Tennessee governor candidates disagree on Medicaid expansion, school vouchers

Hank Hayes • Updated Oct 10, 2018 at 8:53 AM

KINGSPORT — Republican Bill Lee and Democrat Karl Dean were civil, but they aired their disagreements over Medicaid expansion and school vouchers in a historic second of three debates to become Tennessee’s next governor on Tuesday.

The debate, held at the Toy F. Reid Employee Center at Eastman, was sponsored by the Kingsport Times News and Johnson City Press. Presenting sponsors were Eastman and Ballad Health. The debate was televised by East Tennessee PBS.

Dean, the former Nashville mayor, said he wanted Medicaid expansion, while Lee, a Williamson County businessman and cattle farmer, said the state should look for a “20-year solution” to health care issues.

At the outset, Lee got a friendly jab from Dean about Lee spending his 59th birthday to do a debate.

“In recognition of the quality of this campaign, I am not going to, as (the late President) Ronald Reagan would say, ‘use your youth and inexperience against you,’ ” Dean said.

They shared their views on these topics:

Absence of truth in jail sentencing in Tennessee

Dean: “I spent 15 to 16 years of my life as a public defender. … I think it’s important to everyone involved in the criminal justice system that there be truth in sentencing, that the public understand what the actual punishment is and know that actual punishment will be actually followed. … That should be a non-partisan discussion.”

Lee: “Years ago, I got involved in a re-entry program called Men of Valor. … I actually decided to mentor a man in prison. … When I look at the overall issue of public safety and recidivism … I think that we can be tough on crime and smart on crime.”

The opioid crisis

Lee: “Particularly in this part of the state, it is a tragedy what’s happened — 1,700 overdose deaths in this state. … For me, there are three pieces to this: too many pills, too many prescriptions, too many pain clinics. … Number two the law enforcement challenge … we ought to make this state a place where drug traffickers do not operate. … The third and most significant part of this is treatment.”

Dean: “I think the state is on the right track with what the legislature did to control prescriptions is the right thing. … Obviously we have to monitor that and see it gets the teeth it needs. I think it’s important that law enforcement do what it needs to do.”

Medicaid expansion

Lee: “The most important problem that we have that we need to solve in this state is the rising cost of health care. … The rising rate far exceeds the rate of inflation. … Taking federal money is not free money. … That is a bad idea for every Tennessean.”

Dean said he would sign a Medicaid expansion bill if passed by the General Assembly. That move, he said, would provide health coverage to 300,000 uninsured Tennesseans and help rural hospitals. Dean said Tennesseans are already paying $1.4 billion in federal tax dollars to help fund health care in 34 other states, including Virginia.

Education and school vouchers

Lee: “I believe that choice is very important. … Choice elevates the entire system.”

Dean said he strongly opposes school vouchers that would take money directly out of public schools and transfer it to private schools.

After the debate, East Tennessee State University associate professor of history Daryl Carter noted Lee and Dean “are two really good candidates with very different ideas about running state government.”

The last Real Clear Politics average of polling data showed Lee was up 13 points.

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