Democrats have focused on Republican state senator Randi Becker (R-2) as exhibit A in their case that dissident Democrat Sen. Rodney Tom's (D-48) "Majority Coalition Caucus" is a full-fledged Republican coup.
Despite Tom's pledge to his former Democratic caucus colleagues—and the New York Times—that he'll hold the GOP's conservative social agenda in check, Democrats such as liberal Seattle state senator David Frockt (D-46) have pointed to Tom's decision to make Becker chair of the Health Care Committee as proof that 2012's blue mandate—Obama, Jay Inslee, Maria Cantwell, Suzan DelBene, Bob Ferguson, pot, gay marriage—will be ignored on issues like Obamacare, which is going through Becker's committee.
"I wanted to make sure the legislature is the driving force in shaping the exchange."—state senator Becker
Tom tells us he isn't nervous about empowering the Republicans because the liberal house and Democratic governor-elect Inslee will nuke any effort to "roll back" women's rights or gay rights. Of course, that ingores the complaint that the Republican senate will nuke any effort to advance the Democrats' social agenda—say, by passing the Reproductive Parity Act, which would require insurance companies that cover maternity care to cover abortions or again, moving forward on the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
As we noted in today's Fizz, the Democrats' charge that Becker is a Tea Partier when it comes to Obamacare isn't exactly right. Becker defied the ideologues in her party in 2011 and voted with the Democrats (and a few moderate Republicans such as senators Steve Litzow, R-41, Andy Hill, R-45, and Joe Fain, R-47) to authorize the ACA, instituting the health care exchange and the exchange board.
However, she voted against 2012's follow-up legislation, sponsored by liberal West Seattle house Representative Eileen Cody (D-34), to start defining the terms for the exchange, outlining, for example, what types of plans insurers had to offer. The rules that were approved, according to Frockt, a key negotiator on the bill, basically made sure that insurance companies weren't able to cherry pick and saddle the exchange with higher costs.
To gauge the reality of senator Becker's bogeyman status for Democrats, we're giving her the mike on this, the Friday before session starts on Monday.
One Question for senator Becker: Why did you vote against the second ACA bill?
Here's what she told us:
Towards the end of last session, leaders of the Health Care Committee in the Senate were working on a bill that would have required checks and balances in the establishment the exchange. The exchange board would have had to report back to the legislature and ask for authority on important provisions of the exchange. At the last minute, a new version of the bill was brought forward which gave the exchange board far more power than what we had proposed. Because I wanted to make sure the legislature is the driving force in shaping the exchange, and that the process is transparent, I was unable to support [the bill].
The sorts of "important provisions" Becker is worried about concern funding: The exchange is estimated to cost $50 million in infrastructure overhead. The feds are covering it for now, but the state will have to cover it in 2015. Ideas such as a premium tax on insurers are in the mix and Becker wants the legislature, not the unelected board, to have the final say. The nine-member board is appointed by the governor from a list submitted by all four caucuses in the legislature.
Democratic Sen. Frockt tells PubliCola: “[The bill] states that the Exchange ‘shall operate consistent with the Affordable Care Act subject to statutory authorization.’ It also states plainly that the exchange has to report back to the legislature at least annually on its activities or as requested. Just like any of the other public-private partnerships we have in state law, it is a creature of our statutory authorization subject to review, reform and change by future legislatures and governors. So I think the Legislature is going to be extremely involved in the work of the exchange."
He added: "The bill that passed last year did not have a single member from the Republican side in the entire legislature supporting it. I hope we can get away from reflexive opposition to the exchange simply because it was part of ‘Obamacare.’”
Everything, so-called cultural issues included, always come down to the budget.
As for the Reproductive Parity Act, Becker, who's staunchly anti-choice, told us:
I haven't had an opportunity to examine the new RPA bill, but in fairness to all parties I will keep an open mind about the issue in the coming session. With previous versions of the bill, two of my biggest concerns were the measure's potential fiscal implications and the possibility that it could infringe on the religious freedom of health-care providers.
Footnote: In an effort to defuse Democratic fears about Becker, a Republican senate staffer also says Obamacare "has left the station" and they'd "be shocked if there were large-scale changes or attempts at repeal."
Besides, they point out, the outstanding issues are essentially financial—for example, how is the state going to cover Medicaid expansion? Those sorts of budgeting questions will be debated in the Ways & Means Committee, not Becker's Health Care Committee.
Though keep in mind, Sen. Andy Hill (R-45, Kirkland), who's chairing Ways & Means in the Tom equation, voted against the follow-up ACA bill as well.
And that fact brings us to another Democratic concern about Tom's pledge that he's only focusing on budgeting, not social issues. Everything, so-called cultural issues included, always come down to the budget.