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INDY Week columnist Bob Geary's Raleigh news & politics blog

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Obama: "I'm for the public option." (Even though I never mentioned it.)

Posted by on Wed, Jul 29, 2009 at 3:20 PM

President Obama in Raleigh July 29. Photo by Jenny Warburg
  • President Obama in Raleigh July 29. Photo by Jenny Warburg

Just got back from President Obama's talk at Broughton HS about health care reform. Actually, it was a two-parter, with Obama focused at the outset on defending his economic record in the first six months, including a long -- very clear -- outline of the stimulus package. On health care, I think the headline should be that the President managed to go for more than an hour, right up to the end of his final answer to the final question, without ever mentioning, let alone explaining, the "public option." Finally, someone shouted from the balcony, "public option!" Obama heard it, said quickly, "I'm for the public option," and went on to finish up the point he was making, which is that he wants health care reform passed this year. Big applause, exit stage right.

In this week's Indy, I wrote that Obama was dogged by questions about 1) why a health care reform package that's supposedly about saving money has a tax increase attached to it, and 2) if the plan actually would cut costs, or at least doesn't increase them too much, doesn't it logically follow that adding the uninsured to the system will limit (i.e., "ration," a very bad word, apparently) the care available to those (the insured) already in the system?

Obama's answers, it seemed to me, boiled down to this: 1) On costs, it won't cost that much, only about $30-40 billion a year (net); and 2) You may think you're in the system now, but what happens if you lose your job? And then you can't get insurance because of some pre-existing condition, or your age, or both?

The heart of Obama's reform plan, as he described it, is that private insurance companies will be required to take all applicants without regard to prior illness and with no significant penalty for age either. It will assure that you can buy a first-rate insurance product with no caps on annual or lifetime outlays and a reasonable cap (not $10,000) on deductibles -- the amount you have to pay before your insurer pays anything. It will also assure coverage for preventive care, not just for expensive surgeries that might've been avoided if preventive steps had been taken. (This last point was made to augment his answer to No. 1 -- his plan won't cost much, and with preventive care, the rate of health insurance inflation will be reduced, if not the cost itself. Or so he said.)

(Update: The President was introduced by Sara Coleman, owner of The Cupcake Shoppe in Glenwood South. She brought him a Cupcake Shoppe T-shirt, Obama quipped, but no cupcake. Maybe all the talk about health care reform and wellness has gone too far, he said. Anyway, Coleman and the 50 or so others seated behind the President -- on-camera with him, that is -- were small business owners. Obama made a big point of saying his plan will close the gap between the rates big business pays for its employees' health-care coverage and the rates small business pays, because insurance companies won't be allowed to keep on cherry-picking the market the way they do now. So small businesses, which will be required to offer insurance to their employees or pay a penalty, should be able to buy coverage for less, Obama said.)

President Obama in Raleigh July 29. Photo by Jenny Warburg
  • President Obama in Raleigh July 29. Photo by Jenny Warburg

Obama's plan will not, however, deny anybody the same kind of health-care services they have now, he insisted, no matter how gold-plated they may be. No rationing, in other words. Not even if your services are hugely expensive or evidence of the fact that health-care costs in this country are about double what any other industrialized nation spends. Cutting costs as a driver for reform has all but disappeared from the President's pitch.

Note, too, that everything Obama said applied to the way private insurance products would be regulated. He said nothing about fielding a "strong public option" -- a public insurance product -- that would be cheaper and just as good as private insurance, forcing the private companies to pare their rates or fade away. The public option as a way to cut costs has gone the way of Obama's argument that costs should be cut. Now he'll settle for their not going up as fast.

The news from Washington, meanwhile, is that the Blue Dog Democrats in the House have reached a deal that includes a public option very similar to the one included in the bill recently approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (Senate HELP). The public option in the HELP committee is fairly weak, but still unacceptable, apparently, to the Senate Finance Committee, which is still pawing over a potential rival measure that would have an even weaker public option or none at all.

Obama says he wants a public option. But the argument he's making for reform, and for why reform should appeal to people with insurance as well as those without it, does not in any way hinge on the public option, strong or otherwise. If it did, Obama would be saying that it's not enough to reduce the rate of health care inflation, we need to bring the costs of the system down to be competitive in a world economy. But he's not saying that. He's saying that health care costs will keep going up, but less rapidly than if we do nothing and accept the status quo.

With reform, Obama said, we may even see the day when inflation in the health care sector isn't rising faster than wages.

Kind of a letdown. But as someone said as I was leaving, it's a start. And if a public option, regardless how weak, is included, it can be strengthened over time. If it isn't, it could be years before one is added.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

When in doubt, jack up the sales tax ('cause our rich friends won't care)

Posted by on Wed, Jul 22, 2009 at 5:08 PM

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Over at the General Assembly, there's a deal on tap -- or so we read -- to raise about $1 billion in new taxes and finish up the state budget. The key ingredient? One guess ... and if you say making the income tax more progressive, or broadening the sales tax base to include services that the wealthy buy, you clearly don't know your pro-bidness Democrats well enough.

No, the answer is a flat-out, 1 percent increase in the existing sales tax, which tax -- as every good progressive knows -- hits low-income folks way harder than it does the rich. In a statement, the N.C,. Justice Center's Elaine Mejia very politely calls out "the highly regressive nature of the main component of the plan" and pleads with legislators to make the overall package just a wee bit less regressive before they wrap things up.

Mejia is the highly respected director of the Justice Center's budget & tax center. And as always, she makes good sense. It'll be interesting to see whether the supposedly more progressive House Democrats (including such Triangle worthies as Paul Luebke and Jennifer Weiss, chairs of the House Finance Committee, not to mention Speaker Joe Hackney and his chief budget negotiator Mickey Michaux) will swallow this Senate-initiated package whole or spit out some parts of it as simply indigestible.

Mejia's statement is below.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

GOP backs slate in non-partisan school board elections

Posted by on Tue, Jul 21, 2009 at 1:17 PM

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Isn't the Wake County Board of Education supposed to be non-partisan -- meaning, above (outside of?) politics? Well, if you believe that....

Anyway, and as promised, the Wake Republicans met last night and endorsed a slate of four candidates, one each in the District 1.2,7 and 9 elections. (The other five school board members' terms expire two years hence.)

In three cases, the GOP picks are the same as the Wake Schools Community Alliance -- no surprise, since both groups are gunning to kill the school board's diversity policy.

Only in District 7 (North Raleigh-Northwest Wake) do the GOP and WSCA diverge. There, the Republicans endorsed Jerry Ballan, not the WSCA's favorite, Deborah Prickett. The third candidate in the race, Karen Simon, was accompanied when she filed to run by Wake Democratic Chairman Jack Nichols, not incidentally. (The incumbent, Republican Patti Head, a diversity supporter, isn't seeking re-election.)

In District 2 (Southeast Wake), interestingly, the GOP and WSCA both endorsed John Tedesco over Cathy Truitt, a retired school teacher and principal. Truitt's balanced views on diversity vs. neighborhood schools, spelled out in an interview with the Garner Citizen, didn't help her, obviously. The three other candidates in this district include incumbent Horace Tart, who backs diversity.

The two remaining races, in District 1 (Northeast Wake) and District 9 (Cary-Western Wake) now pit GOP -&- WSCA-backed candidates against diversity-supporting aspirants.

In District 1, where incumbent Lori Millberg is stepping aside, the anti-diversity candidate is Chris Malone, with Rita Rakestraw on the other side. (Debbie Vair is the third candidate.)

And in District 9, where incumbent Eleanor Goettee isn't running again, Debra Goldman has the GOP and WSCA endorsements, with Lois Nixon on the other side. (Ray Martin is the third candidate.)

By the way, I'm using pro- and anti-diversity as shorthand, obviously. If you check Tedesco's website, for example, he says he's pro-diversity too, he just doesn't think school populations need to be made diverse by assignment policies. And on the other side, the pro-diversity candidates recognize that, notwithstanding the school board's stated goal of no more than 40 percent low-income students (i.e., those eligible for "free or reduced lunch") in any school, numerous schools are over the 50 percent "F&R" line already -- with housing as economically stratified as it is in Wake County, the busing that would be required to achieve the 40 percent goal countywide would be virtually impossible.

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Council elections: Isley not running for mayor (I think); Sartain targets Baldwin

Posted by on Sat, Jul 11, 2009 at 10:43 AM

One week down, one week to go in candidate filings for City Council. The race for the two at-large Council seats is shaping up. Mayor? Not so much.

In the at-large race, Lee Sartain's been making it clear that if he wins a seat, he'd like it to be the one held by incumbent Mary-Ann Baldwin. In other words, Sartain's cool with incumbent Russ Stephenson and is running against Baldwin.

Champ Claris (Robert Champion Claris to his friends), on the other hand, is gunning for Stephenson, not Baldwin.

No surprise in any of this: Stephenson, a Democrat, is the progressive incumbent; Sartain, a Democrat, wants to be the progressive challenger; Baldwin, a Democrat, is kind of in the middle; and Claris, a Republican, is a realtor clearly aligning with the developers.

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All this was a bit inchoate until yesterday, when Sartain let loose with a blast at Baldwin and her website. In a tweet (I love that word) to his twitterers, Sartain charged:

One of our challengers is so impressed with our campaign, that she's decided to make it her own. Mary-Ann Baldwin recently re-launched her website and decided that our issues, like job creation and public transit, were areas she championed on Raleigh City Council.

However, her record is clear and we need to make sure the voters know that July 9th, 2009 was the first time in three years Mary-Ann Baldwin has talked about job creation. We need to let the voters know that Councilor Baldwin has sat on the board of Triangle Transit and allowed regional rail planning sit idle.

Mary-Ann Baldwin is going to remind the voters that she brought condos downtown and reopened Fayetteville Street. We need to remind Raleigh that she helped create zero jobs and stood watch over one of the worst public transit systems in the nation.

That's pretty clear, though I'm sure that Baldwin -- a pro-development Dem -- has talked about job creation on many occasions.

As for mayor, the local daily had it a couple of weeks ago that District E Councilor Phillip Isley was maybe going to tackle the four-term incumbent Charles Meeker, Isley, Republican; Meeker, Democrat. I didn't think so then, not that Isley confides in me, and I don't think so now, with Isley unheard from with just a week of filing to go. He hasn't filed for re-election in E. But he hasn't filed for mayor either.

Yesterday, Bonner Gaylord, a member of the Planning Commission, did file in District E. which he would not have done if Isley planned to run for re-election to his district seat. So I think we now know this much -- Isley is either planning to go after Meeker (imho, a suicide mission, which Isley certainly knows), or he's stepping away entirely, as he has often said he might do to focus on his growing law business.

I'll be doing something else for a week, so by the time I return we'll know how good a guesser I am. But my guess is, Isley's out.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Transit tax legislation in limbo until there's a state budget

Posted by on Wed, Jul 1, 2009 at 2:21 PM

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As we surmised a couple of weeks ago, House Bill 148 -- allowing Triangle counties to levy a 1/2-cent sales tax for transit -- isn't sailing through the Senate quite the way its proponents hoped it would. The bill is in the Senate Finance Committee, which was scheduled to talk about it today. But the bill was dropped from the agenda following the Senate Democrats' caucus at mid-day. Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, said the the party consensus was to finish the state budget first, and see how much of a sales-tax increase that might entail, before taking up the transit-tax issue.

Stein and Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, who shepherded the bill through the House, both expressed confidence that HB 148 will be enacted in this session. "We just need to keep talking about it and building the momentum," Stein said.

Passage of HB 148 is critical to kick-starting mass transit in the Triangle.

But getting it passed won't be simple.

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