In part one of this interview, the last legislative session was the main focus. Now we will turn our attention to the major issues that will be hotly debated in 2012.
One of the first things to jump out at anyone who starts digging into the issues being wrestled with by our general assembly is how much they mirror the issues being debated at the Federal level. This being the case, there is no better place to start than how Obamacare and trimming entitlements manifest themselves here In Iowa.
Obamacare and the Politics of Medicaid
While scarcely publicized, last session included preliminary debates into setting up Iowaâ€™s insurance exchange, which Obamacare mandates be done by next yearâ€™s legislative adjournment. The tricky situation for state legislators opposed to the concept, including Sen. Whitver, is that failure to have this exchange in place would result in the Federal government taking over the taskâ€”an even more unappealing outcome.
The push to set up this exchange was resisted by a contingent of Republican Senators, and the debate as to how it will be constructed, if it even proves necessary, was moved to next session:
â€œSeveral of us, including me, werenâ€™t ready to sign off on this and say Obamacare is legitimate. Itâ€™s still going through the court process, so setting up all the framework and infrastructure would have been legitimizing it when the fate of the legislation hasnâ€™t even been determined.â€
Directly tying into the Constitutional challenge of Obamacare, last session Senate Republicans went on record broadly opposing mandated health care coverage in the form of SF 94. Though destined not to advance due to the lack of a majority, it is a short read (one page) and is worth becoming aware of as it leaves their philosophical position completely unclouded by confusion.
A close examination into Governor Branstad’s budget proposal for last year reveals that in fiscal year 2012 he will be seeking $42 million of â€œtargeted savings and reductionsâ€ in Medicaid. This is a reaction to the realities of the end of the Stimulus Bill funding, future Iowa L.S.A (Legislative Services Agency) projections, and the out of control nature of Medicaidâ€™s beneficiary eligibility table.
A look back at fiscal years 2009-2011 shows that the Federal government, through the Stimulus Bill, paid an increased share of Iowaâ€™s Medicaid bills that totaled $114 million in 2009, $223.6 million in 2010, and $188.1 million in 2011. The problem faced by the Governor, and the reason Republicans insisted on ending last year with a surplus, is that in 2012 these additional payments cease to exist.
Making matters worse is that the L.S.A. projects, largely due to the ongoing recession, that Iowaâ€™s share of our Medicaid bill will rise from $846.8 million in 2011, to a staggering $1.15 billion in 2012 (an increase of $303.8 million in one year). Keep in mind that when we hear the term â€œout of control entitlementsâ€ thrown around, this is what they are talking about. Next year alone, just the share of Iowaâ€™s Medicaid bill that the Federal government doesnâ€™t pay will be more than one-sixth of our entire state budget.
After researching the table for who qualifies for Medicaid, it doesnâ€™t take long to see why this programâ€™s costs are so astronomically high. Here are just a few of the many examples: a pregnant woman currently qualifies for Medicaid benefits at 300% of the Federal Poverty Level. This means that in 2011 a single, pregnant women making $44,000 a year qualifies for Medicaid, as does her child until the age of one. Along these same lines, a married couple expecting their first child and making $55,000 a year also finds the mother, and again her baby until the age of one, eligible for Medicaid.
In spite of these outrageous figures, Republicans are fully expecting to face relentless political attacks from Democrats as they attempt to trim a very small amount (the $42 million) off of our expenditure sheet.
â€œIt will be seized on anytime you look at entitlement programs. I think that we just have to trust that our voters will understand itâ€™s not sustainable in the long term, and that we are trying to make small fixes now to prevent major slashes later.â€
Obvious to any Iowan even slightly aware of their surroundings, our state has been even further deluged with illegal immigrants in the past decade. If one failed to see this first hand, the Des Moines Register has relentlessly printed front page stories about how lucky we are to have them and how they have re-vitalized many a small Iowa town. To those of us who still respect the rule of law and the notion of American citizens working American jobs, this reality represents something far different.
Asked in very general terms if states have any responsibility in dealing with this problem Sen. Whitver responded, â€œThe Federal government should be doing it, but obviously they are not,â€ leading him to the belief that â€œthere are definitely things that the state [Iowa] can, and should, do as far as curbing illegal immigration.â€
When asked about the validity of the ever present argument that â€œillegal immigrants are just doing jobs that Americans wonâ€™t do,â€ he replied, â€œI donâ€™t buy into the whole â€˜there’s jobs that Americans wonâ€™t doâ€™ because I come from the school that says â€˜I will work any job and do whatever it takes to support my family.â€™â€
Very much reflective of the National scene, after boiling over in mid-2008, this issue has found the back burner. Of the thousands of e-mails and town forum interactions he has had with constituents, there was little outcry regarding this topic.
Highlighting the need for a majority to drive the agenda, it is clear that without a few more Senate seats the issue will not get dealt with and the problem will grow worse. The only bright spot for those concerned is that when asked if Republicans had a majority in the Senate would this issue at least be on the radar screen, Sen. Whitver responded, â€œYes, I think so.â€
All the Senatorâ€™s answers to my questions on the problems in our public education system serve to completely de-bunk the liberal notion that Republicans are somehow against teachers and paying them well. The real issue is whether teachers are going to be quantitatively judged on their performance and prove their merit matches their pay gradeâ€”quite a novel concept.
â€œThe biggest thing I want to be able to do is reward quality teachers. I would like it to be that if young people get in and are excelling as teachers, they can move up to the top of their field and get rewarded for it.â€
The real challenge is how to implement a fair system of measuring the skill of teachers and the impact they have on the students they are presented with each year. Additionally, solving the problem involves confronting other impediments that affect student achievement, such as parent involvement and a proliferation of non-English speaking students (see illegal immigration above). In hopes of arming himself with potential answers to these tough questions, he attended the Governorâ€™s recent Iowa Education Summit, and looks forward to attempting to reverse Iowaâ€™s slide in National education rankings.
In spite of the fact that Federal spending on education has doubled over the last forty years while scores have remained the same, and even though Iowa spends nearly $10,000 per pupil every year, last year the predictable Democrat cries for yet more funding ensued. Republicans took much heat while fighting for 0% growth in the education budget, ultimately compromising by getting the 0% this year and returning back to the traditional 2% increase next year.
â€œ0% allowable growth is actually about $220 million more than the Democrat controlled legislature and Governor gave them last yearâ€”not promised them but gave them. So they can make all the promises they want, but the fact is we actually gave them more money last year, even with 0% allowable growth, because we fully funded it.â€
Though the solutions are complex and infested by political interests, he seemed optimistic and enthusiastic about attacking the problems in next yearâ€™s session, â€œThe bottom line is, if you are not seeing results for what you are putting into it, then something has to change. There are solutions for everything and we can get it fixed. But simply throwing more and more money at it every year is not getting it done.â€
In 2012â€”No More Next Time
After a historically long and grueling session in 2011, much of the same seemingly awaits law makers next year. Our deeply divided legislative bodies failed to resolve several high profile issuesâ€”a luxury the 2012 session will not afford them. In Sen. Whitverâ€™s case, this is exactly what he signed up for:
â€œI wanted to run because we need people who will make the tough choices.â€
From property tax relief, to looking for savings in Medicaid, to education reformâ€”the future holds no lack of just such choices.