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When Outside the Box, Remember the Box

A meditation on HCB3 and the 2017 Missouri Legislative Session which ended Friday, May 12.

All’s well that ends well” seems to be one of the wistful, collective sighs emanating from a near universal sense of resignation regarding the 2017 session.

Others are:

“It could have been much worse”.

“Things maybe weren’t that bad”.

“It took some time, but they did the right thing”.

“I’m grateful to <insert the name of troublemaker here>. He/She didn’t have to <insert right thing here>”.

In some senses, the session ended well for many. The Senate version of House Committee Bill 3 (HCB3) passed by a comfortable margin in the House after the obstinate handler of the bill relented and allowed an up or down vote.

But having secured more favorable ends, the toil of means is quickly overshadowed by a need to feel comfortable or to rest or to forget.

It is important to remember that none of the angst, effort, uncertainty, weariness and risks were necessary. These difficult and frightful experiences were the result of perverse politics not principled necessity.

This “box” imposed upon the budget and policy environment was an artificial construct; the product of extreme persons with particular ideologies and a hunger for games.

The narrow band of choices presented to us is summed up by a little cliché heard over and over during the budget process:

“We must rob Peter, to pay Paul”.

Do people in power ever ask; “Why must Peter’s suffering pay Paul’s expenses?” “Do the robbers work for Paul?” “Am I a robber?”

Sometimes, after averting a total disaster, we forget to recall how we got “here” in the first place. Pertinent details fade with time and rest. And we forget what happened to us.

Therefore it is important to remember:

  1. Though Medicaid is often blamed for all the structural problems of Missouri’s budget, tax credits and tax cuts for businesses, wealthy individuals and corporation are actually a tremendous drain on general revenue.
  2. The 2017 budget shortfall was largely caused by the elimination and reduction of some business taxes which cost the state far more than first estimated.
  3. The Governor’s original budget recommendations included an increase in level of care requirements (LOC) to 27 points. This would have been simply devastating to participants and to home and community based service (HCBS) programs. No one from his office has explained where this policy idea came from.
  4. A major reason the Governor switched his recommendations back to 21 points is related to the advocacy efforts which were gearing up in February around a public comment hearing.
  5. Then the House Budget chair decided to link funding for HCBS, Alzheimer grants and other vital services to a repeal of the “circuit breaker” tax credit (CB) for people with disabilities and seniors, thus creating a political box, a snare.
  6. The “box” is the impossible and unnecessary choice of either keeping the circuit breaker and letting 8,000 people lose crucial HCBS services or keep the services and let 100,000 people lose a vital financial lifeline which according to the Constitution they have every right to access. There have been attempts to overturn the renter’s portion of the circuit breaker for over a decade. There have also been large scale efforts to undermine the Medicaid program in Missouri for a long time.
  7. Now, in a gambit more fit for a chess hustle than for civic life, the House would take “tough votes” on CB repeal in HCB3 and cuts in budget bills HB10 and HB11. But then the appropriations process would create an irresistible momentum, which would be blamed for killing one “bird” and mortally wound the other without their fingerprints on the stone. The Senate would have to decide which bird dies. If they refuse to eliminate CB, then they would be blamed for the drastic cut in services. If providers work to save CB, then they would in effect be responsible for the cut in reimbursement rates. After the initial passage of the Budget and HCB3 in the House, the box would become the invisible but rigid structure around the process. And everyone would simply accept this as they always do.
  8. At one point, while “selling” the gambit vote, the Budget Chair said “We must do this. We have no choice.” However, that simply was not accurate. It is estimated that between $100 and $183 million was being “held” by the Budget chair for a supplemental budget. But, there were numerous new items in the budget, along with funding for pet projects in key districts with powerful legislators. Yet the costs for funding the programs tied to the CB repeal were far less than the amount arbitrarily held in “reserve”.
  9. On March 15th, Representative Deb Lavender presented the House Budget Committee with a brilliant way to avoid harming those benefiting from CB while retaining vital services for others. The General Assembly has the ability to reapportion or “sweep” accounts belonging to certain state administered funds with balances over $1 million above a certain threshold. The idea was to take a certain percentage from those funds well above their statutory threshold and use those moneys to pay for services.
  10. On March 28 (video link: go to 4:12:13 mark) this same idea was presented in much greater detail during the amendment process of Budget “markup”. The idea was well conceived, thoroughly vetted and workable. But because the idea was outside the box which the House leadership wanted everyone in, the idea was rejected out of hand.
  11. The legislative vehicle to repeal CB was House Committee Bill 3 (HCB3) and it passed the House, but not without controversy. Then the Senate took up the bill and Democrats filibustered it until 5:30am. It was effectively “dead” from that point forward.
  12. Although it was clear that a CB repeal under these circumstances was a nonstarter, nevertheless he persisted. By dominating the budget process, the House insured that the LOC point elevation and the provider rate cut would be built into the budget and could only be alleviated if HCB3 was passed.

But not everyone accepted those terms.

A number of organizations risked deeper rate cuts and being blamed for a loss of services because they worked to protect the circuit breaker from repeal. But they held firm to principle.

Rob Peter of his circuit breaker today, he’ll be fair game tomorrow and the next day too. It’s a slippery slope, a gravity snare. A Faustian bargain. There is no moral upside to robbery.

And a bipartisan group of Senators came to the same conclusions. Working with a few Representatives, Senators Shalon Curls and Ryan Silvey led in adapting the idea first proposed during the House Budget hearings on March 15th by Representative Lavender and incorporated it into the bill.

Since HCB3 was being framed as simply a funding bill for senior services, the Senate simply switched the funding mechanism from a CB repeal to the “swept” funds. They voted it out and sent it back to “the Lower Chamber”.

Now the House was trapped in their own box. The circuit breaker was safe for that session and if people with disabilities and seniors lost vital services which keeps them healthier, independent and alive, the blame would easily and eagerly be placed on the House.

Though every ploy was deployed by House negotiators (cajoling, “reasoning”, legalism, pleading, “Constitution shaming”, private attempts at bullying, public denunciations, silence and mockery), the Senate held firm. No conferences. No further negotiations. No compromises.

“You can take up the bill and pass it or leave it to die and take your chances with your constituents.”

The Senate was not “playing chicken” nor being stubborn. By every account and every indication, the House was not negotiating in good faith. They seemed to expect that any significant “compromise” would be only on their terms. Their proffers also continued to target the poor, elderly and people with disabilities even once CB was completely off the table. Still trying to kill birds with covert stones.

Then there were the dishonest claims during an honest debate. Several statements of misinformation were posited by certain defenders of the House position. One of those claims was that the Senate version was a haphazard, slapdash, last minute gimmick.

Similar descriptions were used on the House floor by members of the Budget committee as a reason to reject the proposal. However, the funding mechanism in the bill was the same idea presented nearly two months ago (video link: go to the 4:12:13 mark) during the full House Budget committee (see points #9&10 above).

So there was plenty of time for House appropriators to vet the proposal, to refine it and come to some agreement concerning its outlines and details. But they simply ignored the idea until they had no choice but to confront the idea on the House floor. And their means of confrontation were harsh rhetoric and counter-proposals.

It was the House amendments and replacement schemes that actually fit the slapdash, haphazard gimmickry the Senate efforts were accused of using.

Some of the amendments and counter-offers totally contradicted the main reasons for rejecting the “sweep” proposal in the first place.

For example, complaints about others using “one time money for ongoing expenditures” gave way to them offering to fund these “ongoing expenditures with one time money”. They proposed devoting “excess funds” over and above the consensus revenue figure (which changes every year) to these at risk services.

Except this “excess revenue” was tied to a fiscal benchmark unlikely to be reached by the state, mostly because of the tax cut/tax credit structures that have Missouri boxed in.

There has not been much “excess” money in Missouri state budgets since Hancock, Senate Bill 19 and many other tax cut/tax credit expenditures.

The House presented this and other offers which had little chance of working under any practical circumstances.

And a palpable unease settled within the Capitol as time marched on.

For several long, uncertain, weary days the Budget chair persisted in his resistance to bringing the Senate version of HCB3 up for a simple up or down vote. He refused because it was clear if the bill was brought to the House floor it would easily pass with strong bipartisan support.

People effected by the cuts and the organizations which support them brought tremendous inside and outside pressure to bear upon the House. Still there was no indication of a change of heart.

Then, on the last day, during the last hour, five minutes before the constitutionally mandated end of the 2017 session, after a speech condemning the details of bill, the Senate version of HCB3 was allowed to come to the House floor for a up or down vote.

It easily passed 83–67. (video link; go to the 4:24:19 mark)

And we were happy, filled with joy and grateful.

“The robber took our shirts and shoes but not our lives.”

Not once, though, was there serious public consideration of retrieving the revenue loss by the underestimate of costs associated with 2014 Senate Bill 19. The only tax credits which have been attacked over and over again are those benefiting poor people.

Yet, “Paul” gets to keep his tax credits and his tax cuts and his social capital that allows him to walk in respectable company.

But we managed to escape the box by not allowing ourselves to accept the choice between two evils as our only options, this year.

And we must remember that box so we won’t be trapped next year. Or the year after. Or the year after that.

Isn’t it a sick irony to be expected to be grateful to the arsonists that sets your House (and Senate) on fire but calls the fire department in time to save your elderly mother’s life from burning completely down? Damaged but at least not ashes?

Yes, i’m grateful to God for His grace. i’m grateful to the majority of the Senate who held firm. And to the Representative who came up with the sweep idea. And to the House members who voted to pass the Senate’s HCB3.

And to the policy makers, staff, advocates, lobbyists and citizens who exerted great effort, imagination and patience to do all within their power to protect over 108,000 people from losing a lot of the little they have.

Why should we be grateful to those who risked people’s lives and well being and then, at the very last minute, decided to do the right thing to savage badly damaged political capital? Especially since they promise to do it all again next time.

It is good that they did what is right, prudent and kind. And it is appropriate to say “thank you”.

But like my mother taught me: “You shouldn’t expect praise for doing what you’re supposed do anyway.”

There is a saying: “When the game is over the king and the pawns all go into the same box.”

Except the pawns usually go into the box much sooner and more worn than the king.

It is so good to know there are still people who recognize we don’t have to be pawns in someone else’s game.

And that no matter how much they insist, we can resist would-be kings and let them fall into the very boxes they have made for others.

Don’t forget: To stay outside of the box, remember there is a box.

And that you are no pawn.

The views, opinions or analysis expressed here only reflect those beliefs of Shawn D’Abreu and not of any clients represented by DDS.
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