Peter Blake

Butter vs. Butter: Medicaid vs. Schools

PeterBlakeHeadshotThumbThey seemed like sensible bills, designed to protect Colorado’s public education from possible future funding cuts caused by Gov.John Hickenlooper’s rash decision to greatly expand Medicaid coverage.

But one measure has already been killed and the other, we can safely assume, is going to die in committee Feb. 19.

The presumed beneficiaries, the K-12 and higher education lobbies, didn’t lift a finger to try and help them.

Did I mention they were both Republican bills, thrown into the maw of the heavily Democratic legislature? Now that they’re both dead or dying, perhaps some Democratic sponsors will come back next year with similar measures to do the same thing, but this time get the help of the education lobbyists. It happens.

A month ago Hickenlooper announced he plans to expand Medicaid coverage to 160,000 more low-income adults. The federal government will cover the full cost through 2016. After that the state will be expected to pick up 10 percent of the cost.

The governor claimed that even when federal funding is reduced, “not one dollar of general-fund money will be used to replace it.” That’s because there will be $280 million in “cost-control savings” over the next 10 years, he said.

Ah, the ever-popular cost-control savings dodge, always predicted, never found in major government programs. Indeed the Kaiser Family Foundation has estimated that expanding Medicaid will cost Colorado as much as $858 million over the next 10 years.

Hickenlooper didn’t have to expand Medicaid. The one redeeming feature of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on ObamaCare last June was that the majority found the law’s Medicaid mandate on the states to be unconstitutional.

At last report, 20 states have chosen to expand, 10 have declined and 20 are still on the fence.

The expansion of Medicaid, in Colorado and elsewhere, will inevitably lead to “unexpected” increases in both enrollments and costs. That, plus the fact that the federal government can change its mind and scale back its share in order to cut the deficit is why you can’t reasonably base future state budgets on so-called matching funds.

When the feds do cut Medicaid support, the state will be left with a huge new constituency accustomed to free medical care. They will storm the statehouse to demand that the program be continued — this time with much more state money. That money would have to come from other parts of the state budget.

That’s the reason state Sen. David Balmer, R-Centennial, introduced Senate Bill 6, which would have prohibited cutting state money now going to K-12 education — 41 percent of the general fund budget — in order to finance the expanded Medicaid program.

It seems like a reasonable protective measure. It doesn’t cut Medicaid; it simply ensures that its growth can’t harm public school funding.

But it would have forced Democrats to choose between helping the schools and helping the poor — not a choice they welcome.

Three teachers from a school in Balmer’s district testified for the bill — but the teachers’ union, the Colorado Education Association, stayed silent.

Sen. Rollie Heath D-Denver, called it a “false choice,” blamed a cut in the state income tax during Gov. Bill Owens’ administration for today’s problems and said the answer is “increasing the pie.” But the pie hasn’t been increasing as government spending has exploded.

There was of course some gamesmanship involved. The GOP minority wanted to get Democratic votes on record. That’s why it was important for the Dems to kill the bill in the Education Committee, where only five Democrats had to take a stand, and not on the Senate floor, where all 20 would have to vote.

As expected, the five Democrats voted no, the four Republicans voted yes.

Over in the House, Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, has introduced H.B. 1175. It would prevent money being spent on the expanded Medicaid program until state funding for higher education is boosted back to $747 million a year. That’s what it was in 2007, before repeated cuts took it down to the current $428 million.

“Colorado must satisfy its pre-existing obligations before we decide to expand a new program,” DelGrosso said.

Democrats always say “we’ve got to make an education a priority,” according to DelGrosso, but it keeps getting cut to expand other programs.

But he admits he’s got no Democratic votes in committee so far and doesn’t expect any.

The higher ed lobby is standing back as well. “We are interested in any attempt to put additional money into higher education,” said Ken McConnellogue, vice president for communications at the University of Colorado, “but we’re not taking a position on this bill.”

CU is understandably divided; It owns a hospital, and all hospitals are behind Medicaid expansion since they think they’ll profit from it,

Colorado’s Medicaid bill is already expected to go up $175 million, or 9.5 percent, this year, said Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs. And that doesn’t include the planned expansion.

“I don’t know how you provide more access to more people for more services for less money,” he added.


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