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Lawbreaking Lawmakers Could See Tax-Funded Health Coverage Canceled

The bill as written wouldn’t affect past violators, and wouldn’t exclude perpetrators of crimes unrelated to abuse of power as an officeholder.

The Tennessee House Finance Committee is expected to vote next week on a bill that would prohibit legislators from participating in the state health insurance program if they later commit a felony in their official capacity as an elected official.

A vote on the bill, HB2349/SB2205, sponsored by Savannah Republican Vance Dennis, was delayed Tuesday after questions arose about whether the legislation would be affected by the recently-passed federal health care reform that mandates all individuals have health insurance coverage beginning in 2014.

Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, asked whether the proposal would deny a person health insurance coverage.

Dennis responded by saying, “Those folks would still be eligible under the federal plan to get whatever insurance plans are out there and available under any federal (insurance) plans that are passed and in effect at that time.”

Armstrong said he preferred a bill that would allow a former legislator to have coverage under the state plan if the person paid the entire premium, rather than the state covering a portion of the premium.

He asked if Dennis would be amenable to that idea, but Dennis said he was not.

“(A former legislator) could still wind up receiving a huge amount of taxpayer funded health care,” Dennis said. “The intent is if they have been convicted…they should no longer have privilege of participating on that plan. They should be on the same level in purchasing health care as everybody else in the private sector who has to go out and either has to purchase it on their own or gets it through their employer.”

Armstrong also questioned whether the legislation would affect a former member’s ability to access COBRA programs that cover employees after they leave their jobs.

Dennis said it would not, but the issue led Rep. Kent Coleman, D-Murfreesboro, to ask Dennis to get an Tennessee Attorney General’s opinion to answer the questions, saying he “wondered if there were some inconsistencies with this bill as currently drafted because of the federal law.”

Dennis agreed to ask for an AG’s opinion before a floor vote on the bill, but even if the AG finds no problems with the bill, some members said they would still vote against it.

Rep. Larry Miller, a Memphis Democrat, said he didn’t like the fact the bill only applied to the legislative branch and not to the executive branch, judicial branch, or local officials. “It’s almost like you’re profiling members of the General Assembly,” he said. “The more I’m up here, the more we bring legislation…to almost demean our offices.”

House Speaker Kent Williams agreed. While he acknowledged that some former legislators have been convicted of felonies, he said, “The past is the past, and I think it does give us a black eye here that we have to pass legislation to penalize ourselves,” he said. “It’s like we’re saying we’re going to do something wrong.”

Dennis’ bill is the latest attempt by lawmakers to strip benefits from legislators convicted of felonies since the FBI’s “Tennessee Waltz” sting that resulted in the arrest of five members of the General Assembly on bribery charges in 2005. In recent years, a bill was passed that would prevent such former legislators from collecting their state pensions.

Under Dennis’ legislation, participation in the state health insurance would only be denied to the legislator who commits a felony, not the legislator’s spouse or dependents.

The Senate unanimously passed the companion legislation last year.

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