The Tennessee Senate has passed a measure aimed at blocking any federal requirement that citizens of the state purchase private health insurance.
The bill cleared the Senate 26-1-5 and is now headed to the House.
Coined “The Tennessee Health Freedom Act,” the bill would require the state attorney general to defend residents who find themselves in trouble with the IRS, or some other federal agency, for disobeying an order from the United States government to purchase health insurance.
“I think this just protects the rights of our citizens to choose,” said Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, who sponsored the bill.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a co-sponsor, said Senate Bill 3498 (pdf) could end up opening a legal can of worms to determine if state law has the power to trump the federal government under certain circumstances.
It’s an issue being raised by as many as 36 states carrying similar legislation, many of which are considering amendments to their constitutions to bolster their claims of legal legitimacy and political independence.
Tennessee is considering such a constitutional amendment, too, however that process takes at least two years in the Volunteer State.
The measure passed by the Tennessee Senate, while something of a “stopgap,” could provide extra protection for Tennesseans, and the state government, if the federal government tries to impose something on the states before a state constitutional amendment can be voted on, said Ramsey.
The federal health care package debated in Congress throughout 2009 is now essentially on life support. But the states aren’t out of the woods yet in terms of avoiding mandates from Washington that political leaders and voting majorities in some states do not want.
“I think we’ve seen that the president is determined to get something done and we don’t want the citizens of Tennessee to be penalized in case they do,” said Beavers.
It is important, said Ramsey, “to make sure there’s something in place” — even if it is only a statute — that could add “more validity” to Tennessee’s legal position should the state find itself in court.
“This (statute) can be done immediately, whereas it takes a little time to pass a constitutional amendment,” Ramsey said.
State Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, is sponsoring a constitutional amendment, House Joint Resolution 745 (pdf), with similar language. However, it would take a majority vote this year, and a super majority in 2011 or 2012, to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, cast the lone vote against the bill Wednesday, calling the effort “pure political grandstanding.”
“What we need to be doing up here is protecting our middle class families who are struggling to get and keep health insurance and the businesses that are finding it hard to pay high premiums,” he said.
Five other Democrats who were present abstained from voting.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that promotes state-based, free-market policy initiatives, has been pushing similar bills in legislatures around the country.
Christie Raniszewski Herrera, director of the Health and Human Services Task Force for ALEC, said the preferred legislative course of action for states seeking to stand up to federal overreach is indeed to approve amendments to their constitutions, which she said federal courts may take more seriously than mere statute.
“There are a number of states that will say the federal government can’t do this, or the federal government can’t do that,” she said. “That’s kind of grandstanding in a sense — like saying, ‘The tyranny that is closest to me is fine, but the tyranny in Washington is not’.”
She added, though, that statutory measures like the one passed today in the Tennessee Senate are by no means a waste of lawmakers’ time.
Oregon’s 1994 voter-approved statute legalizing assisted-suicide for the terminally ill was challenged by the Bush administration on the grounds that federal law, and its interpretation by federal officials, always trumps state law. But Oregon’s position was upheld by the United States Supreme Court, Herrera noted.
Also, the lopsided, bipartisan nature of the Tennessee Senate vote isn’t surprising, she suggested. While Democrats have generally supported health-care reform in the broadest sense, the individual-mandate element of the proposals under consideration in Washington isn’t too popular on the left.
“This is a way for conservatives to thread the needle with progressives and other folks who don’t like the insurance industry,” she said.”Why should the federal government be a collection agent for private health insurers? That’s basically what the federal mandate is.”
Andrea Zelinski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.