Friday, April 22, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Foolish tactics in legislature

Gov. Hutchinson and the bipartisan leadership of the legislature earned no style points with the manner in which they saved Obamacare’s big expansion of health coverage in Arkansas, but a mere expression of gratitude for their cunning should suffice.

The legislature pretended to kill Obamacare’s three-year-old Medicaid program with the understanding that the governor will delete his own killer provision from the Medicaid appropriation bill before he signs it into law.

See, that way the handful of legislators who had vowed to oppose anything related to the hated Barack Obama can say that they voted to end his health insurance plan for poor working men and women, while anyone with only minimal acuity knows that they actually voted to continue it.

If that sounds zany, it is because nearly everyone concluded that it was the only way to get the essential work of government done under the zaniest fiscal law in America. Back in the Great Depression, the state’s new governor got the legislature to refer and voters to pass a constitutional amendment requiring three-fourths of each house—75 in the House of Representatives and 27 in the Senate—to approve any appropriation that was not for certain purposes: Confederate pensions, public schools, roads or to defray the necessary expenses and just debts of the state and to repel invasions and insurrections. No one could be sure what all those things meant, so legislators have generally assumed that they needed 75 and 27 votes for just about every spending bill.

Hardly anyone in the legislature or the governor back in 2013 wanted to be known as going along with anything the black president with the Middle Eastern name did, including the Affordable Care Act, but many of them began to realize that it was a bonanza for Arkansas’ sickly and underserved population and that it also was a bonanza for the state budget and the treasury because it brought a billion dollars a year into the treasury and the Arkansas economy while actually reducing the payout of people’s state tax dollars. To some who never examined the Affordable Care Act to see what it actually did, like the editors at the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, that seemed impossible, so they continue to say and to write that it will bankrupt the state and the nation.

To avoid the Obama association, Gov. Beebe and Republican legislators got permission from the Obama administration to merge the Medicaid expansion into the other big Obamacare feature, private insurance exchanges, and to call the thing something else—“the private option”—so everyone who voted for it could say it was not Obamacare. When that name wore out, Gov. Hutchinson made a few minor changes, got the Obama administration to say they were OK and called the whole thing “Arkansas Works.”

Some 300,000 Arkansans now have access to medical care when they get sick, either directly or indirectly because of the Medicaid expansion. When the new program kicked in late in 2013, Arkansas’ high unemployment rate began to fall, the workforce began to rise and the steady rise in disability rolls in Arkansas ended. The state unemployment report last week showed that the jobless rate had fallen to 4 percent, the lowest of modern times, and another big increase in jobs in medical care. Arkansas’ jobless rate is now the lowest rate in the South, save for Virginia, which also is at 4 percent. Not coincidentally, Arkansas is the only Southern state that adopted Obamacare, though destitute Louisiana wants to follow.

The selling point to most legislators was that if the Medicaid expansion ends, the state budget will suddenly be a shipwreck, since the state tax savings for medical institutions and in other Medicaid programs would end, Arkansas would have to spend tens of millions of dollars to bail out the state medical school, and nearly every major state program, from the public schools to higher education and prisons, would have to be cut sharply. Since Obamacare was flushing so much money into the state treasury, the legislature in 2013 and 2015 decided it could take the popular step of cutting state taxes. Without Obamacare they would have to consider restoring those taxes or making painful cuts in popular state services.

Last week, Hutchinson conceded that he was two senators short of getting the vital 27 votes in the Senate. To halt the Obamacare program, 10 unbudging tea-party Republicans were ready to vote against the whole Medicaid appropriation for fiscal 2017, thus closing nursing homes and all the colonies for severely disabled children along with medical insurance for some 700,000 children and other people who couldn’t afford the specialized medical care their maladies required. Eight billion dollars a year would suddenly be sucked out of the Arkansas economy.

Hutchinson announced that he would use his line-item veto power, which was granted to governors by the Constitution in 1874, to give the senators a chance to vote for the whole budget while hopefully saving face with bitter-enders back home and Americans for Prosperity, the big Koch brothers organization that funds politicians who agree to end government help to low-income people. A sentence was inserted into the appropriation bill to say the private option—now Arkansas Works—would end Dec. 31. Two of the 10 senators agreed to vote for the bill then, although Hutchinson made it clear that when the bill reached his desk he would use his veto pen to cross out that sentence.

The item-veto authority was not intended to allow governors to delete a sentence or a paragraph that did not appropriate a sum of money, but a number of governors have done such clever things, though not of this magnitude, and they have gotten away with it because no one sued. Hutchinson thinks he’s on safe legal ground, possibly because it might be hard for anyone to gain standing to sue him. If someone does, the courts accept the suit and the Arkansas Supreme Court is of a mind to construe the Constitution literally, we might find our government a sudden shipwreck this summer after all.