Following Gov. Bill Haslam's State of the State address, Tennessee Democrats called on the governor to work harder at lowering unemployment, step away from a school voucher proposal and accept an opportunity to expand TennCare under the Affordable Care Act.
Democratic House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh offered comments summarizing a "different vision" from members of the Democratic Party.
"Instead of more of the same, we want to see a focus on jobs," Fitzhugh said. "As of this morning, 235,700—or 7.6 percent—of Tennesseans are without a job. They are not people who want to be unemployed; these are our friends and neighbors who get up each day and look for a job."
Fitzhugh also criticized Haslam's plans to introduce a school voucher program, which would use taxpayer dollars to allow low-income students in struggling schools to put vouchers toward private education.
The representative called the plan "radical" and unfunded, saying it would take millions of dollars away from public education institutions.
"This voucher proposal will almost certainly mean a tax increase for our local governments, a dramatic decline in public school funding and, most importantly, it will leave thousands of students behind in failing schools," he said. "After the disaster of virtual schools, Tennessee cannot afford another giant step backward."
Fitzhugh challenged the governor to opt in to a provision of the new health care law, which would allow Tennessee to expand its Medicaid program to include those at 138 percent of poverty, despite Haslam's comment during his address that the decision did not bear any weight on his drafting of the state's $32.7 billion budget for the fiscal year.
"Not expanding Medicaid will leave many of our friends and neighbors with no options when it comes to health care," he said. "Outside the human cost, there is an economic cost to not expanding the Medicaid program. We know that anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of jobs in rural areas are created by the health care industry. We also know that refusing these Medicaid dollars means that 54 Tennessee hospitals are at risk of closing."
Haslam alluded to the potential closing of hospitals in his address, saying the threat was not something he was taking lightly.
Concluding his remarks, Fitzhugh said he and House Democrats "stood ready" to work with Haslam on initiatives focusing on jobs, education and people.