WHAT OTHERS SAY: Key to 2014 legislature? Dance the Missouri Waltz

Monday, January 6, 2014 | 1:27 p.m. CST; updated 3:48 p.m. CST, Monday, January 6, 2014

In 2011, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce came up with a very clever name for its very destructive legislative agenda: Fix the Six.

The proposal, chock-full of mostly bad ideas that would have padded corporate bottom lines and done nothing to improve the state’s economy or welfare of average citizens, took a bunch of complicated ideas and packaged them in one easy-to-remember phrase. Fortunately, most of the six went unfixed.

In the 2014 session that begins Wednesday, the legislature faces two daunting tasks:

First, thelegislature must find a way to expand Medicaid and reap the economic benefits of the thousands of jobs (many more than a Boeing plant would bring) that will come with an infusion of $8 billion in federal dollars over six years.

Second is finding a fix to the school transfer mess that is about to bankrupt the Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts in St. Louis and will be headed to Kansas City next year.

Fix the Two doesn’t quite work.

How about this: Dance the Missouri Waltz.

Make no mistake, lawmakers will need a regular Fred Astaire to choreograph agreement on matters this complicated. That’s because the transfer fix may require more state spending, and many Republicans worry about being labeled pro-Obamacare traitors if they vote to expand Medicaid.

But for the good of the state, both must be done.

Medicaid expansion

The simplest of the two issues — Medicaid expansion — might actually be the more politically difficult. Missouri Republicans have built a seemingly unbreakable firewall against all things Obamacare.

Never mind that refusing to expand Medicaid is already costing hundreds, if not thousands, of health care jobs in cities and rural areas all across the state. Never mind that working Missourians’ tax dollars are being spent in other states.

Never mind that the same economic models that lawmakers relied on to offer more than $2 billion in tax dollars to Boeing predict even more jobs for the state from Medicaid expansion at a fraction of the same state investment.

Even if they ignore the clear moral imperative to help provide nearly 200,000 more Missourians with health care coverage, the economic case for Medicaid expansion is overwhelming:

It will create more than 24,000 jobs in the state in its first year — three times the number promised by Boeing. There is no “jobs bill” on the horizon that comes even close to creating that kind of economic activity.

Expanding Medicaid will increase payrolls by about $7 billion over the next six years. Expanding Medicaid will add more than $800 million in tax revenue to the state.Want jobs? Want growth? Expand Medicaid.

Of course, the Republicans in Missouri know that expanding Medicaid is part of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. They also know that the powerful Republican political consultants who decide who runs in GOP primaries will try to destroy the reputation of any Republican bold enough to do the right thing and pass the expansion.

Arkansas model

The solution is to follow the Iowa and Arkansas model, which state Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, has been trying to do. Rework the state’s existing Medicaid model so that lawmakers can call it “reform.” Add the working poor to the insurance rolls not through traditional Medicaid but through the private exchanges.

Because of the Affordable Care Act, the private insurance will be up to Medicaid standards, and the insurance will be paid by state subsidy anyway. This will be less efficient, but if it makes Republicans feel better about themselves, go for it.

Even this will require fancy footwork. Republicans will have to spend the first half of the session telling anybody who will listen that they will never, ever, ever pass anything related to Obamacare. Then, when the filing for party primary closes on March 25, Mr. Barnes and Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, will have to hope they have enough primary-free Republicans to bring Medicaid expansion to a vote.

It will be quite the dance.

School transfer crisis

The same is true of solving the school transfer crisis. It must get done. The status quo — requiring local districts to pay more in tuition for students leaving their home districts than they were paying to educate them in the first place — is untenable.

The issue pits district against district, cities against rural areas, public school advocates vs. reformers. The same battle lines that annually end up killing important education measures are all at play. But this year, much more is at stake. Districts in Kansas City and the St. Louis region are in serious danger of bankruptcy, and several rural districts are close enough to unaccredited status to be concerned.

The time to provide children the option of attending a quality public school, while reinforcing the mostly urban districts that have been in the most serious decline, is now. Again, it must get done.

There is no fix to the state’s education issues that doesn’t involve improving funding options, particularly for early childhood education. And there is no better way to improve the state’s economy easily without first accepting the influx of billions of federal dollars there for the asking.

Expanding Medicaid can help pay for improving public schools. Fred and Ginger doing the 2014 version of the Missouri Waltz.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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