Comment: Why is state spending $500K to study single-payer?

State lawmakers never approved such a working group, yet they put money in the budget to fund it.

By Roger Stark / For The Herald

In the last legislative session, members of the Washington state House and Senate considered bills that would set up a working group to find ways to impose a single-payer health care system on the residents of the state. Such a plan would potentially end private health care coverage in the state.

The idea is highly unpopular, so not surprisingly the working group bill failed to pass in either house; not even all of the majority Democrats would vote for it. Yet the working group is in place and meetings are scheduled. How can that be?

Even though neither bill passed, legislative leaders slipped funding for the working group into the final 2019-21 state budget. In other words, our elected officials declined to support the working group, but the top budget writers and legislative leaders essentially circumvented the normal legislative voting process and funded the group anyway.

The overall biennial budget for Washington state in 2019-21 is $52.4 billion. The $500,000 allocated for the single-payer working group is obviously not a large percent of the budget, but it still represents a half-million dollars of taxpayer money that could be spent on something people actually want.

And to what end? The vast majority of people in Washington don’t want a socialist single-payer system. In fact no state does. Even elected officials in Vermont realized at the eleventh hour that a mandatory single-payer system would add 35 percent to the state budget, so they repealed it. Colorado voters turned down a single-payer initiative when they learned of the astronomical cost. The liberal California legislature has repeatedly voted down a state-based, single-payer system because of a lack of a funding mechanism.

Liberals in Washington state undoubtedly believe that there is something different about the Evergreen State that would convince taxpayers to give up health insurance they like and pay much more in taxes for a government-run health care system they don’t like.

The working group members can spend their own time on the committee meetings, but spending a half-million of taxpayer dollars is irresponsible. Circumventing the Legislature and simply funding the working group through the budget is extremely arrogant and elitist. It shows a real lack of respect for voters, for taxpayers and for our legislative process.

This is not the first time budget writers in Olympia bypassed the legislative process to impose a costly new program. Without taking a formal vote in the Legislature on whether to expand Medicaid as allowed by the Affordable Care Act, budget writers simply added the expansion into the 2013-15 state budget. Now the program is in place permanently.

Their excuse at the time was that the ACA required states to expand Medicaid. That is not true. State leaders made the move after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that state officials could decide for themselves whether to expand Medicaid. Again, no specific vote on expanding Medicaid was taken by elected legislators in Washington state.

Circumventing the legislative process and simply taking a vote on the total budget allows personal line items to essentially become law. This is not compatible with a true representative government. It does provide cover for elected officials to deny culpability when voters and taxpayers realize these unpopular and costly measures have been instituted.

Government transparency and respect for taxpayers demand that our elected officials take formal votes on controversial issues and not simply rely on advancing these issues by burying them in the budget. It is time for elected leaders to be upfront with us. Instead of sneaking unpopular items into the budget, they should at least have the courage and honesty to hold a recorded vote first.

Dr. Roger Stark is the health care policy analyst for the Washington Policy Center.

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