Exile on Jones Street: Information overload at the NCGA

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kirk rossby Kirk Ross

The start of any session of the legislature is a flurry of activity followed by a lull followed by another flurry followed by… you get the picture.

If you’re trying to figure out what’s going on, you either get too much information too fast to process or it’s radio silence. This session is no different, with the traditional opening ceremonies followed by a lot of nothing as things get better organized.

Now with the committees sorted out, the resumption of the session this week is as cacophonous as the last couple of weeks have been quiet.

There were a few bits of information in the traditional January lull, starting just after the opening day’s ceremonies when Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger fielded a few questions.

As the two got comfortable with trading the mic in the press room, they got the inevitable question on Medicaid expansion. They could not have answered with a more unified or definitive “No.”

When someone writes this chapter of the state history, I hope they have a better understanding of just why our elected leaders have been so strongly against the expansion. Because right now it still smacks of politics and that is damn shame.

Speaker Moore’s view on why the state shouldn’t expand is that he doesn’t trust the federal government to keep the money flowing to the state. While that is certainly a concern given the overall history of the relationship of state and federal government, it is a little selective. The state continues to do things like build roads and contract to dump sand on beaches while the federal dollars ebb and flow. No one is suggesting we can’t do those things because the feds are flaky.

The economic benefits of Medicaid expansion are just as solid and the impact at least as meaningful to the lives of North Carolina as transportation and travel and tourism. But, you know, Obama.

Berger’s reason was more vague, but stated more firmly. He’s against it, he said, because he is still not convinced it’s a good idea.

That’s a little harder to swallow, especially since there is a growing body of work showing the advantages.

Even if you set aside the number of jobs (north of 40,000) and the tens of billions of federal dough that would come with expansion, you have to wonder how anyone can overlook the obvious advantage of having a healthier populace at the lower end of the income spectrum.

If you get people healthcare sooner, the main thrust of this effort, they lead more productive lives. Since the bulk of the population that would benefit from expansion is made up of children and young people, there’s a golden opportunity to head off the kinds of chronic illness that cause a lifetime of misery and costs to the families and the state.

But the lives of people are not part of this debate. It’s almost all about money and jobs because it seems that’s the only language spoken in Raleigh anymore.

So we might as well give up. If study after study showing the benefits and the real need for expansion hasn’t convinced the person who is, arguably, at the center of power in this state, then why bother? If one solid way to improve the lives of 500,000 North Carolinians and their families isn’t even on the table, then forget it.

This is where, when it comes to policymaking in North Carolina, the result of the November elections are really starting to show. If Thom Tillis had lost and any members of the state Senate unseated, chances are the leadership would have reconsidered its hardline position on Medicaid sometime last December. Pat McCrory, who is looking at a tough statewide election, certainly did.

But with proof that the grand redistricting of 2011 has made them and their majorities almost invincible, there’s little leverage to get Berger and Moore to budge.

This will go down in history as a foolish move, one in which petty politics got in the way of sound policy and a clear opportunity for healthier, more productive lives throughout the state.

  • John Davis

    Kirk Ross, your clear-eyed perspective on the General Assembly is greatly appreciated here in Greensboro.