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New Year, familiar habits / January 08, 2014
The new year is a time of renewal, sure, but even on this uplifting note I’ll admit it can be a real pain trying to keep this space fresh with new ideas and imaginative ways of expressing them. (A loyal reader recently told me how unimpressed he was by one of my 2013 columns penned in the style of a Twitter feed). Yet as much as one might get to feeling beaten down by the small-town column-writing gig, there’s always the big bucks to perk up one’s spirits. Another plus: seeing someone else attempt the art form and doing horribly at it. Seriously folks, misery does love company.

So what you’re about to read may be akin to shooting fish in a barrel after they’ve first been electrocuted, but I do want to direct your attention to state Sen. Frank Ruff’s column. Because it’s so comically bad, I almost feel obligated to nominate the Senator for some kind of award. It helps that Ruff starts off today’s installment by thanking media organizations for publishing his musings. No, Senator, thank you.

How does the Ruff Report reek? Let us count the ways:

The Senator states, “[t]he most challenging issue this year will be the issue of expanded Medicaid.” (He is, of course, referring to the Virginia General Assembly, which opens its 2014 session today). The Medicaid expansion is a key part of the Affordable Care Act, née Obamacare, which broadens health coverage basically in two ways: by providing tax credits to reduce the cost of purchasing insurance on the private, non-group market; and by expanding Medicaid, a public insurance program, for people who don’t make enough to afford private plans. Because the Affordable Care Act was altered by a Supreme Court ruling that decreed that states don’t have to accept the Medicaid expansion, Ruff is right about one thing: the question of whether Virginia should broaden its program surely rates as the most important issue that lawmakers will take up all year.

Alas, after such an auspicious start, it’s all downhill from there for the Senator’s column. Ruff frames the possible outcomes with Medicaid’s expansion in terms that would make the passengers of the clown car blush: “The federal government has said they would fund much of the cost of expansion the first years,” writes our distinguished representative, “but without enough tax money coming to Washington, they may renege on that promise and leave it to the states to pay for the expansion.”

Let’s unpack this statement a bit, shall we? One on the one hand, Ruff is suggesting rather strongly that the state must take control of its own destiny by turning down the Medicaid expansion. On the other, he asserts that Virginia will be financially shackled if it ever signs onto this dastardly federal scheme. Maybe my powers of logic are rusty, but it seems both of these statements cannot be true at the same time. If Virginia can reject the Medicaid expansion, does it not also have the power to withdraw at any time? Sen. Ruff seems obsessed by the possibility of a shotgun wedding without explaining why this would be, although one suspects that part of the problem may be too many hours spent in front of the TV watching Duck Dynasty.

It behooves us to mention that Ruff raises the issue of Medicaid expansion in the context of his annual “constituent survey,” which always is worded in ways intended to produce results that make the Senator look thoughtful and courageous, as opposed to hackish and out of touch. True to form, Ruff posits that the Medicaid conundrum presents only two possible responses: “find a better solution” lest the cost of expansion break “education, public safety, and other basic services,” or, speaking with all the gravitas one would expect of a pot-smoking constituent, “I understand that currently after education, Medicaid is the single biggest item in the state budget. Knowing this, I still believe Medicaid should be expanded.” Well, thanks for the full range of options, Senator!

Would it really kill Ruff to direct his readers’ attention to Door Number Three, a.k.a. something closer to the truth? It might go like this: “Under Medicaid expansion, up to 400,000 uninsured Virginians, including the working poor, would become eligible for health insurance for the first time. The Richmond firm of Chmura Economics & Analytics has estimated that Medicaid expansion would actually save Virginia money over the next six years, owing to reductions in state payments to providers who otherwise will be required to treat uninsured patients. By the same token, the health care sector is projected to gain nearly 31,000 jobs with expansion of Medicaid, which is a far sight better than anything the Virginia Tobacco Commission, which Ruff vice-chairs, has ever managed. (Chmura does studies for the Tobacco Commission, too.) And because the fact forever bear repeating, we’ll add that the Medicaid money has been budgeted, collected and allocated by Washington, regardless of whether Virginia takes it or not.

Here at home, credible estimates suggest that up to 18,869 adults in Ruff’s Senate District could receive coverage under the Medicaid expansion, a windfall for hard-pressed individuals and families across the region. In Mecklenburg, more than 2,000 adults would become eligible. (Source: Commonwealth Institute,

Is it any wonder Ruff has neglected to include any of this information in his constituent survey? Instead of formulating a slanted, fact-challenged set of questions, maybe Ruff ought to get out and explain to folks working at Wal-Mart or McDonald’s why he is opposed to them having health insurance, even though the program would come at virtually no additional cost to Virginia taxpayers. Maybe if Ruff offered a truer depiction of what he is doing here — acting callously in concert with fellow Republicans to deny Southside Virginians the health coverage they need — we could have end up with a constituent survey that’s worth a read.

At least on the topic of Medicaid expansion, Ruff is playing the game according to accepted rules. (They’re the rules of politics, which means they pretty much stink, but there you go.) What can one possibly say about another part of his column, when he floats the possibility of convening a “Constitutional convention” to accomplish, um, well, who knows exactly what? Fix the Constitution? Interestingly, the nation’s foundational document already lays out a process for enacting amendments, albeit in ways that have nothing to do with what the good Senator seems to be suggesting. “Some have proposed that the state legislators should bypass Washington and hold a Constitutional Convention,” Ruff writes. Some may “believe we should set the rules for Virginia’s delegates to a convention so that, should one be held, it will be constrained to deal with issues only as a majority of legislators in the General Assembly see fit.” What is that even supposed to mean? I honestly have no idea.

I’ll admit: having always held Frank Ruff’s legislative prowess in low esteem, even I am surprised to see him flirting with such right-wing separatist nonsense. Is Ruff channeling the secessionists and nullifiers of yore? Should we henceforth refer to him as “Senator Jefferson Beauregard Forrest Ruff”? Or does our state Senator pine for the lost Constitution after spending too much time reading up on America’s imaginary history at Whatever the case may be, Ruff’s inclusion of a Constitutional convention makes this year’s constituent survey a classic of the genre. Either that, or the Senator has lost his mind.

I’m not even going to go for the cheap score by citing the glaring flaw in the outcome that Ruff proposes in lieu of a Constitutional Convention: “I believe that the situation in Washington will improve on it’s on.” Okay, yes I will: Seriously, people like Ruff are in charge of setting policy on Virginia’s SOL tests? I bet Mrs. Ruff, by all accounts a first-rate elementary schoolteacher, never read over her husband’s column before it was submitted for publication. Yet having committed plenty of typos and other bone-headed errors in my own writing career, I would only note that the grammatical foibles are the least of what’s wrong with Sen. Ruff’s analysis. The situation in Washington will improve on its own? What channel was he watching when he wrote that, the Candy News Network?

We can only hope that with 2014’s dawn the situation in Richmond will improve on its own, too, irrespective of whatever our senator chooses to do. With the economy picking up a bit lately, the new year ought to bring fresh opportunities for positive change — if people in positions of authority are only willing (and able) to set aside their ideological bugaboos and other cranky notions to work together for the common good. The Medicaid expansion is probably the best example of how the political process could improve the lives of Virginia citizens, but it’s hardly the only issue that belongs in that category. Yet if all Ruff intends to do is parrot a bunch of right-wing nonsense, it won’t come as any surprise if he’s cut out of the decision-making process — assuming, that is, that decisions (and compromises) can be made. It may be that Ruff is perfectly happy for nothing to ever happen in Richmond. If so, a more perfect pairing of man and mission may never be seen.

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