Democratic leaders in the state House of Representatives say they'll push for a state minimum wage in this year's legislative session.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner and Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh said at a news conference Tuesday that the state should set a minimum wage over and above the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour to help workers amid a sluggish economy.
"We're one of the poorer states in the Union, and the minimum wage — you cannot make a living on the minimum wage," Turner said. "I doubt they (Republicans) will go along with it, but there's a lot of people in this state that make the minimum wage."
They noted that Tennessee is one of only five states that do not have their own minimum wage. Four states have minimum wages that are lower than the federal minimum, and 20 have set minimum wages equal to the federal standard, which does apply in all 50 states. The Obama administration and some Democrats in Congress have pushed to raise it but have not had much success.
Turner, who represents Old Hickory, and Fitzhugh, of Ripley, did not say what the state minimum should be, but Turner expressed support for a "living wage," which has been defined by its supporters as $9 to $12 an hour or more.
Democratic leaders also said they would push to expand TennCare, the state's Medicaid program, to an estimated 175,000 more Tennesseans. The Affordable Care Act called on states to offer Medicaid to all of the poor, with 90 percent or more of the expense covered by the federal government through at least 2020, but Gov. Bill Haslam has put off expansion, saying he wants to develop a "Tennessee plan" that would give new enrollees coverage modeled on private insurance.
Federal officials have signaled they are willing to work with the governor, but he has not sent them a proposal. Many Republicans in the state legislature oppose expansion, arguing it eventually will become a financial burden on Tennessee.
Turner and Fitzhugh said they expect the Tennessee Hospital Association to lobby more strongly for expansion. Hospital executives have blamed a recent round of job cuts at major hospitals in part on the state's decision not to expand TennCare, and they say that rural hospitals will have to curb services or close unless the program is expanded.
Democrats added that they will advocate for expansion of pre-kindergarten, and they will introduce a bill requiring the head of the Department of Education to have classroom teaching experience, a dig at Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who has been criticized as having too little teaching experience.
Reach Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 or email@example.com or on Twitter @chassisk.