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Halifax prepares budget for vote

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Hatchet man / March 01, 2018
Right up there with bagels, comic books and Adam Sandler, we have Jewish culture to thank for the word “chutzpah.” There’s a fine old joke to explain the meaning of this Yiddish slang: A child kills his parents and then pleads for mercy on account of the fact he’s an orphan. Ever met the type? Surely you have.

In fact, if you’ve ever met one of Halifax County’s two state senators, Bill Stanley of Franklin County, whose 20th Senate District encompasses the western half of Halifax, you’ve encountered chutzpah taken human form. But give Sen. Stanley his due — he adds his own personal twist to a funny-sounding word. In Stanley’s world, once the police show up to investigate the slaying of mother and father, he’d be the type to ask officers why they didn’t bring mops to handle the cleanup.

What prompts all this kvetching about an area Republican state senator not named Frank Ruff? This week, Sen. Stanley wrote a constituent column explaining his opposition to Medicaid expansion in Virginia, the defining feature of the budget that the House of Delegates has sent over to the Senate. His column is here. For our purposes (in case you skip the full read), we promise to quote faithfully and accurately from Stanley’s column to demonstrate just how meshuggeneh his arguments on Medicaid expansion really are. However, we will take the liberty of paraphrasing the parts where Stanley is clearly aiming to confuse everyone with out-of-context budget numbers and burka-inspired bureaucratese. Otherwise this thing is going to sink into the quicksand fast. So let’s get started:

On the subject of the House budget — which golly gee, only accepts what we liberals have been shouting from the rooftops for years, that Medicaid expansion will be tremendous boon for Southside Virginia and other rural areas — Stanley sniffs that “[t]he question of whether or not to expand Medicaid under the Obamacare federal law is now taking all of the oxygen out of the room in the General Assembly.” That’s literally the first line of his column. Sucking all the air out of the room! This sounds bad. Should we break out violins and breathing tanks for our overworked and underoxygenated Virginia lawmakers?

Continuing, Stanley writes: “Regarding the two proposed versions of Virginia Budget for the next two years, in a nut shell [sic], the Senate’s version of the Budget does not contain $450 Million dollars the House hopes to capture in federal dollars (used for spending on state programs that we would otherwise have to pay for) from accepting Medicaid dollars from the federal government, while the House version does.” I hope you are understanding better now why we’re skipping the full reprint of Stanley’s clunky prose. Allow me to translate: the House and Senate have produced competing budget proposals that must be merged into one package to be signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam. Northam (and fellow Democrat and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe before him) want to accept federally funded Medicaid expansion in Virginia because (A) it would mean the working poor and other low-income citizens have access to reliable health care and (B) accepting federal money to pay for the Medicaid program frees up money that the state currently spends on health care which could go elsewhere in the budget.

Because the Senate rejects Medicaid expansion but the House (finally!) is embracing the idea, there’s a $450 million gap between the two budget plans. Just to be clear, the House budget does a great deal more to actually help ordinary folks, at minimal if any cost at all to Virginia taxpayers, insofar as federal funding has long been available for Medicaid expansion and states don’t get a refund on their Obamacare tax outflows simply because they refuse to accept a part of the law. (And Medicaid expansion happens to be the best part of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.) By contrast, the Senate budget manages the remarkable trick of being both cheap and expensive at the same time: Cheap in terms of denying health care access to low-earning citizens (of which Halifax County has an abundance), expensive in terms of forcing Virginia taxpayers to shoulder an unnecessarily high share of the cost of our existing Medicaid program. By the way, “regular” Medicaid is shared 50/50 between states and the federal government, while the feds pay no less than 90 percent of the cost of expanded Medicaid, which covers individuals earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. In real world terms, this works out to an annual income of less than $24,600 (2017 figure) for a family of four. Tell me you don’t know an uninsured someone like that running a cash register or serving your meals at a local restaurant.

Here’s where Sen. Stanley wades into rhetorical ma-and-pa axe-murderer territory: “While the federal government would pick up 90 percent of the expansion costs for now, with the state picking up the remaining 10 percent, it is not guaranteed, especially from a federal government that seems unwilling to pass its own budget in the last nine years, and currently has a debt of $22 TRILLION dollars and growing out of control …. We already are hearing rumblings out of Washington that the unsustainable $22 Trillion dollar national debt must be reduced, and one of the ways to make that happen could be with reductions in federal payments to the Virginia Medicaid system as we know it today.” Someone sure is fixated with that $22 TRILLION figure, like it came out of nowhere. Quick, slash Medicaid! (And Medicare, too — with fiscal conservatives like Donald Trump and Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell in charge of the nation’s finances, you can count on Congress trying to gut safety net programs for the elderly and poor, of which Medicare and Medicaid are the most important.) This, folks, is the height of chutzpah: Bill Stanley is screaming in ALL CAPS about a problem that Washington Republicans have made considerably worse and he’s suggesting he’ll stand by while average Americans suffer. Stanley refuses to say where the problem lies and how we got here. So let’s offer some assistance.

In the final year of the Obama administration, the federal deficit was around $587 billion, a big number but a relatively manageable three percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Under Donald Trump, the deficit is expected to leap back into the $1 trillion range and stay that way for the foreseeable future. Bill Stanley is a huge Trump supporter, so none of this gets mentioned in his column. So what happened to degrade the country’s fiscal standing between Obama and Trump? Hmmm. Oh, right: A BIG FAT TAX GIVEAWAY (let’s use all caps in homage to Senator Stanley) to America’s richest citizens and corporations when Trump & Company passed their 2017 tax law. There you have it. America is going broke because of a slash-and-grab Republican Congress and White House, and Bill Stanley has the temerity, the nerve — the CHUTZPAH! — to suggest that ordinary people must be denied access to health care as a result. (“There are limits to what we can do, for we must not mortgage our children’s future,” he writes, as though the thought of mortgaging our financial future only suddenly occurred to him.)

Did you read the news this week about Warren Buffett? The net worth of his company, Berkshire Hathaway, increased by $29 billion in one year solely due to tax breaks in the Trump-Ryan-McConnell tax law. For someone who possesses an indecent amount of money, Buffett seems like a pretty decent guy, and he openly opposed Republican tax reform on the grounds it was a blatant giveaway to gazillionaires like himself. For context, $29 billion is considerably more than Virginia’s entire annual general fund budget (around $20 billion.) To the extent we may not have money someday to pay for Medicaid and Medicare, it’s because of the dollars all going into Warren Buffett’s pocket. This, dear reader, are the dead parents lying in a pool of blood on the floor as little orphan Slick Willie cries and cries, may the court have mercy on his soul.

If you’re a glutton for punishment like me, you’ll want to go read the rest of Stanley’s column. It includes some passages explaining what the Senate has proposed as a counterweight to the House budget which, once you do a little research, really do rise to the level of laughable. Stanley writes that the Senate is concentrating the state’s limited resources on covering our neediest and most vulnerable citizens, which is all very laudable. Unfortunately, it’s also untrue. “Senate Bill 915 sets priorities for healthcare funding, including waivers for Intellectual and Developmentally Disabled Virginians,” Stanley writes at one point in his column. On Tuesday, a Republican Senate colleague of Stanley’s — Lynchburg Senator Steve Newman, a budget negotiator — admitted there’s one small problem with these waivers: there’s no money in the budget to pay for them. “If there is funding, then you would take care of the most vulnerable,” said Newman. If every day were Christmas, we’d also never run out of candy and nuts. Not that the latter item is in any great short supply at the Virginia General Assembly.

This story is all to be continued. One should certainly hope that the Senate gets rolled and Virginia finally expands its Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, just as so many states have done before us, including those Marxist strongholds of Kentucky, Indiana, Arizona and West-by-God-Virginia. The stubborn opposition of Virginia Republicans to Medicaid expansion helped pave the way for Democrats to execute a near-takeover of the House of Delegates last year, and that probably explains why the usual firebreathers in the House are suddenly so compliant on this issue. The state Senate last went through an election cycle in 2015, which is like two centuries ago in the context of our current political moment. Senator Stanley is no doubt confident that his brand of slick political obfuscation still sells, but let’s see how the Medicaid debate plays out in coming weeks. Remember, the best type of axe is the one that swings both ways.

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