered in Tennessee by TennCare). The state's 165 hospitals, many of which are financially strained to the brink of having to shut down, are desperate for such expansion funding, 100 percent of which would be provided by the federal government for three years, after which a recipient state would be liable for only 10 percent of the annual sum.
This is not a "liberal" cause. The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, that bastion of economic conservatism, has urged the governor to accept the funding. GOP governors as far to the right as Jan Brewer in Arizona, Rick Snyder in Michigan, and John Kasich in Ohio have accepted the funding. Yet Haslam will not, continuing instead to dangle the prospect of something he calls "the Tennessee Plan," an amorphous private-sector alternative that even a loyal GOP legislator like state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Memphis acknowledges is a "phantom."
Though he surely knows better, having accepted his share of federal matching funds during two terms as mayor of Knoxville, Haslam declines to contradict those in the party — Kelsey, Ramsey, and Norris among them — who purport to believe that the feds will welsh on their 90 percent funding commitment to Medicaid once the initial three-year funding period is over. Never mind that the skeptics are unable to cite a single case of federal default on such a funding guarantee.
Beyond even the issue of health care itself, what is at stake in Tennessee's Medicaid debate is the same premise that is at risk in Washington every time (which is annually) the congressional Tea Partiers would have us default on our national debt obligations — namely, the full faith and credit of the United States of America.
To undermine that bedrock, either fiscally or rhetorically, is a disservice to the very nation that our nay-saying legislators go through the daily ritual of pledging allegiance to. The governor, who really does know better, could at least cease giving them aid and comfort.