By Richard Locker, Memphis Commercial Appeal
April 14, 2011

NASHVILLE — Republican legislative leaders charged Thursday that Democrats are threatening to withhold their votes from a hospital tax needed to fund Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget plan. But Democrats said they just want assurances they’ll have input on the budget.

At issue is a 3.52 percent “assessment” on most hospitals’ net patient revenue first enacted last year, with the backing of the Tennessee Hospital Association and bipartisan legislative support. The tax is a mechanism to generate state tax revenue to draw down twice that amount in federal Medicaid funding and avoid Draconian cuts in TennCare.

Haslam’s budget plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 proposes to extend the tax for another year and raise it to 4.52 percent. The hospital association is backing that plan to prevent $870 million in cuts from taking effect July 1.

Senate Republican Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville said Democratic Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis told him Democrats are “not intending to support the hospital assessment, which they fully supported a year ago. That would have far-reaching ramifications, not only to health care and individuals’ lives in this state, but conceivably to the budget and some serious consequences, whether they’re intended or unintended.

“It’s illogical but it’s also ill-advised. This is about people’s lives and our ability to provide access to affordable care.”

Norris acknowledged that Republicans have large enough majorities in both legislative chambers to pass the tax and the budget without Democrats, but don’t want to.

“It’s not a good way to govern. It can be done. But it’s unnecessary and unpleasant. If they force the majority’s hand, I suppose that’s the way they want it. But it’s partisan politics at its worst, given what’s at stake here,” he said.

Kyle said the Democratic Caucus hasn’t taken a position on the issue yet but that Republicans are asking Democrats to vote for the hospital tax extension this month and the Haslam administration won’t present its large budget amendment until May 3. Plus, he said, Democrats are being given short shrift in the legislative process.

“Essentially we’re being asked to vote for something and we’re not being given any assurances that we will have any input on how the money is being spent,” Kyle said. “And can I get some assurances from him (Norris) that our members would be listened to?”

Kyle said that in a legislative subcommittee reviewing lottery scholarship bills, the GOP majority refused to consider any bills sponsored by Democrats. “Now, is every idea that the Democrats have not worthy of discussion?”

The Democratic leader said his members want to know, for example, whether the 8.5 percent cuts to mental health providers included in the governor’s original budget last month are still planned.

“I just think before anyone would vote to raise taxes, one should have an idea what’s going on” Kyle said. “I just expressed to him that I’m just looking for assurances that we will be informed. It’s quite a stretch to say we have a caucus position on this bill. We would not take a caucus position on a matter such as this.”

Norris said the issue is also a jobs issue because hospitals employ 99,000 people and the THA says if the cuts occur, thousands of jobs would be lost.

 

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