Capitol Offenses

Kids Don't Vote

I wish the Governor would send some of that compassionate conservatism our way,” Estella Sosa-Garza said. Sosa-Garza works with Valley Interfaith, which along with twelve other Industrial Areas Foundation groups is the closest thing to a Permanent People’s Lobby the state has ever seen.

She had traveled to Austin to lobby on behalf of CHIP — the Children’s Health Insurance Program — which is at risk of being substantially underfunded because Governor Bush decided to set the eligibility level at 150 rather than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Sosa-Garza obviously had been through the routine in Austin, because when she returned my phone call from her home in McAllen she had her talking points ready. The CHIP program, she explained:

is not an entitlement — families “buy into the program, for fifteen to eighteen dollars a month;is needed in the Valley, where 300,000 children have no health insurance;is designed to help in regions like the Valley, where low-wage jobs force many to choose between food and health care;would cost the state approximately $163 million.

Sosa-Garza even does what journalists describe as “putting a face on the story.” Health insurance, she says, might have saved her brother’s life. He died a young man, of a diabetes-related heart attack, because he couldn’t afford the routine visits to the doctor, which might have saved his life. He was employed by a construction company when he died. Sosa-Gaza tells her brother’s story in a matter-of-fact way, without any evident emotion, and her manner of telling it brings to mind the title of Mary Beth Rogers’ book about Ernesto Cortés Jr. and the Industrial Areas Foundations groups he directs: Cold Anger.

Sosa-Garza’s delivery is pitch-perfect for the health insurance argument, brought into high relief by a simple question: Why deny 220,000 children health insurance when there is adequate funding to provide it? As Sosa-Garza pointed out, there are 1.3 (actually 1.4) million uninsured children in Texas — one-fifth of them in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Funded with money from the tobacco lawsuit settlement at the 200-percent level, for a monthly fee and small co-payment for doctor’s visits, the program can offer 500,000 children health insurance from birth to age eighteen. By reducing eligibility levels from 200 to 150 percent, Governor Bush pushes 220,000 children off the rolls.

“There shouldn’t even be a fight over this,” said Austin Representative Glen Maxey, after the House Democratic Caucus held a closed-door meeting at which Speaker Pete Laney discussed the insurance program. Maxey said he’d been told that someone from the Speaker’s office had met with the Governor and his staff and informed them that the House wanted eligibility levels set at 200 percent of poverty. “I wasn’t there,” Maxey said, “but we were told that the Governor didn’t flinch at 200 percent.

“Then he leaves town to go to the governors’ conference and someone on his staff prepares a request at 150 percent. We’re going to meet with him when he comes back — if he ever comes back,” Maxey said, while Bush was still in Washington. “We were promised that presidential politics wouldn’t interfere with the state’s business.”

By February 25, the Governor was back in Austin, as was Families U.S.A., a national non-profit health-care advocacy group. Backed by eighteen House members, Health and Human Services Committee Chair Elliott Naishtat introduced Families U.S.A.’s director Ron Pollack. Pollack’s argument was convincing. Only California has more uninsured children than Texas — and California raised its eligibility level to 200 percent. Only Arizona has a higher percentage of uninsured children than Texas — and Arizona raised its eligibility to 200 percent. Texas remains at 100 percent. “Only North Dakota and Wyoming have done as little as Texas in extending health coverage to children,” Pollack said. “We get $2.87 in federal funding for every dollar the state contributes,” Naishtat said. “This is almost a three-for-one match.”

The Governor isn’t talking. And while none of the Democratic legislators at the February 25 press conference would speculate on the motives behind his decision, his presidential campaign seems like a good place to start looking. Already this year the Governor has promised a billion dollars in property tax relief, which at best will save the owner of a $100,000 home $130 a year. For less than 20 percent of the tax cut funded by a $3-billion budget surplus, the state could provide 220,000 children with health insurance. But the Governor intends to run on a billion-dollar tax give-back, or as he said in his State of the State speech — and will say in Iowa and New Hampshire — he will “send money back to the hands that earned it: the taxpayers of Texas.”

To be elected president, Bush first has to win the Republican nomination, which since the 1992 Republican Party National Convention in Houston, entails a fight for the party’s angry right. If he holds the line at 150 percent, at the cost of health insurance for some 220,000 children, he puts himself in better position to compete with Pat Buchanan. To Buchanan and his supporters, health insurance for children is the slippery slope that leads to universal health coverage. And some on the Republican right and Bush’s staff argue that a percentage of children (the “Medicaid spillover”) who apply for CHIP coverage, will discover that they qualify for Medicaid — a federal entitlement program.

Yet this could cost Bush dearly in Texas, where he is still Governor. “The majority of the House is determined to get 200,” Maxey said. “If the Governor doesn’t agree, everything he does this session, everything, appropriations, tax relief, everything is going to be affected.”

Lou Dubose was editor of The Texas Observer from 1987-1999. He’s authored five books, including the best-seller Shrub with Molly Ivins. He currently edits The Washington Spectator.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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