Ramsey: No Medicaid expansion until 2017

Friday, May 29, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 22
By Sam Stockard | Correspondent

The Tennessee legislative session ended in late April, giving itself a little more than two and a-half months to handle the state’s business. That’s plenty of time, according to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

“It used to be people stayed around forever because they liked it,” says Ramsey, a Republican from Blountville in Upper East Tennessee. He says he’d much rather be at home where he recently bought a new hay tedder and was on the way back to his barn to unload it when he conducted this interview.

Q: In the session, you never made a firm commitment one way or the other on Insure Tennessee. Why was that?

A: “Because I wanted to wait for more information. I really don’t think we have everything we need to know on that, and still to this day, as far as I know, nothing on a firm contract from the Obama administration. I tried to keep an open mind to the governor, even though I leaned toward “no,” no doubt about that.

“But I’m not one to try to shut the door immediately, so I was trying to help any way I could to come up with a program I thought we could live with. No, I really don’t think we’re going to come up with anything until we get a Republican president who will allow us to have a block grant to where we can not only address the people from 100 to 135 percent poverty level, but for everyone on TennCare.’’

Q: Did the House’s failure to make any movement on Insure Tennessee affect how you handled it in the Senate? (During a special session, the measure failed in a Senate committee, then passed one Senate committee and failed in another during the regular session.)

A: “Not the slightest bit. I will say this. We had an agreement to begin with from the governor and others that the House would go first. … We were about three days into the special session, and it was just supposed to be a week and they hadn’t even had first and second reading out on the floor. And so I thought we can’t just wait around on them. So that’s the reason we ended up taking the vote.’’

Q: Where is this headed next?

A: “Again, I think we’re a year and a-half away from when we change administrations in Washington, and we can sit down and actually talk to them.

“Every Republican presidential candidate has said he will give states the Medicaid money in block grants to where we can design our own program and not have so many federal strings to it. Because I don’t think, no matter what kind of agreement we made, we weren’t going to be able to back out of this in two years, because the court would have kept it from happening, and politically, it would have been almost impossible.

“And again, I know a few years ago we cut a lot of people off the rolls. I remember Gov. Bredesen at that time said this will last six or eight years before we’ll be in the same shape again. That’s where are, we’re at 32 or 33 percent of the budget. We’re not addressing any of that with this legislation.’’

Q: You hear a lot of talk at the Legislature about trying to keep Washington, D.C., out of state decisions, yet you supported the guns-in-parks bill most local governments didn’t want. Do you think that’s sort of a contradictory stance?

A: “Not the slightest bit. Keep in mind, the federal government exists because of the states. The states ratified the Constitution. That’s the reason we have the federal government. State government works exactly the opposite. Local governments exist because of the state Constitution. We could get 17 votes in the Senate and 50 votes in the House and we could say the state only has three counties. Every city gets their charter through us. It’s just the opposite, so, no, I don’t see anything contradictory at all.’’

Q: Once that bill was approved and it came out of the last committee, and there was discussion about having weapons in the vicinity of a school activity but there was no definition of “vicinity.” Was that confusing at all?

A: “I don’t think so, because it is going to be hard to determine that.

“For example, here in the city of Bristol, and Bristol didn’t even opt out of this and they would love it. The city of Bristol has the largest city part in the state, about 3,000 acres, Steele Creek Park, and someone driving on one end or camping on one end, and they have something on the other end, I don’t know how you put that down on a piece of paper.

“I just hope that law enforcement uses some discretion so the people who unintentionally break the law will have an out. That’s all I ever really wanted.’’

Q: You were a big supporter of Amendment 1, and the Legislature passed and the governor signed at least one of the bills dealing with abortion and the regulation of clinics, the waiting period. How important are those pieces of legislation to you personally?

A: “Very, very, very important. It’s just amazing to me the hypocrisy of those on the other side, Planned Parenthood and others. I actually spoke to them, and I was talking about having a waiting period, and they said there’s a waiting period now.

“I said, “What are you talking about?” They said, “When you first go to call to make your appointment before you come in.” I said, so I can call and say “Doctor, I need a knee replacement. Make me an appointment next week.” No, it doesn’t work that way.

“They’re putting abortion, which is a life-changing experience in the same light. And if I’m ready to have that knee operation, I’d have to sign a dozen pieces of paper saying this could happen, that’s a form of consent, what’s wrong with that?

“And every abortion clinic just as every surgical outpatient clinic should be regulated. There are four clinics in the state that say they can’t meet these new regulations. Well good. They didn’t need to be in business anyway.’’

Q: But do you feel like this is going to make it more expensive and more difficult for a woman to have an abortion?

A: “None whatsoever. I hope it makes them think about it. … But they’ll have the same access they did before. They will.’’

Q: One of the items you supported was [education] vouchers for low-income children. It passed the Senate but not the House. Are you not concerned that this could undermine public education if it does wind up passing?

A: “Not the slightest bit. First of all, if public education is undermined, it should be undermined. If you’re a young African-American in Memphis who wants something better for her two little boys, yet every day she has to get up and send them to a failing school that’s on the failing list for a dozen years and has no other choice, that’s wrong. That’s just flat-out wrong.’’

Q: You put nearly a half-million dollars last year into the effort to unseat the Supreme Court justices. (They ran in retention elections.)

A: “Yes.’’

Q: Did you not think that was a pretty big risk?

A: “Why was that a risk?’’

Q: Well, you spent a pretty good amount of money and they wound up getting re-elected.

A: “That’s called politics. That’s called elections. If you use that scenario, every election’s a risk then. I knew where I was philosophically, and I do think that my ultimate goal was the district attorney general, because I liked Bob Cooper personally, but philosophically we couldn’t be further apart.

“And I do think Republicans in the majority of the Legislature, the Republicans have the governor’s seat, and that’s where we need it too. And what’s wrong with that? The hypocrisy of that always got me. We want to have elections. We want to have choice. Well now they do, but they don’t want anybody on the other side. What’s wrong with that?

“Have an election. They say a retention election or election, well great, then let’s have an election. I never understand that hypocrisy either, that, here, we want a retention election or election. But please, don’t campaign against us. Hypocritical.’’

Q: Well, has Herb Slatery’s appointment made a difference as far as AG’s opinions. He did say immigrant students could receive in-state tuition.

A: “Right, well I voted for that bill. I do think it’s made a difference overall, just in the philosophy of the office and the lawsuits we’re joining in. … I do know there have been some (opinions) where his office weighed in in a little more conservative tone than Bob Cooper would have.’’

Q: You’ve raised questions about whether Tennessee did the right thing by providing some incentives to GM in Spring Hill, but now GM’s rebounded there fairly well. Do you think the state might have done the right thing after all?

A: “I never said we did the wrong thing. People asked me what the difference is in dealing with unions, and I used that as an example that we have Nissan that we put some money into and they’re flourishing and they aren’t unionized, and GM has unions and they’ve been up and down, to say the least.

Q: Your critics (from Sullivan County) say you tend to put the Republican Party before the needs of regular Tennesseans, and they point to Insure Tennessee. What’s your answer to that?

A: “I disagree with that. Keep in mind, every dollar to finance Insure Tennessee has to come from the working man who’s paying taxes. I’m thinking about the working (people) paying taxes. … I want to provide more jobs. I want to make sure we have fewer people on government benefits. That should be the ultimate goal in the end.

“But for some of those people that’s not the ultimate goal. It just seems like the more people are on government benefits the better off we are. We just philosophically differ.’’

Q: Your supporters say you were pretty bold several years ago when you started saying Republicans could make gains in the General Assembly. Twenty years ago, did you ever foresee a day that the Senate and House would have Republican supermajorities?

A: “I could foresee that day. Absolutely. I really could, because I’d watched the presidential elections. I’d watched the Senate race in 2006 with Bob Corker, although an anomaly there. How we win all these seats … literally the Democrats had gerrymandered these districts is the only way they stayed in place.

“So we started working toward that, and I like to say when we did our last redistricting, we literally un-gerrymandered the state. Our redistricting plan is the only one ever since Baker vs. Carr that was upheld in court. So yes, I could tell you that very easily, if we raised money, we ran the right candidates, got our message out to people, we’d have a majority and a supermajority, absolutely.’’

Q: You received quite a bit of support from Tea Party groups when you ran for governor. Do you consider yourself a Tea Party Republican?

A: “I agree with their philosophy for the most part and the fact that they do want less government intervention and to keep Washington out of state politics, and things of that nature.

“I don’t know exactly what the Tea Party stands for, to be honest with you. It’s a loose group that has a basic philosophy, so I lean toward their philosophy.’’

Q: You’re getting pretty much everything you want in the Senate to move through it. Are you concerned things could move so far to the right, the Legislature could start losing votes in the middle?

A: “Give me an example of where we’re moving too far to the right.’

Q: I’m not saying you’re moving too far to the right.

A: “Well, that’s just it, I don’t believe we’re moving too far to the right. I think we’re passing legislation that the overwhelming majority of the state of Tennessee are in favor of, and that’s the reason we’ve gone from 18-15 Democrats to 28-5 Republicans, and we have one of the highest approval ratings, if not the highest approval rating of any legislature in the nation. And, no, I’m not concerned about that. I can’t tell you a bill the majority of Tennesseans would think was far right.’’

Q: Some people say you’ve got more power than the governor, if you want something to happen you can make it happen. What’s your assessment of that?

A: “Well, the way our system is set up, of course, anything the governor wants has to come through the Legislature. And so I think that is natural that that would happen, and we have a relatively weak veto.

“But I’m gonna tell you, I could not have a better relationship with anybody in the world than I do with Bill Haslam. Keep in mind the governor doesn’t veto many bills. Ned McWherter never vetoed a bill, because he had a good relationship with John Wilder and Jimmy Naifeh at the time.

“When you have those problems you don’t let it get to the veto stage. You work it out ahead of time. But, again, there’s no way I could have any better relationship with Bill Haslam than I do. He’s great.’’

Q: I saw where even Jim Haslam gave $10,000 to your PAC.

A: “He was one of the first ones to contribute to me years ago in 1990. I’ve been friends with the Haslams since the early ’90s when I first got elected, and when I started my PAC (in 2003) he was one of the first contributors.

“Once again, he believed in the cause. I’m in sales for a business, my real estate business, and in politics, and I sold the fact that if you help me, help us contribute money so we can run these elections properly, we can get the majority, and Jim Haslam believed that.’’

Q: Will you consider another run for governor or are you satisfied with lieutenant governor?

“I’m perfectly happy where I am. I tried that once, it was an experience I wouldn’t take anything in the world for. I’ve got friends in all 95 counties and it’s just something I would never do.

“I’ve got four grandkids and hopefully more on the way someday. I’m perfectly happy running the session and going back down a couple of times a month to keep things going.

“But, no, I’m not the slightest bit interested in running for governor.’’