JACK SPENCER: Missing pieces add intrigue to political puzzle

The full story behind the vote by which the Michigan House passed the Medicaid expansion bill (HB 4714) remains elusive. Yet, some of the pieces of the puzzle seem to be starting to fit into place.

On June 13, House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, allowed a vote to be taken on the Medicaid expansion bill (HB 4714) for which House Democrats supplied the bulk of the “yes” votes required for passage.

If the Senate had quickly followed suit by passing the bill and sending it to the Governor, Bolger’s decision would have been easy to explain. But that’s not what happened. Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, refused to hold a vote on the legislation. It was sent to a work group that altered the bill and the fate of the measure is still uncertain.

The Senate’s refusal to move the House version of the measure marks Bolger’s decision to allow the bill to pass (without a majority of House Republicans supporting it) as premature. House Republicans are now virtually inconsequential in terms of impacting the bill’s content. What’s more, if the Senate were to eventually pass a version of the legislation, House Republicans will be forced to vote on it for a second time and Bolger will have to resort to using the Democrats to provide the votes needed for passage all over again.

A close examination of what led up to the Medicaid expansion vote in the House makes Bolger’s decision all the more perplexing. June 13 was 109 days before the Oct.1 deadline. At that early point in the process, Bolger should only have rushed such a vote through if there had been an ironclad deal for passage in the Senate.

Among the rumors arising in the wake of the vote is a theory that Bolger was misled into believing the Senate would immediately pass the bill. If true, this would tend to make the Speaker appear delinquent as regards his role of protecting his caucus.

Bolger should not have been willing to rely on the word of Richardville or someone in the administration that the Senate was ready to vote for passage. In fact, after being burned by the Senate earlier this year on the healthcare exchange issue, Bolger would have been expected to ask which Senators were ready to vote “yes” and called each of them up personally.

Unless he took these steps, he was not protecting his caucus. If he did, and was lied to, that would take him off the hook. If Richardville promised to let the Democrats supply a majority of the “yes” votes —- that would explain the situation as well. However, it seems extremely unlikely that Richardville or any of GOP Senators lied to him.

There is another factor that makes the timing of the passage of Medicaid expansion in the House puzzling. This concerns the quick abandonment of the original version of the bill.

The House’s initial version of House Bill 4714 was a very tough stance. It was basically, a poison pill bill that the administration of President Barack Obama wasn’t likely to accept, Gov. Rick Snyder probably wouldn’t have accepted and for which Democrats wouldn’t have voted.

With the advantage of 20-20 hindsight, it now appears that this initial version was cleverly designed to put House members opposed to expansion, and groups opposed to it, in a box. Imagine what the efforts to get support for this version sounded like:

“Representative, you know this bill is basically a ‘no-go’ bill. It’s the best anti-Obamacare bill we could come up with that gives the impression of being willing to expand Medicaid, without really doing it. If we can’t get Republicans like you to support this bill, our only other choice will be to change it into something the Democrats will support.”

Obviously, this put great pressure on members opposed to expansion. If they supported the bill, they would be on record supporting expansion. If they still resisted, they were “theoretically” pushing their leaders toward turning to the Democrats.

Had this strategy been allowed to play out for several weeks, it would have been very persuasive. Political pundits around the state would have been saying Medicaid expansion was “dead in the water.” “It just won’t happen, etc.” Meanwhile, the powerful groups lobbying for expansion could have been quietly securing “yes” votes in both the House and Senate.

Timing the switch to a real Medicaid expansion bill that Democrats could support would have made much more sense in mid-summer. House leadership could have said “We tried and tried, but could not get the votes for the tough version.”

Instead, the tough version remained on the table for just three weeks. That’s not enough time to make any credible claim that a real effort was made to gain its passage. It was then quickly changed to a version Democrats supported and passed with less than half of the House Republicans supporting it and, to top it all off, the Senate refused to move it.

Why the quick change without having “all the ducks in order,” with more than 100 days left before the deadline?

There is a possible explanation that could fit into the puzzle. Sometime in late May there might have been the realization that, over the summer, Bolger could be indicted for his alleged role in the 76th District election tampering scandal. That was the situation in which former Rep. Roy Schmidt switched parties from Democrat to Republican and games were played in an effort to smooth his path to victory.

This potentially compromising situation for the Speaker could have been a factor in prompting the seemingly premature movement of the Medicaid expansion bill. The attitude might have been: “We don’t know what might be happening in two months, so let’s just get this bill out of the House — and get it out now.”

Lansing’s rumor mill never rests. Lawmakers and lobbyists absorb the rumors and often add to the clamor. They also talk among themselves and at times are ahead of the news media when it comes to finding explanations — true and untrue — for what happens in the political process.

It seems likely that linking the vote on June 13 to Bolger’s potential indictment is not a new concept to many House Republicans. In fact, there are probably two or three variations of this theory in circulation.

Rumors are just rumors and theories are just theories. Bolger’s potential indictment may have had absolutely nothing to do with the Medicaid expansion vote. But for the time being, it seems as plausible an explanation as any.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.