Governor Phil Bredesen, the Democratic incumbent, and Republican challenger Jim Bryson struck a note or two of political role reversal in a League of Women Voters-sponsored debate on WKNO-TV Sunday afternoon.
Bredesen, seemingly on the road to recovery after his debilitating bout with a mystery illness, expressed pride in the business-like accomplishments of his first term, while Bryson lamented the contraction of the TennCare health-insurance program and called for eliminating the sales tax on groceries. The two disagreed most obviously on the medical malpractice issue and, of course, on the matter of whether Bredesen had earned the rights to a second term.
In making the case that the governor, whose lofty poll ratings still give him a considerable edge, does not deserve a re-run, Bryson cited what he said were scandals in both the legislative and executive branches, a problem with illegal immigrants, poor graduation rates, and the fact that terminally ill citizens were kicked off TennCare.
Bredesen defended his record on the candor and ethics front, noting that he had imposed new standards on the latter and, on the former, opened up budgetary and other governmental processes for public observation.
Continuing to press the governor on the health-care front, Bryson said that the programs Bredesen put in place as partial substitutes for TennCare, notably the Cover Tennessee plan of insurance supplementation, were bare bones solutions that would not resolve the issue of uninsured and uninsurable patients, many of them, he said, with terminal illnesses.
Bredesen countered by suggesting that his disenrollment effort had been aimed primarily at aspects of TennCare most subject to fraud and other abuses and said the program, instituted by former Governor Ned Ray McWherter and continued under former Governor Don Sundquist, had been over-blown and over-bloated.
Another point of divergence was Brysons call for using the state surpluses accumulated under Bredesen to pay for elimination of the sales tax on groceries. The governor, who elaborated on his objections after the debate by calling the proposal fiscally unsound, opposed the plan, as he did Brysons proposal for a Taxpayer Bill of Rights tying changes in taxation to wage levels in the state.
Bryson challenged Bredesens willingness to consider an increase in the state gasoline tax and chided the governor for tranferring moneys from a dedicated fund to the states general fund. Bredesen countered that the transfer had taken place during the first two years of his administration when he imposed across-the-board departmental budget cuts and that he had already restored at least half the moneys borrowed from the road fund, intending to repay the rest during the next legislative term.
The governor said he was willing, however, to consider a modest increase in the gasoline tax if it brought significant matching funds from the federal government.
On the matter of tort reform, Bredesen professed himself willing to consider caps on punitive medical-malpractice awards only if there were evidence that such awards were a significant problem in Tennessee. He said he had yet not been furnished with such evidence, however, and, Until that time I think people are entitled to their day in court.