Tea party protesters jamming the halls of the legislature erupted into boos and jeers Wednesday as lawmakers delayed voting on the so-called Health Freedom Act — the vehicle through which Tennessee conservatives are expressing their outrage over the national health insurance overhaul.
As the crowd shouted angrily in the hallway, members of the House Industrial Impact subcommittee tried to explain that the delay was merely pro forma and not a sign of opposition to the legislation.
“The audience I’m sure don’t understand this,” said the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta. “Historically in this committee, because we deal with so much insurance regulation, when we amend a bill of any significance, we roll it for one week. It’s just a formality. We’re going to roll this bill. It’ll lay over one week, and then we’re going to be voting on it next week.”
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Bell, R-Riceville — who proposed the minor amendment that caused the delay — also tried to calm the protesters: “I’m the sponsor. I absolutely support this bill. That’s why I’m here, but this is the common practice of this committee.”
Outside, Knoxville tea party organizer Antonio Hinton shouted at the red-white-and-blue clad Eagle Forum president Bobbie Patray, who was trying to play the role of peacemaker.
“I’m upset,” Hinton yelled. “When it comes time to raise taxes, they don’t waste time with that. That goes through pretty quickly. I guarantee they’re not going to vote on this.”
Just before the meeting, Senate Republicans held a news conference to urge House passage of the bill. The Senate adopted the legislation last month by a 26-1 vote. Of questionable constitutionality, it would allow any Tennessean to refuse to obey the new federal mandate to buy health insurance and compel the state attorney general to defend that person in court if necessary.
“We’re telling the federal government that we aren’t going to make our citizens buy health insurance,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said.
“Never in history has the federal government mandated that Tennesseans buy anything,” said the Senate sponsor, Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet. “This is kind of equivalent to the federal government saying you have to buy a General Motors car because we bailed ‘em out and we have an interest in it. The people of Tennessee don’t want the federal health care, and this will be the way for them to choose other avenues.”