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Questionable Numbers Could Sink Overhaul

By Bill Curry

July 19, 2009

General Assembly Democrats celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing tomorrow by going into special session to try to override as many as a dozen of Gov. M. Jodi Rell's inscrutable vetoes. I hope they have a Neil Armstrong kind of day, but I fear it may be more like Evel Knievel jumping one too many buses.

Suspense centers on two historic bills addressing the twin disasters of health care and public debt that along with energy threaten the economic viability of our nation. If government has more urgent business, I don't know what it is.

One bill, known as SustiNet, sets in motion a process that by 2012 would establish universal health care in Connecticut. The other, the Healthcare Partnership Act, seems more modest. It would open up the state employee health care plan on a purely voluntary basis to nonprofits, small businesses and the self-employed.

Oddly, the more comprehensive bill has the better chance of becoming law, in part because of hard work by a coalition of unions and other progressive activists and in part because insurers worked harder to defeat the pooling bill, which scares them more because it takes effect sooner and without further legislative action.

With nearly 80 percent legislative approval, the pooling bill is more popular than Harry Potter at Hogwarts. It gives thousands of folks priced out of the private market a chance to get back in the game with a little help from the public sector; and it does it without costing taxpayers a penny, in the end even saving them quite a few bucks.

So, what's Rell's problem? Amazingly, she cites fiscal concerns, as she did last year in vetoing a similar bill. It was a fanciful objection then. Still, this year House Speaker Chris Donovan and others inserted ironclad language to address it. Rell killed the bill anyway, hardly bothering to amend her veto message.

Does this remind you of anything? That's right, Washington is having the very same debate at the very same time. It will be a flat-out tragedy if it falls into the same traps, but it could happen.

Budget analysts in both capitals have botched recent analyses. Public accounting rules make government analysts think like actuaries, not economists. They make it hard to score savings from lower prices or overhead, even when savings are clear. (If we handled everything this way, we'd never fund anything, which would make some people happy before eventually killing us all.)

Government relies far too much on lobbyists for information, much of which is pure junk. You don't have to impute bad faith to know how self-interest can affect reason.

The Connecticut Business and Industry Association lobbies fiercely against pooling and sells health insurance to small businesses. I don't doubt their sincerity, but I sure doubt their numbers, which seem to crop up everywhere.

In the end, Democrats may kill reform all by themselves. For all the talk of veto- and filibuster-proof majorities, the conflict between progressive and conservative Democrats makes a mockery of party discipline. Republicans are awash in their own problems. Democrats should take advantage of the opportunity to get bipartisan with themselves.

Their essential conflict is over the meaning of fiscal responsibility. Their biggest job is sorting it out. President Barack Obama is trying to do just that, but he isn't there yet. He may be repeating Bill Clinton's classic first-term mistake handing too much control to the very insiders he once vowed to tame.

Obama and the Democrats need to find an American center, not a Washington center. We don't know everything about it, but we do know it must embody a kind of balanced-budget populism, one that changes more rules and writes fewer checks.

If Democratic leaders succeed in overriding Rell's health care vetoes, they will achieve, if not a lunar landing, something historic. We'll be the first to fix health care, not by spending money but by fixing a broken system. If not, like Evel Knievel, they'll have all the time in the world to mend.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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