A key House subcommittee moved two high-profile bills to the back burner this week, a maneuver Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey believes is an attempt to kill Senate Republicans’ high-priority legislation.
One of the signature bills, the Health Freedom Act, is a challenge to federal health care reforms. It contains provisions that direct the attorney general to defend Tennesseans who refuse to obtain insurance coverage as mandated by the federal government.
“I think it is a ploy to try to kill that bill before it goes to the full House,” said Ramsey, a Republican who serves as Senate speaker. “I’m concerned it might not pass the House.”
The other bill would clear up any vagueness in the Tennessee Constitution regarding the permissibility of an income tax in the state — by explicitly banning “any tax upon personal income or any tax measured by personal income, except…incomes derived from stocks and bonds that are not taxed ad valorem.” It would also prohibits payroll taxes.
Both pieces of legislation are now “behind the budget,” a term that means the bills will be taken up after the subcommittee has tackled the new fiscal year’s government spending plan. Bills typically held back have some sort of price tag or fiscal note.
Hammering out a budget can be a lengthy process, and Riceville Republican Rep. Mike Bell said bills put on hold until after that’s over often never see the light of day again.
Bell is carrying the Health Freedom Act, which was on its way to a full floor vote earlier this month but was then kicked back to the Budget Subcommittee by the House Calendar Committee.
“I wasn’t promised that (the Health Freedom Act) would be pulled out and voted on, but I was given what I think was some pretty strong assurances that it would come out from behind the budget and be voted on,” said Bell.
“Not necessarily that it would pass out of committee,” he continued, “but I want to have my day to have it heard.”
Anti-federal health care legislation has dominated the spring legislative session, sparking rallies from Tea Party protesters who insisted the federal government not meddle with state business.
The Senate approved the Health Freedom Act in February, with one member — Chattanooga Democrat Andy Berke — voting against it.
But the act could have a price tag of $50,000 to cover costs if the attorney general actually ends up defending residents who choose not to obtain health insurance.
The budgetary impact on the income-tax constitutional amendment includes posting public notices about the amendment on the General Assembly and Secretary of State websites, and is “not a significant amount,” according to legislative fiscal analysts. However, there’s some debate whether that notice should be printed in newspapers across the state, which could cost $20,000.
“I think we all know that Budget-Sub has always been a committee over there formerly known as ‘the Black Hole’ — that you stick things in you don’t want to go to the House,” Ramsey said.
But Finance, Ways and Means Committee Chairman and Budget Subcommittee member Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said that’s not the whole story. “They just don’t get out of there because we can’t fund them. I guess in that sense, a bill will go in there and never come out,” she said.
He called the committee more of a “clearinghouse” that ensures the state has the money to support bills with a price tag.
But he said he expects that one or both those bills could ultimately emerge.
“Just because they’ve been sent behind the budget, doesn’t mean they’re dead,” he said.