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VOL. 37 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 08, 2013

Kyle works to give Democrats voice in GOP-dominated Senate

By Robert Sherborne

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State Sen. Jim Kyle

State Sen. Jim Kyle (D-Memphis), the Democratic leader of the Senate, sees things at the legislature these days he does not like.

But he knows there is not much he can do, other than raise public attention.

With just seven Democrats and 26 Republicans in the Senate, Kyle says, “our goal is not be marginalized.”

Some issues facing the state are vitally important, and he believes Democrats should be heard.

Among them is an expansion of Medicaid in Tennessee under the new federal health care law, commonly known as Obamacare.

“It’s an issue of life or death,” Kyle says of the expansion. “Without it, people will die.”

Under the new plan, the federal government would initially pay 100 percent of the cost of expanding Medicaid to include more Tennesseans who currently have no medical insurance. In subsequent years, that funding would be reduced to 90%.

Many Republicans oppose the expansion and have filed legislation to stop it. Some have voiced the fear the federal government will not make good on its promises of continued funding, and Tennessee taxpayers will ultimately be stuck with an unaffordable bill.

These Republicans, Kyle says, remind him of the Dixiecrats who split from the Democratic Party in opposition to integration.

“They are putting ballot-box politics ahead of people,” he says. “They fear being attached politically to an unpopular program.”

The problem in denying the expansion, Kyle says, is that it would financially hamstring hospitals, which have long been reimbursed by the federal government for treating patients without medical insurance. But that pot of money is going away under Obamacare, which assumes everyone will have medical insurance.

State Senator Jim Kyle (D)

Represents: District 30, a central portion of Shelby County (Memphis).

First served in the Senate of the General Assembly: 1997

Personal: Born in 1950, Kyle is married with four children. He is a Presbyterian.

Education: Earned a B.S. in marketing at Arkansas State University and a J.D. from the University of Memphis School of Law

Contact: (615)741-4167, sen.jim.kyle@capitol.tn.gov.us

Without Medicaid expansion, Tennessee hospitals would face a large population without insurance but no source of funds to pay for their care.

Dozens of hospitals could close, Kyle says.

Kyle, the second longest-serving lawmaker in the General Assembly, first came to office 30 years ago.

As a college student in the early 1970s, he took an interest in the presidential campaign of George McGovern. After earning his law degree from what is now the University of Memphis and setting up a law practice, Kyle decided to run for a state Senate seat.

“When I started, I had two votes – mine and my brother’s,” he says. “I worked hard. But I lost.”

His fortunes changed five years later. The incumbent senator resigned, and Kyle won a special election to fill the seat.

“People remembered me,” he says.

Over the next three decades, Kyle worked with Republicans and Democrats on a variety of issues. He was deeply involved in education and correction reforms, and developed what he calls “a working knowledge” of the state budget – “the one real bill” the legislature passes each year, Kyle says.

But, he says his proudest achievement as a legislator was being elected as the Democratic leader by his peers.

“I am not a back slapper,” Kyle says. He does like to solve problems, he adds, and “I do know how to move the ball down the field. I think the other members saw me as someone who could help them get things done.”

So he looks askance at some of the issues now drawing public attention in the legislature.

He sees the effort to create student vouchers and expand charter schools as little more than an effort to reward private vendors of such things as books and curricula, at the expense of public education.

Charter schools are not better than public schools, he says. They thrive only because parents are more involved in their children’s education, he adds.

Kyle also has little patience for a controversial proposal to allow wine sales in grocery stores.

“There is no problem with access to wine in Tennessee,” he says, while liquor store owners, who would be financially hurt by the proposal, are oftentimes pillars of their business communities.