Finally. After months of struggle, Michigan’s state senate passed legislation last week to accept Washington’s offer to extend Medicaid to nearly half a million of our state’s working poor.
The vote was close – 20 to 18 -- and the run-up to it was complicated, intense and very partisan. But when crunch time came, eight (out of 26) Republicans joined with all 12 Senate Democrats to ratify one of Gov. Rick Snyder’s main policy priorities.
At first glance, it looks as if the day was won by solid bipartisanship, fostered by a decision by the lawmakers to govern like adults. And that is true, up to a point -- at least when it comes to last week’s vote.
Those who argue the state has both a moral responsibility to 470,000 poor and uninsured Michiganders and a financial incentive to glom onto billions in federal support for expanded Medicaid should now give big pats on the back to at least four adults in the room, all Republicans: Gov. Rick Snyder, who persisted in fighting for this for months; House Speaker Jase Bolger, who constructed a similar bipartisan coalition in the House; Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, who worked hard to persuade a minority of fellow Republicans to go along; and Sen. Roger Kahn, a doctor from Saginaw, who led the work group that thrashed out the final compromise.
But underneath, the main political dynamics in Lansing remain much the same as they’ve been for the past two and a half years: An uneasy mixture of ideological Republican opposition to anything that smacks of support for President Obama, heightened by even more intense snarls from the Tea Party. That group is playing an outsize role in Michigan politics by threatening insufficiently intransigent GOP officeholders with primary election opposition from the right.
Senators opposed to Medicaid expansion cited concerns about increasing the size, cost and intrusiveness of the federal government. Some questioned whether Michigan could really believe the feds would keep their end of the deal.
Others worried that future generations might be saddled with costs of another entitlement. However, I’m inclined to think these arguments are only semi-plausible smoke screens masking the real basis of opposition: Intensely hostile feelings toward President Obama and anything connected with his Administration, especially “Obamacare” – otherwise known as the Affordable Care Act.
Time after time, opponents railed that any – any – version of Medicaid expansion in Michigan reeked of the hated Obamacare, possibly because the folks it would add would otherwise be obliged to buy health insurance. Sometimes I wonder if some Republican lawmakers would even vote against something called “Obamataxcut”!
One main factor in the difficult road to passage was opposition from vocal Tea Partiers like GOP chair wannabee Todd Courser, who threatened incumbent state senators with opposition in primary elections next year, adding the motive of self-preservation to ordinary partisan ideology. Already, three sitting Republican senators representing normally Democratic districts are in the Tea Party’s cross hairs. All are considered “toss-up” races by Inside Michigan Politics.
Nick Sundquist, an announced primary opponent of Sen. Geoff Hansen (R-Hart) demanded Hansen “explain his support for Obanacare-supporting legislation.” Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) who cast the key vote for passage was called on the carpet for “Betrayal.” Meanwhile, former state rep Leon Drolet, once known for parking “Mr. Perks,” an enormous pink pig, in front of the Capitol, may go after Sen. Tory Rocca (R-Sterling Heights.)
There’s an added sub-plot going forward that will certainly crystallize concerns about opposition to Medicaid expansion. After the expansion was approved, 14 GOP Senators voted against giving the bill “immediate effect”, i.e. instead of taking place on New Years’ Day, Michigan will have to wait until April. That’ll cost Michigan $7 million a day in money the feds otherwise would have made available to states to get people to sign up for Medicaid coverage.
That would mean $630 million down the drain. Taxpayers ought to encourage the senate to reconsider, pronto.
Besides, those same senators are not only in danger of being called sore losers, they are also at risk of being branded hypocrites. As Brian Dickerson of thevDetroit Free Press noted last week, every one of the 18 GOP senators who voted against Medicaid expansion also voted two years ago for giving all but one of their ranks lifetime health care at taxpayer expense. (The exception, Patrick Colbeck of Canton, didn’t qualify because of a technicality.)
Michigan citizens deserve better.
Editor’s Note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. He is also on the board of the Center’s Business Leaders for Early Education. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org