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Where there’s smoke / March 05, 2014
Does mere chance drive events in this world? Or do things happen for a reason? This week, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe briefly turned from his No. 1 priority since taking office — pushing Medicaid expansion through the General Assembly — to put in a request for records from the Virginia Tobacco Commission. It seems the new governor is on a fact-finding mission to determine if the leaf commission has been successful at revitalizing Virginia’s traditional tobacco-growing regions. Hmm.

Both luckily and unluckily, the essential question at hand has been answered several times over: By the standard most people think is important — where are the jobs? — the Tobacco Commission has been a flop. There was a Blue Ribbon Commission report in 2008 that said as much (in polite terms, of course), followed by a 2011 report of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), the Commonwealth’s lead watchdog agency, which found myriad ways in which the mission of the Tobacco Commission has been poorly conceived and executed. So, luckily for McAuliffe, there’s plenty of material to draw upon in making judgments. Unlucky for the rest of us, this stuff has been circulating around for years — yet the legislators who sit on the Tobacco Commission pretty much act as if everything’s business as usual.

Could the story be different this time? The Tobacco Commission’s harshest critics have been reluctant to go so far as to suggest simply blowing the outfit to smithereens. Southside and Southwest Virginia’s ongoing economic struggles tend to argue against demands for radical, tough-love reform. A politician would have to be heartless indeed to try to take away the regions’ investment nest egg, even if the hatching process is under the wing of dodo birds. But what if someone figured out a better way to use the money?

Perhaps as ransom?

Am I the only person who finds it curious that McAuliffe is taking an interest in the Tobacco Commission at the very same time legislative Republicans who control its $650 million-dollar endowment are digging in their heels on the Medicaid expansion? No matter how fallacious or dishonest their arguments — and make no mistake, their arguments against Medicaid are supremely fallacious and dishonest — Republicans in the Assembly, especially the House of Delegates, have precious little pressure weighing on them to cut a deal with the Governor. (Perhaps their only motivation is to avoid a budget breakdown and keep state government running, should we end up heading that far down the road in a game of chicken.) With gerrymandered districts, ready access to shady campaign cash and general skittishness over primary challenges from the Tea Party right, the easy response for GOP legislators is to give McAuliffe the back of their collective hand — even if it means applying the same treatment to their low-income constituents and health care providers who would benefit enormously with passage of the Medicaid plan.

This stance by Republicans (not all of them — several GOP members of the State Senate are providing crucial support for expansion) points up the big problem with politics nowadays: the difficulty in finding common ground. With conservatives veering so far right they’ve nearly disappeared off the map, it becomes nearly impossible to suss out a compromise. No one has any real sway with or leverage over these jokers.

Unless they do. Which is why McAuliffe, no political novice he, must be asking himself — how do I get my point across with these people?

That’s a nice pork barrel fund you fellas have there all to yourselves. Be a shame if something happened to it.

Is it possible to whack the Tobacco Commission? Would McAuliffe dare try? (And, if not, would he let someone else take the chance?) The answers are probably no — but only probably. On the one hand, there isn’t a legislator in Richmond who wouldn’t like to have the commission’s copious cash to spread around his or her own district. On the other hand, if the future of the Tobacco Commission devolved into a game of political football, all the players would start checking to see how their team lined up and that would be the end of that. Partisanship trumping narrow self-interest? Difficult as it is sometimes to believe, this is how the political world usually works.

Still, McAuliffe might be able to find ways to chop-block the Tobacco Commission if its Republican membership continues to balk at any Medicaid compromise whatsoever. For starters, the governor could insist on much higher standards of accountability and spending restraint, with the power to appoint members (and a new executive director) to make the edict stick. That this hasn’t been done already highlights one of the secondary, yet no less genuine, embarrassments over the course of the Tobacco Commission’s history: the failure by Democrats to give the panel the attention — and scrutiny — it deserves. There have been members from both parties who’ve challenged its direction and decision-making, but these dissenters have been easily marginalized. Meantime, two Democratic governors who nominally presided over the commission’s affairs over parts of the past decade never showed much outward interest in what it was up to. (There have also been Democratic lawmakers appointed to the commission who seemed barely awake the whole time). One gets the sense that Gov. McAuliffe may look upon this sorry status quo and sense opportunity. After all, one doesn’t hang around the Clintons and not pick up a thing or two about how the game of politics is played.

The truly beautiful thing? If one were to take all the arguments pro and con — in favor of the Tobacco Commission, against expanding Medicare, and vice versa — and line them up for an evaluation, the pro-Medicare side would romp every time, both on grounds of policy and politics. Don’t believe it? Consider this:

• Members of the Tobacco Commission brag about creating jobs. Yet even by their own exceedingly generous estimate — 14,000 jobs supported since 2008, which is nice number, if true, which I seriously doubt — the impact pales in comparison to what the Commonwealth stands to gain with Medicaid expansion. What’s the projection there? 30,000 new jobs, according to Richmond-based Chmura Economics & Analytics. And in case you’re wondering about the source — yes, Chmura does forecasting work for the Tobacco Commission, too.

• Republican legislators say there’s too much instability surrounding Medicaid expansion because Washington can’t be trusted to shoulder the costs as promised under the Affordable Care Act. To the extent this concern is remotely legitimate, it’s easy to address by building in protections for Virginia taxpayers. The Medicaid proposal backed by McAuliffe and a bipartisan majority of state senators would allow Virginia to ditch the expansion if the federal government reneges on its pledge to pay the bills. By contrast, when is the last time a Republican lawmaker on the Tobacco Commission wasn’t warning about a potential loss of its funding, ostensibly because some outside party threatened to swoop in to steal away the money? Typically this argument arises whenever the commission is asked to undergo an outside audit. To its members, audits are simply a pretext for making the Tobacco Commission look bad, which might justify raids by big-city lawmakers who want the money for roads or schools or whatnot. So who sounds unstable?

• The Medicaid expansion is a liberal plot to foster dependence on big government. Hey, you know who else has grown dependent on a government money grab? It’s easy sometimes to forget that the Virginia Tobacco Commission was created out of the proceeds of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, a $206 billion blow against the free-market prerogatives of the nation’s cigarette makers. If you guessed the action was waged by a bunch of liberal states’ attorneys general, you would be correct. (Go ahead, try to imagine Ken Cuccinelli signing on to a lawsuit like that. You can’t.) Ever since this time, Southside and Southwest legislators have grown accustomed to luxuriating in the goodies, whether it’s Campbell County Del. Kathy Byron helping Liberty University tap millions in tobacco funds for a new medical school, or our own state Sen. Frank Ruff living it up in France on commission-funded trade junkets. (Three trips to Europe in the past four years). By contrast, Medicaid is a government program so poor people can have access to health care. How can this sort of thing possibly compare to Frank Ruff getting to take a stroll down the Champs-Elysees?

And what about the standard Republican line on Medicaid — that it’s rife with fraud, waste and abuse? Have Republicans on the Tobacco Commission joined this chorus? Why yes, they have. Do they really want to go there, given their own dubious spending record? Why, no, they don’t.

If the keepers of the Tobacco Commission kitty are serious about protecting its future, they could start by not provoking needless fights that draw attention to their own failures to reverse the fortunes of Southside and Southwest Virginia. And “needless” is surely the word to describe what’s going on here; the most incredible thing about the Republican opposition to Medicare is the fact Virginians already are paying their fair share of taxes under the Affordable Care Act to expand the program, and refusing the money simply means it goes to use somewhere else. By the same token, if Republican lawmakers were to back off their morally and pragmatically indefensible position and allow the expansion to go through, an estimated 250,000 Virginians — tens of thousands of whom live in Southside and Southwest Virginia — would gain health coverage. That’s many, many more people living in the region than will ever benefit from anything the Virginia Tobacco Commission has done, or ever will do.

Put that in your pipes and smoke it, commissioners.

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