Legislators convicted of serious corruption-related crimes would not be allowed to subsequently participate in the state’s health insurance system under a proposal that has cleared the Tennessee General Assembly.
The House passed the measure 91-4 Monday. The Senate passed it unanimously last week.
“The intent of this legislation is to conserve and save money for the state as well as provide additional incentive for members of the legislature not to commit felonies that involve their office,” Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, said on the House floor Monday.
Currently, all former members of the legislature are allowed to participate in the state health insurance program if they pay a portion of the premium, with taxpayers picking up the tab for the rest of the bill. Immediate family members are also covered.
The legislation approved by the General Assembly would only apply to future legislators who commit a felony in their official capacity as an elected officeholder; lawmakers convicted of felonies unrelated to the execution of their duties and privileges in the Capitol– or prior to enactment of the legislation — would still be eligible for taxpayer-financed health care.
The bill does not affect the coverage of family members of legislators who are stripped of their health coverage.
Rep. Larry Miller, a Memphis Democrat, was the only House member to criticize the legislation during Monday’s House floor session. He complained that the measure only covers legislators and not members of the executive or judicial branches.
After announcing he was going to vote against the bill, Miller added, “What you are doing is profiling this General Assembly. I think it’s finger-pointing. We have a legislator who is saying to the public that we’re not good enough and we can’t trust ourselves and one another.’ That’s what this is implying. “
Miller, however, later voted in favor of the bill, according to the General Assembly’s website.
Miller’s spirited defense of future legislators who run afoul of state and federal corruption laws was met with a fair amount of derision. Supporters of the bill voiced their belief that politicians ought to “lead by example,” and that bribe-taking lawmakers aren’t typically a class of Americans that voters and taxpayers tend to regard as victims of rampant injustice.
More than one advocate of the legislation noted that a lawmaker can avoid losing his or her heavily subsidized health insurance by simply not breaking the law.
Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, referenced the FBI’s “Tennessee Waltz” sting in 2005, which led to the convictions of five former state lawmakers on bribery charges, when defending the bill’s focus on members of the Tennessee General Assembly, and not members of other branches or levels of government.
“The governor didn’t do it. Executive branch people didn’t do it,” McCormick said. “Legislators did it; People who were elected by the people of this state literally — just scoffed — just spit in (voters’) faces. Stole money. If we won’t police ourselves, there’s no one else with the power to police us. If we get slacker and slacker and slacker, and we get in the same old habits, then we’re going to have someone who thinks, ‘Well, no one is watching us, and we’re the ones that make the rules, anyway’…and it will happen again.”
The four votes against the legislation came from Rep. Joanne Favors, D-Chattanooga, Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, and Rep. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, none of whom rose to defend their votes during the floor session.
Rep. Mary Pruitt, D-Nashville, voted present but not voting.