Insisting that, a recent news report to the contrary notwithstanding, he was aware of a looming state budget crisis and had no intention of denying it, U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary (R-4th) said in Memphis Thursday that TennCare was the major cause of the shortfall, and, without naming incumbent Governor Don Sundquist directly, indicated strongly that the current administration was also to blame.

Addressing a small group of supporters at a meet-and-greet at the Lulu Grill in East Memphis, GOP gubernatorial candidate Hilleary, who is opposed in the primary by former State Rep. Jim Henry of Kingston, said that state revenues had run ahead of inflation every year except the last one and that a “restructuring” of TennCare, the state-run insurance system for the indigent and uninsured, would do much to fix the problem.

“With TennCare, the state has been offering open-ended supply to go with open-ended demand. We can’t raise enough in taxes to keep up with that,” Hilleary said. He promised, if elected, to institute “two-way dialogue” and go beyond the “my way or the highway attitude” which he said had prevailed in recent years; he promised also to pursue economies like that of scaling TennCare benefits back to the level of surrounding states so that Tennessee ceased to be a “magnet” for patients.

Hilleary said the state had been hurt by the unchanging focus on an income tax during the last three years and added, “There’s been a certain amount of disgruntlement across the state in the last few years.” He said that he and the Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner, former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen, had run “neck-and-neck” in polls “even after I’ve absorbged the disgruntlement.”

Goveernor Sundquist’s staff picks may also have come in for indirect criticism in Hilleary’s promise to appoint individuals more experienced than himself in their areas of competence. “It doesn’t work if you try to surround yourself with people less knowledgeable than you are. That’s guaranteed to fail.”

In private conversation before his public remarks, Hilleary said he would “wait and see” how things developed in the GOP primary race before pronouncing on whether the governor was, openly or tacitly, aiding Henry, but added, “I have a pretty strong opinion on that.”

The congressman also used the expression “wait and see” on the issue of Gov. Sundquist’s proposed TennCare reforms, saying that it remained to be seen what kind of Medicaid waiver the federal government would issue and how the courts would rule. But he said the governor’s downsizing plan was “a good first step.”

On other matters, Hilleary promised to follow the model of President George W. Bush in making educational improvements his first priority, warned that Democrats -- former Vice President Al Gore, in particular -- were increasing their grass-roots activity across the state, and said the state should attempt economic leverage through the industrial and agricultural base it already possesses. “We don’t need to be Silicon Valley,” Hilleary said.

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