Signing On to Obamacare Challenge Pointless for TN: AG Cooper

Joining with the 26 other states disputing the 2010 federal health care reform law simply isn’t a productive application of his office’s time or energies, Tennessee’s top government lawyer told a state legislative panel this week.

“It did not seem to be a wise use of scarce state resources when we have all these other cases that we’re working on to invest money in,” Attorney General Robert Cooper said before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 28. “Whatever happens, we will be equally bound by that whichever way the Supreme Court goes.”

Because some 140 briefs opposing provisions of Obamacare have already been filed with the Supreme Court, Cooper said there’s little reason for him or his attorneys to volunteer a legal opinion at this point. The high court is expected to hear arguments later this month about the constitutionality of the controversial “individual mandate” portion of the law.

Republicans in the Legislature tried unsuccessfully to convince Cooper to join other states in challenging the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act after President Obama signed it into law March 23, 2010.

Cooper’s unwillingness to take on the Obama administration subsequently prompted on-again-off-again discussions amongst GOP lawmakers and conservative activists about making the state attorney general an elected official so as to ensure the office is more accountable to public opinion, which Republicans are confident in Tennessee runs decidedly in opposition to Obamacare.

Cooper shrugged off a suggestion by Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, that “there is strength in numbers” when fighting the feds. “I really don’t think another brief would make a difference to the Supreme Court,” said Cooper, who worked as legal counsel to former Gov. Phil Bredesen prior to being appointed attorney general in 2006.

None on the Senate Judiciary Committee quizzed Cooper as to whether he believes the federal health care law is or is not constitutional. However, when asked by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, if his decision to sit out the heavyweight legal bout on the individual mandate was rooted in “monetary” concerns, Cooper said “yes.”

“It just did not seem to be a good use of our limited state resources,” said the attorney general.

Bell said  he believes there are few issues of more significant long-term financial concern to Tennessee than the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“If there is one piece of federal legislation or issue being discussed at the federal level that’s going to cost Tennessee more than anything, it is this Act,” said Bell, who serves also as the Senate Government Operations Committee chairman. “Hundreds of millions of dollars it is going to cost the taxpayers of this state.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell has appointed a legislative committee to focus on how the state will deal with the portion of the health care law dealing with  health insurance exchanges, which supporters say will act like “virtual marketplaces” to help consumers compare health-plan pricing. The federally imposed deadline for states to set up their exchanges is the end of the year.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has said he’s willing to call the Senate into a special session in December if the Supreme Court upholds the individual mandate portion of the health care law, or if President Obama wins re-election in November.

Gov. Bill Haslam avoided taking a formal legal stance on the issue his first year in office. However, last month his administration joined the Republican Public Policy Committee in filing a brief challenging the Act.

“The Obama administration’s approach is an unaffordable health care mandate that is a significant overstep of the federal government’s authority,” said Haslam. “I’m committed to controlling health care costs and finding meaningful ways to improve the health of Tennesseans by encouraging healthy choices, personal responsibility and accountability. Forcing mandates on states and individuals is the wrong approach, and if Obamacare is implemented, healthcare costs will rise significantly, putting a serious strain on state budgets across this country.”