State Sen. Chris Widener, a Republican from Springfield, showed admirable political courage last month. He cast a decisive vote to extend eligibility for the state’s Medicaid health insurance program to 275,000 more Ohioans, most of them working-poor.
Now, though, Senator Widener risks compromising his effective and compassionate leadership in an apparent effort to placate an extremist segment of his party. He, and his Republican legislative colleagues, should think again.
Mr. Widener voted for the Medicaid expansion as a member of the state Controlling Board, after leaders of the GOP-run General Assembly refused to allow the full legislature to vote on the matter. The seven-member board, which makes adjustments to the state budget, accepted federal money available under the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) to pay for nearly all of the expansion.
That action is the subject of a lawsuit by conservative groups and state lawmakers who assert that the Controlling Board exceeded its authority. Meanwhile, Mr. Widener has introduced legislation that would limit the board’s ability to approve spending-related budget changes. A similar bill is before the state House.
Such proposals are at least premature while the case is pending. More broadly, they would deny the Controlling Board flexibility to respond to budget emergencies and opportunities.
In recent years, the board has accepted federal money for Ohio schools under the Race to the Top program and received stimulus funding to help combat the Great Recession here. Had the legislation proposed by Mr. Widener and his colleagues been in effect then, the state could have faced counterproductive delays in addressing key budget issues. There’s no justification for punishing the board now because it acted on Medicaid expansion in a way that a large majority of Ohioans supported.
At the same time, Mr. Widener proposes applying anticipated savings to the state from the federally financed Medicaid expansion — as much as $400 million next year — to a cut in the Ohio income tax. That’s another bad idea.
Like other tax cuts the legislature has enacted in recent years, this one would disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Ohioans and provide little or no tax relief to middle-income, working-class, and poor families. In any event, the state’s rainy-day reserve fund has grown so large that the Medicaid savings would create a budget surplus if they are not spent. That would mandate a tax cut without further legislative action, making Mr. Widener’s proposal unnecessary.
But the devastating spending cuts state government has made throughout the recession have damaged essential public services, notably education and public safety. These need to be restored before the state contemplates further tax reductions.
Gov. John Kasich, who fought for the Medicaid expansion, as well as Senator Widener and other members of the Controlling Board who voted for it, owe no one an apology. The expansion will save lives and prevent serious illness, save state and local governments money, create jobs, shore up hospitals’ finances, and reduce the need for Ohio employers and workers with private insurance to subsidize the emergency-care costs of people who lack coverage.
Nor is there any reason to enact largely symbolic anti-government moves and regressive tax cuts to play to the Tea Party fringe of the Ohio GOP that is determined to destroy Obamacare at all costs. Had the full legislature been permitted to vote on the Medicaid expansion, it likely would have gotten bipartisan majority support.
The General Assembly should leave matters at that. But if it is determined to blunt the beneficial effects of Medicaid expansion, Ohio’s conservative Republican governor should brandish his veto pen in a way that reminds his party’s lawmakers what really matters.