The Tennessee legislature has officially adjourned for the year. But the last day was a mix of controversy, chaos and impasse over a major health initiative.
Lawmakers in the House and the Senate spent hours Thursday negotiating a proposal for a Medicaid block grant — a lump sum to provide healthcare to low-income people.
After failing in the first conference committee over details, lawmakers reached a compromise in a second meeting.
If signed by Gov. Bill Lee and approved by the federal government, Tennessee could become the first state to fund its Medicaid program through a block grant system.
“It is a very big concept,” Republican Timothy Hill, the bill’s sponsor, told WPLN. “We are trying to do something different in Tennessee that has not been done anywhere else in the entire country and to at least initiate those discussions.”
The federal government currently uses a formula to determine how much of the costs of TennCare it'll pay — currently about two-thirds of the $12 billion program. Block grants would lock that amount in, and critics of the proposal say the state risks getting less money for the program or having to shoulder more if costs or enrollment spike.
Under the bill approved by the legislature, Gov. Bill Lee’s administration will have just 180 days to make the request of the block grant, a timeline shorter than what the Senate proposed. The legislation gives the administration permission to freely negotiate, but it requires the legislature’s approval before block grants implemented.
Lee told reporters he will sign the measure, despite concerns from some lawmakers that the state could receive less money in federal funding.
"I think that we would never create, or never negotiate a deal with the federal government that would be bad for Tennessee," Lee said. "This would allow us to have the opportunity to negotiate, to pursue, really a correction to a system that's broken."
The bill passed only after a second committee negotiated the final details. Unlike with other committees, no House Democrats were appointed to it. They've pushed to expand Medicaid to more of the working poor.
Nashville Rep. Mike Stewart, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, protested the decision.
“What a bad precedent to exclude any member of the minority party from such an important and weighty matter,” Stewart said.
Rep. Karen Camper, the House Minority Leader, also questioned Casada's attitude. She told reporters she'll be fighting the decision over the summer.
"I'm furious about that because people sent us here so that we can have input to whatever legislation we are going to pass," Camper said.
To protest Casada’s decision, most of the House Democrats decided to walk out in protest.
Some were allowed to leave but others were stopped by Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers and sergeants-at-arms. House Democrats say that Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, was assaulted. Republicans say Hardaway pushed a trooper and a sergeant-at-arms to try to leave.
Hardaway declined to comment.
Rep. Matthew Hill, the chairman of the House Ethics Committee, said an ethics investigation will be launched against Hardaway.
“That is not the way we ought to conduct ourselves on the floor of the House of Representatives,” Hill told reporters. “It’s beyond inappropriate, but that’s just not right.”
Republican leadership celebrate session, Democrats say it was 'the worst'
At a post-session press conference, Lee and top Republican legislators celebrated what they called a "historic" legislative session.
"We've passed landmark legislation benefitting the state," Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson said.
He pointed out at the passage of school vouchers for the first time in Tennessee, and the unanimous vote in both chamber for Lee's $38.6 billion budget.
But Democrats in the legislature said this year's legislative session was sour.
"The block grant would in most sessions be the worst bill," Stewart said. "But the ESA bill stepped forward in this particular session to probably take the unfortunate credit."