December 19, 2012
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
Much of the debate in the Legislature will devolve into predictable patterns reminiscent of the “infotainment” shows on what are generously called cable news channels: my party good, your party bad. This dynamic helps most of us tune out and ignore whatever silly thing they’re up to in Concord or Washington this month.
Our boredom with the predictability (and superficiality) of the debate leaves the real discussion to a fairly small group of people. What we notice about most policy issues are only the fairly broad brush-strokes: in the budget, did we cut spending too much or raise it too much? Did taxes go up or down? There tends to be less discussion about the detail (which spending went up or down? How does that compare to four years ago or 10? Are those the right priorities, but the wrong amounts, or were the priorities reversed?)
This year, the Legislature will consider a few issues where details matter a great deal. The first of these is the establishment of the health care exchange that is the central mechanism under the federal health care law.
A health care “exchange” is the term used for the government-run structure anticipated to be set up to implement the rules, regulations, subsidies and penalties required by the federal health care law (Obamacare). The authors of the law envisioned the 50 states each running and, most importantly, paying for the exchange. The plan was envisioned as a partnership: the federal government would set all the rules and regulations and the states would pay for them (and add additional rules if they so chose).
States are naturally skittish, and only 16 have agreed to run an exchange. Many Legislatures, like New Hampshire’s did last year, have actually prohibited the state from running a state exchange. To get around those prohibitions, some states are considering setting up partnership exchanges jointly with the federal government. The exact nature of the partnership isn’t yet clear, but our governor-elect is said to be leaning in that direction.
State law still prohibits our running an exchange, and that would prohibit our running bits of an exchange too or paying for it with state-imposed taxes (which would have to pass the Legislature). Imposing some sort of hybrid exchange by executive fiat would seem to be prohibited, but this will be a big subject of debate in the coming months.
The governor will be asked not to say yes or no, but to explain operational and financial details in ways that don’t lend themselves to 30-second blurbs.
Similar to exchanges, gambling will require longer explanations. Through much of the past, one either supported “gaming” or opposed “gambling.” There was no middle ground. Even the word you used gave a superficial clue to your locked-in position. Today, with the first pro-gambling governor in modern history, details are starting to be considered.
Gambling used to be unlikely because of New Hampshire’s natural tendency to avoid anything new. Today, an expansion of gambling (we have lotteries and charitable gaming now) is still an uphill climb because no one is quite sure about the details.
Some oppose any expansion, others support some options but oppose some others. Some who are open to gambling worry about the relative unpredictability of the revenue streams and are nervous about using it in the operating part of the budget (general fund) to support ongoing expenses. They would instead dedicate revenue to one-time expenses that are easily ratcheted up or down, such as paving roads and fixing old bridges, a fairly pressing but not very glamorous need of the state.
Others don’t generally support gambling but would only if the money were dedicated to operating expenses that would receive no or little funding without that additional revenue. New Hampshire passed the first modern state sweepstakes in the 1963 by this method. Nervous lawmakers were told the money would be dedicated to education aid, which there was no money to support otherwise.
It is often said that the devil is in the details. In governing, too often we ignore the details. These are two issues that will pass or fail on the basis of careful negotiation over details. We should all pay attention.