Politics & Prejudices: While Michigan slept

Sep 30, 2015 at 1:00 am

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

— The Wizard of Oz

If you've been paying attention to state government news over the last couple of months, this is what you learned:

In our last episode, devout Christians Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat came to Lansing to stop liberalism and reform the place ... but then, they started having a mad, passionate affair! Todd tried to throw investigators off the scent with a phony email saying he paid for sex with a male hooker!

But they both got caught anyway! Todd eventually quit after a melodramatic all-night session, but Cindy hung firm till they threw her out. But what's this? Both are trying to make a comeback! Todd's wife let him run again! But will they win?

Will their colleagues let them back in the Capitol? And if they get there, will they be able to resist making the beast with two backs at the nearby Lansing Hotel Radisson?

Steamy stuff indeed, especially if you can't find your Soap Opera Digest. True, Todd looks like a bargain-basement David Koresh without a congregation, and Cindy Gamrat is as much of a femme fatale as you'd expect a second-shift hairdresser in someplace like Melvindale to be.

But hey, they did used to say politics is show business for ugly people. But as drearily fascinating as all this may be, the special interests have to love the media obsession with the Todd and Cindy show. It means there's even less chance you'll ever get to hear about anything that really matters.

For example, here's a minor little story that can't possibly compete for attention with our randy representatives: Unless something changes, 600,000 people in Michigan may well lose their health insurance on April 30 next year.

That's all of us who get Medicaid. Two years ago, our state was offered an amazing deal, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, the much-hated and totally needed Obamacare.

The federal government offered to let states expand Medicaid protection to those making up to one-third more than the official poverty level. We aren't talking subsidized health care for the rich here. The most a family of four could earn and still qualify for benefits is $32,500 a year.

Try raising a couple of kids on that. What's more, the feds offered to assume the entire cost, for three years, anyway.

After next year, Michigan may have to pay a little bit — but the feds will always pay at least 90 percent. That was an amazing offer. To his credit, Governor Rick Snyder realized this.

So did the rational and intelligent part of the business community. A healthier workforce is, after all, a more productive workforce, one with less absenteeism.

But the state legislature, especially the Senate, didn't want to expand Medicaid. Today, a large part of what motivates many Republicans seems to be intolerance and hatred. (Not to mention ignorance.)

Hatred for minorities, hatred for the poor and disadvantaged. That, and a hatred of government, especially Washington, and an unwillingness to ever raise government revenues, no matter how pressing the common need.

The Medicaid expansion bill was at first rejected by the state Senate, but was finally passed grudgingly, by a mere two votes, only after some conditions were added.

They required two waivers from the federal Centers for Medicare. The first was largely procedural, though it did require those getting aid to contribute 2 percent of their tiny family incomes to help pay for services.

However, Big Brother did add that that surcharge might be reduced based on the poor exhibiting "healthy behaviors." (Republicans seldom have any problem with intrusive government, as long as the ones being spied on are the poor.)

The feds granted that waiver in 2013 — but the bill the legislature finally passed contained a ticking time bomb: Unless the federal government allows a second, much more radical waiver, the entire Medicaid program will end next April 30.

That will mean that not only will the 100,000 or so folks who got coverage under the expansion lose their benefits — everybody who makes much less will too.

According to an analysis by the Michigan League for Public Policy, this means "about 600,000 Michigan residents will lose their healthcare coverage even though the waiver provisions only apply" to about one-sixth of them.

Approval of that second waiver is expected to be far harder to obtain, that analysis concludes. Why? Doing the things it demands may be in violation of federal rules.

Republican ideology commonly holds that no one should get any form of "welfare" for longer than four years. What Michigan wants to do is force those who make more than the official poverty level — $11,770 for a single person; $24,250 for a family of poor — to assume 7 percent of the costs.

That, and pay 3.5 percent of their tiny incomes. Either do that, or get off Medicaid and find a private company to insure them, even though the benefits may not be as good.

That may be rejected, the nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan League believes, because "it is not clear if there is a federal waiver option that meets the requirements of the state law and does not violate federal law or regulation(s)."

How long before we know if the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid will grant the waiver? Nobody knows. Bafflingly, the state didn't even file a request for this waiver till the start of this month, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich told me. He thought they wanted to make sure they did it right.

What if they say no? Well, then the state will have till New Year's Eve to amend the bill, or pass a new bill, that expands Medicaid and sticks to the federal guidelines.

That may be hard, however; this legislature is even more full of right-wing anti-tax nuts than the last one, and that group barely passed the expansion, after first voting it down.

You might think Michigan Republicans wouldn't want to start an election year by taking health insurance away from 600,000 folks. Rational politicians would never do that.

But this is a party most of whose members voted against a free expansion of benefits two years ago, and whose leading presidential candidate wants to deport 30 million people.

If you aren't scared, you should be.

Banana Bill: But wait — there's good news! Our lawmakers may be destroying Medicaid and failing to fix our roads. But on Sept. 17, eleven of them introduced a truly important proposed new law. House Bill 4883 would make it illegal to put a condom on a banana, or even a zucchini, in sex education classes in any Michigan public school.

The kids are supposed to be told to practice abstinence instead. No, you can't make this stuff up. Yes, well, maybe we aren't ready for democracy after all. Interestingly, the bill does not make it illegal to show that classic movie, American Pie.

Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.