Budget, Medicaid come front and center as Brewer calls surprise special session - East Valley Tribune: Politics

Budget, Medicaid come front and center as Brewer calls surprise special session

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Posted: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 11:05 pm | Updated: 2:48 pm, Wed Jun 19, 2013.

Tired of waiting for action, Gov. Jan Brewer forced lawmakers back to the Capitol late Tuesday to approve her budget and Medicaid expansion.

Brewer used her constitutional right to call a special session starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday to deal solely with those issues. It will run concurrently with the regular session which continues.

But it allows suspension of all rules for things like required committee hearings. And it starts the clock running.

The Arizona Constitution requires all measures to be read three times, on consecutive days. With a first reading of bills late Tuesday, the budget package can gain final approval -- and be on Brewer's desk -- by Thursday.

Brewer's maneuver, coordinated with Democrats and a handful of Republicans who support her Medicaid plan, blind-sided House Speaker Andy Tobin. He said he was prepared to bring Brewer's Medicaid plan to the floor on Thursday.

But gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson said that wasn't good enough.

What appears to have been the breaking point is that Tobin on Tuesday shut the House down until Thursday after plans for a possible vote on Medicaid did not materialize. And Benson said the Senate, which would have had to concur with any House changes, is planning to take a long weekend, causing further delays.

Beyond that, Benson pointed out that the House has yet to even have a single hearing on the rest of the governor's $8.9 billion spending plan.

Benson said his boss has been "extremely patient'' with lawmakers

"The governor's been waiting for five months for the Legislature to move on the Medicaid proposal and the budget,'' he said late Tuesday. And Benson said Brewer tried to work with the Republican leaders in both the House and Senate.

"But it's time to move forward,'' he said. Benson also said it has been known "for many weeks'' that there were the votes in both the Senate and House for approval of Medicaid.

"That bipartisan coalition is anxious to get things finished,'' he said. "No game playing. No more stall tactics. No more gimmicks. It's time to get the people's business done.''

Tobin conceded he is at least partly to blame for the delay -- and Brewer's special session call.

The speaker had crafted his own alternative to Brewer's plan to add 300,000 or more to the rolls of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. More to the point, he refused to allow consideration of the governor's plan while he was trying to sell that -- unsuccessfully -- to fellow Republicans.

Tobin did not throw in the towel until two weeks ago, weeks after the Senate gave its blessing. But even then, with at least seven House Republicans lined up to support Brewer's plan, he scheduled no hearings on Medicaid expansion until Monday.

Even then, the House Appropriations Committee voted to kill the bill, forcing supporters to work to find an alternative method of getting it to the floor.

While a special session means starting from scratch, with an entirely new bill, it still could expedite the process. It also gives supporters a chance to make some last-minute changes and even cut some spending from the budget plan already approved by the Senate.

The maneuver drew a sharp reaction from Rep. Carl Seel, R-Phoenix, one of the biggest foes of the Medicaid expansion plan.

Seel acknowledged that Brewer has the votes for approval and that there is little he and others can do to stop the plan.

"But I think if that happens ... then the legacy of this governor will be that she had to enact extreme political maneuvers to implement Obama's socialized medicine,'' Seel said. "So governor Brewer's legacy will be not as a Republican but as the most-effective Democrat in Arizona history, probably.''

So upset with Brewer's move were the House Republicans who oppose Medicaid expansion that they refused to attend Tuesday night's session and instead sat in the visitors' gallery.

That left only Rep. Adam Kwasman, R-Oro Valley, on the floor to express frustration. He blasted the governor for short-circuiting the regular process -- a process even he conceded would have adopted Medicaid expansion -- eventually.

"She wanted Obamacare so badly that she could not wait to impose high taxes and a huge government program on the people of Arizona,'' Kwasman said.

But Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, one of the Republicans working to adopt Brewer's budget -- and who was aware ahead of time of the special session plans -- said the governor did what she had to do.

"We are part of a legislative body elected to do the people's work,'' she said.

"Medicaid has always been her priority for the session,'' Carter said. "And, constitutionally, we're required to pass a balanced budget.''

Even Tobin, while saying he still won't vote for Brewer's plan, was philosophical about Brewer's maneuver.

"I guess she's just run out of patience,'' he said. "It happens.''

Brewer has never disguised her opposition to the federal Affordable Care Act, even joining with other states to have it declared illegal. But the governor said once the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the key provisions she had to consider the more practical question of Arizona finances.

In this case, she pointed out that voters mandated in 2004 that Arizona provide care to everyone below the federal poverty level, about $19,530 a year for a family of three. But lawmakers, at Brewer's behest, stopped enrolling single adults three years ago to save money, an action taken with consent of Medicaid officials.

That waiver, however, runs out at the end of the year. And Brewer said the federal government will kick in money to restore adult coverage only if the state goes along with full Medicaid expansion, moving eligibility to the equivalent of 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

Brewer insists it's a good deal, saying it should generate $1.6 billion in federal dollars the first full year of operation and swell Medicaid enrollment by about 300,000 from the current 1.3 million. She also said the $240 million first-year costs to the state will be paid not by taxpayers but by an assessment on hospitals, an assessment most hospitals have agreed to pay because more people with insurance means fewer people walking away without paying their bills.

Brewer said hospitals have made up the losses with a "hidden health care tax,'' adding to the bill charges paid by insurance companies and those without insurance.

Tobin, however, said one reason he continues to oppose Brewer's plan is there is no real safeguard to ensure that if hospitals have fewer patients unable to pay that they will reduce their bills for everyone else.

Kwasman pointed out that the coalition that is pushing Brewer's Medicaid plan is composed largely of Democrats even though Republicans control both chambers. That's because there are enough Republicans who back Brewer to buck the GOP majority.

"I know that your constituents did not send you here to allow the minority party to run roughshod over this House,'' he told his GOP allies.

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