By Shelli Dawdy
Big thanks to Linda for helping with this to refresh my memory!
Yesterday we published an article about the meeting of Nebraska State Senators representing districts in Lancaster County that occurred last Wednesday, November 17. As noted, the first half of the meeting was allocated for the purpose of taking public input about Nebraska’s child welfare system.
While there were some folks interested in the child welfare issue who remained after the 6:30pm break, the majority of the room cleared out. I had intended to address the issue of the budget in general and its ties to the implementation of the health care law when I learned of the meeting. While my intention did not change, I realized the subject which had been the focus of the first half of the meeting was entirely relevant to the issue I had intended to raise.
Since my remarks were not recorded in any way and I hadn’t prepared “a speech” I can only do my best to reconstruct them here.
I explained to the Senators that I am a citizen and taxpayer and likely a voice which they do not hear from very often; I came to let them know I don’t want anything from the government. I want to work hard, take care of my family, and yes, pay my taxes, but generally, I’d just like to be left alone to make my own decisions. I noted that I had attended a number of meetings such as the one Wednesday night and I have found that discussion is always focused on what people want government to do for them.
I noted after having listened to the meeting up to that point, that what I was saying was in fact related to the problems aired about Nebraska’s child welfare system. Government is too big, and it is doing too much. There is a phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” If government did less, it might do better.
I noted that the Child Development Center had brought up the subject of Medicaid cuts. The current proposal affecting child welfare is that the number of levels of group homes available in Nebraska would be reduced from four to two, which would apparently make proper placement of children even more difficult than it currently is. Issues such as this should cause us to ask the question; what should the Medicaid program actually be doing?
Even the most limited-government advocates among us can agree that a safety net should exist for the most vulnerable members of our society, endangered children. But I noted, it’s time to ask ourselves the question, what should Medicaid be doing? Should it be covering at-risk children or able-bodied adults at 133%, 185%, or 200% of the poverty line? I noted that I had not had time to check the statistics on Nebraska’s Medicaid qualification criteria, but my point was valid, even at the lowest percentage I quoted.
I went on to note that Nebraska’s budget is in big trouble, but it is frustrating for citizens following all of these matters to even get a handle on the problem; the numbers keep fluctuating on the shortfall. It’s been projected as low as $900 million+ and as high as $1.4 billion. Nebraska’s budget is too complex, so complex that a special procedure had to be implemented last session, LR542, so that Senators could spend 6 – 9 months understanding it. It should not be that complex; it is an indicator that government is too big.
I explained that I had attended a meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee created by LR542 at the end of June. What I heard there were a lot of reasons, including federal mandates and matching funds, that this or that part of the budget could not be cut. What I did not hear was anyone talking about the fundamental question; what should government be doing? What is it’s proper role?
I reminded that Senator Haar had pointed out just a few minutes prior that the proposed 10% cuts across the board approach embedded in that 542 process was not leadership. I agree with Senator Haar; a 10% across the board approach assumes a couple of things, one of which is that all current government programs are of equal value and equally legitimate.
Again, we are in big trouble and we need to focus. Instead of cutting 10% across the board, we need to look at what government should really be doing and cut the things that are outside its proper scope.
This whole subject is tied to the implementation of the health care law. Few Nebraskans are aware that the law is to be implemented mostly through the states. I concluded my remarks by saying I would like to hear from each of the Senators present the answer to the following question:
Do you support the implementation of the health care law, and if so, why? If you do not support the law, what do you intend to slow down or stop its implementation?
I am sorry to report that I made the mistake of sitting down too quickly and not staying put to ensure I got an answer. Another gentleman came up immediately behind me and went back to the issue of the child welfare system, and the Senators were thus able to forget about my question entirely. I do apologize to everyone reading this for not having the presence of mind to stay put. I would very much like an answer! If you would, as well, please stay tuned, as we will be asking people to join with us in an effort to extract that answer in the very near future.
Following the gentleman who had returned to address the issue from earlier in the evening, a UNL student returned to the microphone for a second statement to let the Senators know that the proposed DREAM Act and earlier discussions of “cultural barriers” for Spanish speaking families in the foster care system were related. Senator Haar had questioned whether or not services were provided to families who were “undocumented”. The UNL student stated that he believed the tuition assistance provided by the DREAM Act and provision of services for the Spanish speaking families were human rights and that it shouldn’t matter if the recipients were in the country legally or not.
Fortunately, Linda decided not to let such assertions go unchallenged. She firmly asserted that there is a big difference between human rights and rights as a citizen under the Constitution and she and the young man clearly had a difference of opinion on that subject.
Turning to other matters, Linda wanted to underline problems with our state budget beyond the points I raised. Few people are aware that 40% of Nebraska’s budget comes from federal funding. The primary concern expressed regarding that fact was to ask the Senators what happens if and when that money dries up? We have a deficit now with the 60% of funds over which the Unicameral has direct control. If they cannot balance their 60% now, largely because they cannot agree on cuts, what will they do to address the even larger shortfall that will occur if necessary cuts are made at the federal level? Right now, there’s a refusal to contemplate that such a thing might happen. Linda asked the Senators to open their minds to that possibility.
Linda’s remaining remarks concerned health reform and the expansion in the state’s Medicaid program that it requires. She made the point that 47% of the births in Nebraska in 2008 were paid for by the state’s present Medicaid system. This astounded a few of the Senators present who quickly and rather loudly asked their colleagues if Linda’s figures were correct. This led to exchanges between Linda and Senator Conrad and Linda and Senator McGill. (There will be brief article released later today regarding Senator McGill.) Linda’s overall point, however, may have been lost in the confusion. That point was that the state’s Medicaid “safety net” is apparently far too wide and deep. As a result, it positions itself as the payer of first resort, displacing both personal responsibility and private charity, which should come first and second rather than run a distant second and third to the State in this instance.
Finally, Linda asked the Senators to view the health reform law as an opportunity to examine the state’s Medicaid system and set state goals for the program that reflect Nebraska’s unique situation, both its assets — in terms of its people, its economy, and its culture — and its needs. One way to do that without federal interference is for the Senators to consider opting out of the new health reform law. Nebraska would lose federal funding for Medicaid, a great deal of money, but gain the freedom to craft a program suited to Nebraska — perhaps one that we might actually be able to afford and that is a proper safety net, not payer of first resort.