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VOL. 130 | NO. 102 | Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Harris Pushes For Insure Tennessee Comeback

By Bill Dries

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State Senate Democratic leader Lee Harris of Memphis will be on the campaign trail this summer.

Harris and other Democratic leaders in the majority Republican Tennessee legislature will campaign across the state this summer for the comeback of the Insure Tennessee proposal in the 2016 legislative session.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s Medicaid expansion proposal never reached the floor in either chamber of the legislature this year including February’s special session on the proposal. An attempt to bring the bill to the floor later in the regular session also failed.


“The vast majority of Tennesseans want there to be a vote on the record on this legislation. They want to see where their senator and representative land with respect to Insure (Tennessee),” Harris said on the WKNO TV program Behind The Headlines. “There was a lot of evidence that politics drove this thing off a cliff.”

Harris cited the influence of money contributed to legislative races by the Koch Brothers as well as adamant opposition to the Obama White House by Republicans in the legislature.

Like State Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville, Harris also said Insure Tennessee fell victim to differences between the House and Senate.

“We did actually debate during the special session Insure Tennessee. We had a committee vote on Insure (Tennessee),” Harris said of the Senate. “On the House side, you didn’t see that happen. And a lot of that is because of the nature of being a representative and a senator. … Senators are a little bit more independent minded. Representatives tend toward a little bit more political theater.”

The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video Page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Harris also said state government should be able to fully fund the Basic Education Program, the formula that determines how much state funding goes to local public school districts. State funds account for the majority of funding local public school districts receive.

“It’s just about how we allocate the resources,” Harris said when asked about the pending lawsuit by school systems in the Chattanooga area seeking to force the state to fully fund the BEP formula.

Harris specifically targeted state surplus funding approved for a $120 million new state museum and $177.8 million in state incentives for an expansion of the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.

“If we’re not fully funding education then by golly let’s cut out some of the wasteful stuff or some of the stuff that is discretionary stuff,” Harris said. “Do we really have to do a state museum this year? Do we really have to subsidize private enterprise?”

Harris’ comments come as Shelby County commissioners have debated whether an increase in county funding for Shelby County Schools might encourage state leaders to not fully fund the BEP formula.

“I think that’s how things can work out,” Harris said of the idea. “I’m of the opinion bad laws should be repudiated. Bad acts should be repudiated. If it is the responsibility of state government to fund education, it should do it. We shouldn’t kind of go through these kind of crazy Band-Aid measures.”

The commission’s budget committee is recommending $7.9 million in new funding for Shelby County Schools. But the recommendation is with the suggestion that the school system use it to increase its payments on the school system’s OPEB – other post employment benefits – liability and not for a list of extra items including more teachers, guidance counselors and social workers the school system submitted.

Harris was elected Senate Democratic leader at the start of his first year as a legislator. He leads a Senate caucus of five Democrats, including himself, in a Senate of 33 members.

“I’ve been surprised by how much I think that the Democrats can get done,” Harris said. “There is certainly a path to get things done. The reality is that there are lots of areas of common ground.”

That common ground includes the legislature’s discussion of gun rights over several legislative sessions including the one that ended this spring.

“Democrats have never impugned lawful permit holders. We’ve never said lawful permit holders create a danger,” Harris said. “The only things we’ve said is that we need to make sure law enforcement can do its job well. And the need to expand guns everywhere makes it hard for law enforcement to do their job. They can’t recognize friend from foe if everybody, everywhere all the time has a gun.”

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