Governor candidates talk pre-K, Medicaid expansion at Memphis debate


Bill Lee (left) and Karl Dean

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Democrat Karl Dean said he supports making pre-kindergarten education universally available in the state during the first debate of the Tennessee governor’s race in Memphis on Tuesday.

His opponent, Republican Bill Lee, said the quality of pre-K must be improved before it can be expanded.

Lee and Dean squared off in the debate held at the University of Memphis in Shelby County, the state’s largest by population. It was the first of three gubernatorial debates scheduled before the Nov. 6 election.

Tennessee’s current state-funded pre-K program is voluntary. The General Assembly passed a law in 2005 to raise the state’s investment and create hundreds of new classrooms to serve more students. But funding would need to increase further if more resources are to be pumped into the pre-K program.

Dean mentioned his support of universal, state-funded pre-K during the debate and said afterward that he would make it a priority if elected because “pre-K plays an enormous role in kids’ success in schools.”

“That would be something that I would try to fund as quickly as I could,” Dean told reporters.

Lee did not address pre-K expansion during the debate. Later, in the media “spin-room,” Lee said pre-K must be “quality and effective” before it is expanded and funded.

“We have mixed results in our current pre-K,” Lee said.

Dean, former Nashville mayor, and Lee, a businessman from Franklin, are vying to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Both candidates mostly stayed in their corners during their first face-to-face bout, as they calmly stated their positions on education, gun crime, tariffs, mass transit and other issues.

Winning Shelby County would bolster the chances of victory for Lee or Dean. The county includes the majority-Democrat, majority-black city of Memphis and its Republican-leaning suburbs.

Haslam has appeared in a TV ad endorsing Lee, calling him someone who will make “the right decisions, not the political ones.”

With Lee running ahead of Dean in polls, it was widely thought heading into the debate that Dean would need to be the aggressor if he was to gain ground.

Dean did mention Lee by name once, when he said Lee supported vouchers for private schools while answering a question about school performance.

Dean said he supports keeping money in public school systems. Lee said he favors letting individual school districts decide what type of approach they want to take with education.

The first question of the debate addressed one of the race’s most contentious issues: Medicaid expansion.

Dean supports expanding Medicaid under former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which Haslam has attempted multiple times in recent years only to be rebuffed by Republican lawmakers. Dean released multiple TV ads about it, including one that says Tennessee burns $3.8 million a day in unused federal funds by refusing to expand its Medicaid program, TennCare. And without expansion more hospitals will close, the ad says.

“This money is leaving our state and is going to 34 other states and they get to benefit, and we don’t,” Dean said, adding that expanding Medicaid would provide health insurance to hundreds of thousands of people who do not already have it.

Lee opposes the expansion, saying the health care system must change and increase incentives to lower health care costs. He says the nation’s health care system is broken.

“Expanding a broken, flawed system by taking federal money and moving something down the road that is fundamentally flawed, I believe is a mistake for Tennessee,” Lee said.

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