GOP lawmakers assert states' rights on health care and jobless insurance

lbonner@newsobserver.com and jfrank@newsobserver.comJanuary 30, 2013 

The state is showing a streak of independence from the federal government with Republicans ready to reject federal preferences on health care and unemployment insurance despite warnings of pitfalls and citizen hardship.

A bill that distances the state from the federal health care law and another that will result in extra penalties to the unemployed as the state limits benefits are expected to move quickly through the legislature. Legislative debate begins on both those issues Thursday.

Republican lawmakers say the bills reflect a desire to assert state's rights and tell the federal government to "stay out of our business," said Rep. Mike Hager, a top-ranking House Republican from Rutherfordton.

"I think at some point we've got to draw the line," he said. "The 10th Amendment is in the Constitution and we need to exercise our rights under the Constitution."

Democratic critics said the GOP is hurting working class people, people without jobs, and the economy, all for the sake of ideology.

"The best I can read it, it's ideological to play to their base," said Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat.

Refusing to implement provisions of the Affordable Care Act places North Carolina within the sphere of states that have gone as far as they can to reject the law.

South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia are not expanding Medicaid and decided to have the federal government to run the online marketplaces where uninsured people and small businesses will shop for insurance.

"We're seeing the same thing all across the United States," said William Kennedy, state director of the Tenth Amendment Center.

The GOP bills are an example of New Federalism, part of Republican orthodoxy dating back to former President Richard Nixon that says power should devolve to the states because they are better able to handle their own affairs, said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University. The bills also have roots in ideology, Taylor said, with Republicans who don't like the health care law pushed by a Democratic president who they think is full of bad ideas looking to limit it as much as they can.

The health care bills would prevent the state from doing any more work to build an online marketplace where individuals and small businesses could shop for insurance. The bill would pull the state back from working on the exchange with the federal government. The state won a $74 million federal grant to do some of the work setting up the exchange, but the bill says no new money may be spent.

The federal government can run the exchange, Republicans said, but the state won't help. Republicans say that all the state would be doing is following federal instructions.

Senate Republicans are united in opposing the Affordable Care Act, said Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican.

"If the feds want to implement it, let them implement it," he said.

Supporters of expanding Medicaid said it doesn't make sense for the state to turn down federal money to provide as many as 500,000 people with health insurance. The federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost for the first three years.

Apodaca said he state couldn't count on the federal government to keep its promises, and U.S. taxpayers would still have to pay the bill.

"There's no such thing as free money," Apodaca said.

Rejecting unemployment benefits and health care money is turning away money that could contribute to the state's economy, Stein said.

"The two best opportunities to generate economic activity in North Carolina, the Republicans appear to be flouting,” he said.

House Speaker Thom Tillis did not respond to requests for comment.

The measure on unemployment benefits legislators begin debating Thursday will cut maximum weekly payments, even though the move violates a recent federal relief package. As a result, thousands of unemployed people in the state will lose emergency federal benefits starting July 1.

Republicans said they didn't lay out a plan to fight the federal government, but want to do what they think is best for the state despite what Congress and the White House want.

"We are elected to serve the people of North Carolina and we are closer to the people," said Rep. Tom Murry, a Morrisville Republican. "So we are going try to represent the people a little better than what they are seeing come out of Washington ... and we are going to cross with Washington a little bit."

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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