Opinion » Viewpoint

Naughty or Nice?

A Shelby County legislator examines Santa’s bag for the likely tidings in 2014.



With the holiday season here, we know that the next session of the Tennessee General Assembly is just weeks away.

Like dutiful Santas, last week the Shelby County delegation heard from local government officials and community leaders as they shared their wishes for the upcoming year. Some of the wishes are as old as my teenage daughter. The timely question is: Will our state lawmakers be naughty or nice?

Last year, the Shelby County delegation was nice when it came together on some less controversial matters. We did have some differences of opinion, and many of those same issues will be debated again in 2014.

The issue first and foremost will be Medicaid: We have the opportunity to accept $5 billion in federal funds to provide health insurance for more than 300,000 working Tennesseans, including 61,000 in Shelby County. It would be naughty not to accept these funds.

It would be nice, however, to save lives. A New England Journal of Medicine study found that many lives would be saved each year with expansion, and very seldom do state lawmakers have a chance to know that their actions will indeed save the lives of their neighbors. Moreover, we have the opportunity to vastly improve the health of our workforce and inject more than $1 billion into Shelby County's economy for the first five years.

Our 11 acute-care, general hospitals in Shelby County are depending on it. In 2009, they provided $822 million in care to people who lacked the ability to pay. The federal government reimburses some of those costs, but those subsidies were phased out under the Affordable Care Act. By not expanding Medicaid, we are being naughty to our hospitals and leaving them vulnerable to financial catastrophe.

The issue is unnecessarily colored by partisan politics. The Republican supermajority believes it knows who votes in its primaries and has so far lacked the moral courage to do what's best for the people who it believes don't vote in their primaries.

Governor Bill Haslam, for his part, has proposed a nice plan to use federal money for people who want to buy private insurance. He announced the plan almost one year ago, but he has been naughty since then and made no progress.

In that time, Arkansas has implemented a similar plan. That means that January 1st, our federal tax dollars will flow across the river to buy health insurance for Arkansans and citizens of other states. Nice for them, naughty for us.

On a less-known issue, the federal government has been nice enough to offer Tennessee $64.3 million to expand Tennessee's pre-K program for an additional 7,861 children, but we have been naughty enough to turn it down.

The education outlook is no better for our college students. Haslam has been nice enough to ask more Tennesseans to finish college, but the Republican supermajority has been too naughty to work to make it affordable.

Haslam's "Drive to 55" initiative has set a statewide goal for 55 percent of adults in Tennessee to have a postsecondary degree by 2025. That means 494,000 more Tennesseans need to earn a technical certificate or an associate's or bachelor's degree in the next 12 years.

We currently have a lottery reserve fund approaching $400 million, but naughty Republicans have refused to put that money to work. It would be nice if the Tennessee Lottery was an integral part of the governor's "Drive to 55" plan.

Finally, the very nice judges of Shelby County have contacted our delegation on the issue of judicial redistricting in advance of the judicial elections of next year. There are some naughty legislators who would like to move some of our current courts to Middle Tennessee and eliminate some trial courts in Shelby County.

It would be nice if more of our citizens had health insurance. It would be nice if more of our citizens could afford to return to college. It would be nice if we maintained our citizens' access to courts.

In conclusion, sometimes legislators are naughty when their constituents are not nice enough to tell them what's on their mind. Every member of the Shelby County delegation, from our newest member, Raumesh Akbari, to the most senior member, yours truly, believe it to be important to hear what's on our constituents' minds and come together for the betterment of our state.

It goes beyond naughty and nice. It goes to the very heart of our government.

State senator Jim Kyle, currently the state Senate's Democratic leader, represents Shelby County's District 30.

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