New legislator learns about unintentional consequences

Friday, April 19, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 16
By Robert Sherborne


As a freshman lawmaker, state Sen. Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville) says he spent his first legislative session “pretty-tightly circumscribed.”

In part, this was because he was new.

But, in large part, he says it was because he believes that even the best-intentioned law can have unintended consequences.

“Every medication can have side effects,” says Dickerson, a physician with an anesthesiology practice based in Hendersonville. Something intended to treat one symptom might create new, worse symptoms.

Dickerson says this is as true in lawmaking as in medicine. So, he says, he has moved cautiously, trying to fully understand how different proposals might ultimately impact different people.

“Everybody I’ve spoken to is committed to doing the right thing,” Dickerson says. But, of course, different people have different ideas about what the “right thing” is, he adds.

“On the surface, virtually every bill makes sense,” Dickerson says of the hundreds he’s reviewed. “They all seem perfectly logical.”

Then opponents begin pointing out some of the unintended consequences, and changes and compromise become necessary.

“It’s quite stimulating,” Dickerson says of his brief legislative experience. “It’s been thoroughly enjoyable.”

Dickerson did not come to politics early. Like his parents, he says, he was a lifelong Republican who regularly voted but did not think of running for office.

Growing up in South Carolina, he attended Sewanee, The University of the South. After getting his medical degree from Wake Forest University and completing his residency, Dickerson said he and his wife decided the Nashville area would be a good place to set up a practice.

As the years passed, and his practice grew, Dickerson says he decided he wanted to get into public service. Influenced by the economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, he says he had developed a firm belief in free markets and limited government.

State Sen. Steve Dickerson (R)

Represents: District 20, which is located on much of the outer portions of eastern, northern, western and southwestern Davidson County. It includes the communities of Lakewood, Goodlettsville, Belle Meade, Forest Hills, Oak Hill and Berry Hill.

First elected to the General Assembly: 2013

Personal: Dickerson is married with three children. He is an anesthesiologist with a B.A. from the University of the South and an M.D. from Wake Forest University

Contact: (615)741-6679,

In 2010, Dickerson says, he sought the advice of political experts who suggested he run against state Sen. Douglas Henry, who represented large parts of West and South Nashville.

Dickerson ran. And Dickerson lost.

“Sen. Henry bested me in the general election,” he says.

Dickerson says he had planned to run again in 2014, but the legislature redrew the state Senate districts. Dickerson ran and won last year in a newly drawn district.

One of the first issues he confronted as a legislator was the proposed expansion of the state’s Medicaid population under the federal Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

Dickerson has a dim view of this proposal.

“My real belief is that the best way to deliver health care is the free market,” he says.

Many Republicans supported a law that would prohibit the state from expanding Medicaid, but Dickerson believes Gov. Bill Haslam struck “the perfect balance.”

Haslam proposed using the money that would have expanded Medicaid to instead buy private insurance coverage for lower-income Tennesseans. When the federal government balked at this proposal, the governor shelved the expansion, leaving the state’s Medicaid population unchanged.

Discussions continue with federal overseers, however. If they ultimately agree to Haslam’s proposal, he could call the legislature into special session later this year.

Meanwhile, many Tennessee hospitals say they are left in a financial lurch. They are slated to lose federal funding they have been receiving to treat patients without insurance. Some have said they may have to close.

Dickerson discounts this claim.

The list of hospitals threatened with closure “that’s been circulating is inaccurate,” he says. “I know from experience that some of them are robust.”

If Haslam and the feds do reach agreement, Dickerson says he will defer judgment on his vote until he’s had a chance to study the details.