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Health plan’s death shows system works

Who says Sacramento is dysfunctional? It just stared down the governor and the Assembly speaker and pulled the plug on their seriously ill universal healthcare proposal.

In that instance Monday, the system worked as it’s supposed to -- protecting the public from well-intentioned but risky legislation that, until a few days earlier, had not been thoroughly vetted by any neutral expert.

Sure, universal healthcare would be terrific in California. Too bad we can’t afford it, not with the state falling into a $14.5-billion budget crevasse and a governor who refuses to even consider partially filling the gap with tax hikes.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) contended their $14.9-billion healthcare plan was self-sustaining. Maybe. Probably not.

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To give credit where specifically due, it was the Senate that functioned as the system was designed -- proving the value of a two-house Legislature with its awkward checks and balances. It shot down the occasional arguments of efficiency tinkerers who would merge the houses into a streamlined unicameral legislature.

Another thing this exercise showed is the value of legislative experience and the danger of term limits.

It was the relatively inexperienced Nunez -- five years a legislator -- and his green Assembly Democratic followers who naively tried to rush the healthcare bill through the Legislature without careful scrutiny.

The veteran Senate paused, took a deep breath and buried the bill -- particularly Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) and Health Committee Chairwoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), with 11 and 13 years’ legislative experience respectively.

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Let’s quickly review the action:

All last year, Schwarzenegger, Democratic leaders and interest groups tried to negotiate a plan to provide medical insurance for roughly 5 million uncovered Californians. Finally in mid-December, the governor and speaker compromised on a strange deal. The Legislature would pass a plan providing the coverage benefits on a majority vote. But to raise the revenue -- hospital and employer fees, a stiff tobacco tax -- citizen signatures would be collected and an initiative placed on the November ballot. That was necessary because a two-thirds vote was required to pass a revenue bill. And Schwarzenegger couldn’t deliver the needed Republicans.

Time was crucial to qualify the measure. So the benefits bill was rushed through the Assembly just before Christmas, on a party-line vote, after only a pro forma committee hearing.

Hold on, proclaimed a leery Perata. He called in the “Budget Nun,” nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Elizabeth G. Hill, whose reports are incorruptible and considered the Capitol bible. Last week, she reported that the healthcare plan could be underfunded by anywhere from $300 million to $3 billion annually within five years.

But it was too late for amendments. The Senate was told to take the bill or leave it -- not a nice sound to a legislator.

Kuehl’s committee held a thorough, 11-hour hearing -- virtually unheard of in Sacramento these days -- and afterward the bill mustered only one vote. “It doesn’t matter if there are these good things in the bill if there isn’t the money to pay for them,” Kuehl noted.

Granted, senators may have had other motives besides fiscal responsibility.

Kuehl is a longtime advocate of switching from private insurance to a government-run, “single-payer” healthcare system. In fact, her single-payer bill has been buried in the Assembly Appropriations Committee since July.

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At a news conference Tuesday, Nunez became the first legislator I’ve ever heard to slam a report by a legislative analyst. Hill’s analysis “didn’t do [the bill] justice,” the speaker asserted. “We did not have a hearing -- not for one minute -- on the facts of this bill.”

Responds Kuehl: “He’s a petulant little boy who doesn’t like the fact that she gave a real analysis.”

Perata, although technically a coauthor of the measure, was not personally part of the bargaining with Schwarzenegger. So he didn’t have much invested. Indeed, as Senate opposition grew, he decided to follow his colleagues rather than risk unsuccessfully trying to lead them toward voting for the bill. At a Democratic caucus Monday, Perata actually asked that no committee members vote for the measure in order to show party unity.

Another factor was that as polls showed the term limits initiative, Prop. 93, losing public support, Perata and Nunez looked increasingly like lame ducks whose desires could be dismissed.

Also, Perata and Nunez aren’t exactly close buddies. Perata privately refers to the governor and speaker as “Arnold and son.”

But all that aside, Perata and most senators couldn’t justify the paradox of voting for an ambitious expansion of medical coverage while, separately, approving massive cuts in existing state healthcare programs to balance the budget.

When Schwarzenegger and Nunez kept arguing that the healthcare status quo “is unacceptable,” Perata told me, “I kept thinking that this status quo is going to look like nirvana six months from now. . . . Unless we figure out how to get a temporary tax [increase], we’re going to fall off the face of the Earth.”

The governor and speaker deserve credit for trying hard on universal healthcare. But just because their bill failed doesn’t mean that the Legislature did. The system succeeded.

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george.skelton@latimes.com


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