By John Clayton
Living as close as we do to the Commonwealth of Virginia, separated only by a moderately-sized river (which Maryland owns, by the way), it is hard to not follow Virginia’s escapades. How could two states that are so close geographically be so totally different, given their many similarities? Both states live and thrive at the federal trough, given that we surround the nation’s capital, that ever-flowing, recession-inoculating font of contracting revenue. So in that sense, Virginia is two states, where Northern Virginia is a more liberal extension of the District of Columbia, and the rest of the state keeps at least one riding boot firmly in conservative red-meat America, with enough clout to keep a red state from turning any worse than purple. The bulk of Maryland’s population is wrapped around the Baltimore-Washington urban corridor, with heavily Democratic numbers sufficient to maintain a virtual one-party state, to the consternation of the more rural areas of the state, primarily east and west, which continue to significantly vote Republican.
For all of the differences between the two states, from taxation, the death penalty, gun restrictions, or abortion rights, to name but a few, the one in the limelight right now is healthcare. Specifically, this refers to the use of federal funds from the Affordable Protection, uhh, Patient Care, er, you know, Obamacare. Twenty-six states, including Maryland and the District of Columbia, have implemented Obamacare in some way and accepted money for Medicaid expansion to the poorest of all. Maryland, in its zeal to implement the program, and unencumbered by the partisan squabbling that might have impeded its work, rolled out possibly the most dysfunctional healthcare website in the United States. Our lieutenant governor, taking full credit before he realized he was barely involved at all, has ridden this to electoral success as the Democratic nominee for governor. It wasn’t pretty, but the state made universal healthcare a primary goal, which I think was the right call.
Twenty states, including Virginia, refused the Medicaid offer, and four other states have plans for alternative uses of the funds to expand insurance coverage to their neediest citizens. Virginia is not one of them. Virginia’s House of Delegates has refused to allow the use of the federal funds to expand Medicaid in any way. The new Democratic governor agreed to a compromise State Senate plan for using the funds, but the House of Delegates, which just regained a Republican majority with the resignation of a Democratic legislator, has remained unanimously steadfast. The governor has controversially set off a new battle by vowing to unilaterally spend the Obamacare money, in some as yet undefined fashion. Two-party states really are a lot more entertaining.
I admit to being stumped by the Virginia legislature’s refusal to accept federal money that would purportedly provide access to improved healthcare for 400,000 of its poorest citizens. I have attempted to understand the objections, and there are two that appear dominant. The first is a refusal to countenance anything that has anything to do with Obamacare—period, full stop. This is not accompanied by any indication of a desire to solve the problem by other means, but, in fairness, perhaps they don’t see a problem to be solved. The second prominent objection has to do with the fact that the federal government will pay for one hundred percent of the cost through 2016. In 2017, five percent of the burden of the program will be thrust upon the states, and the feds will continue paying ninety-five percent. A corollary to that, from some parties, is the fear that even more of the costs of caring for such people in one’s own state could accrue beyond that. Clearly, these folks are not going to be conned into having to spend their own tax money to expand access to health insurance to their own citizens.
All of this gets back to fundamental differences on taxes and spending. Having gone through a number of analyses over relative state tax burdens in order to write this column, it is safe to say that Maryland is a higher-tax state and spends more than most states. Virginia is, by all measures, a lower tax state than Maryland, but still more or less middle of the pack. Neither state stands out as being an extreme outlier on total state and local tax burden. It is tempting to take the Tea Party line and just declare that a state that spends or taxes less than another is ipso facto a better-run state. I think one has to also look at what the state achieves with its spending, or what it is choosing to not support as well as it might. I think overall we get excellent schools and services for our money. I wouldn’t want to be Texas, or Florida, or Mississippi just for the sake of lower taxes; however, I also think our leaders are going to learn someday that resistance to increased tax burdens is not just a Republican sentiment, but one shared by increasing numbers of its citizens across the political spectrum. I would hope that the state will show some restraint and even consider some relief, but I also think we get pretty good services for what we pay.