Zombie Party Discipline – Will it Give Way to Compromise & Reconciliation?

Monday’s Senate failure to override Gov. Christie’s veto for women’s health funding was infuriating – for the women and men who may lose access to crucial medical care, screening and advice, and for the apparent sacrifice of reason & responsibility to pure zombie party discipline. I have so much appreciation for legislators who fought the good fight, for women and men who showed their support, and for the resilience of lawmakers like Loretta Weinberg and Linda Stender, who refuse to get mowed down and continue to propose solutions. Just after the vote, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Democratic legislators announced new legislation, for only $5M of $7.5M Christie cut from the budget, requiring the state to apply for federal matching dollars for Medicaid-eligible health care consumers. Too early to know how that will fly, but it would be welcome to see movement now on the GOP side. It’s been a disappointing few weeks watching some of them.

In the fight to retain needed funding for health care access for women and men who often have nowhere else to turn, here are some of the things legislators on the right side of this issue have done:

  • answered a Governor’s veto with a solid alternative plan;

  • found revenue-neutral plan suggested by non-partisan OLS;

  • asked NJ Treasurer his reasoning why that funding source wouldn’t work;

  • invited him to testify, messaged him, took a delegation to his office;

  • When he would not answer, OPRA’d his documentation;

  • gave requested extensions for that OPRA’d info – twice;

  • ran a full Senate override vote and lost – Monday;

  • lost by the # of GOP Senators who yanked support for GOP party discipline;

  • undaunted, will now approach funding from another angle.  

    And the Governor – whose actions here seem more and more wrapped in anti-choice disapproval and distortions and less and less  (as he insists) a function of budgetary concern – has done nothing but stay silent as his GOP party chair muddied discussion with warped rhetoric. No, that’s not even what he did. Asm Jay Webber went on a major nutty about sex, and implied somehow that family planning advocates are trying to prevent poor women from having babies. Gov. Christie’s silence made him complicit, and brand him an ideologue.

    Today, Republican Senators, who were for this before they were against it before their orders from on high refused to override the veto of a governor whose ascendant power they apparently view as more powerful than their own ability to decide, whose executive branch they may take more seriously than the branch of this government they serve. It failed by pure party line vote. A show of GOP party impressively disciplined and disappointingly reasoned.

    Some people are more culpable than others. Jay Webber’s so far gone on this issue he sees abortionists hiding under every bed and in every closet. Gov. Christie, likely ditto. GOP senators Diane Allen, Christopher “Kip” Bateman, Andrew Ciesla, Christopher Connors, Sean Kean, Robert Singer traded in some dignity August 3rd. Jennifer Beck joined them today. I’d like to think that some of these GOP Senators will redeem themselves, if they see possibility in this compromise. I’m going to say there’s hope there.

    After the fold, I’ll post the full statement of Sweeney and colleagues’ statement, which offers more detail about the compromise solution, and quotes. Also after the jump, a short video of Asw Linda Stender’s response to the loss. So, jump:

    Statement from the Assembly & Senate Majority, released Monday:

    After Senate Republicans joined Governor Christie in turning their backs on the women of New Jersey, Democratic legislators vowed to continue the fight to protect access to women’s healthcare.

    At a news conference following the veto override vote in the Senate – which failed due to a lack of Republican support – Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney joined Senator Loretta Weinberg, Assemblywoman Linda Stender, and other women’s health advocates in the Legislature to announce new legislation intended to restore a portion of the funding cut from women’s health and family planning programs in New Jersey and require the state to apply for federal matching dollars for Medicaid-eligible health care consumers.

    “The sponsors of this bill have worked tirelessly to make sure that women have access to basic health services, including breast exams, cancer screenings, pre- and post-natal care and gynecological exams,” said Senate President Sweeney (D-Gloucester).  “They’ve identified budget-neutral funding and they’ve found federal matching grants so that our investment brings back $9 for every $1 we put into the system.  We’re disappointed with the outcome of today’s veto override, but we’re hopeful that the Governor and Republican Legislators can put aside partisan blinders and help Democrats quickly enact women’s health care funding, version 2.0, into law.”

    “It’s clear that Republican lawmakers who had previously stood up for good health care policy over conservative political ideology were pressured by the Governor to vote against our override attempt,” said Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) Chair of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee.  “I’m certainly disappointed that more of my fellow lawmakers couldn’t show the political courage to defy their governor and restore access to women’s health care and family planning services in New Jersey.  However, we don’t plan to go away quietly, and will continue fighting for access to services for women and men who have nowhere else to turn.”

    “It’s been clear from the start that the Governor has opposed this measure on ideological grounds,” said Stender (D-Middlesex/Somerset/Union).  “This is an issue of paramount importance, one that we cannot allow to fall victim to a shortage of solutions.  If Republicans want to treat this issue with casual indifference and side with the Governor in his attempts to make a name for himself on the national conservative stage, then they should all be prepared to accept responsibility for denying women access to crucial medical care and prevention screenings, and ultimately contributing to increasing the abortion rate in our state.”

    The first piece of legislation – sponsored by Senators Loretta Weinberg and Sandra Cunningham and Assemblywomen Pamela Lampitt, Linda Greenstein, Linda Stender, Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Celeste Riley and co-sponsored by Senators Nia Gill and Bob Gordon and Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell – mirrors the vetoed legislation (S-2139/A-3019), but scales back the appropriation from $7.5 million to $5 million and identifies a new funding source.  Under the bill, family planning centers would be supported by $5 million in unexpended funds from FY 2010 that are part of an account set aside to pay counties for housing certain prisoners.

    “This new legislation reaffirms our commitment to being fiscally prudent, while maintaining our commitment to provide access to health care for women and families across New Jersey,” said Lampitt (D-Camden).  “We have heard the Governor’s concerns, and we call on him to work together with us on this crucial, nonpartisan issue.  The new funding we have identified is budget-neutral and would otherwise sit idle while women and families suffer and go without critically-needed health care.”

    “We’ve asked the Governor and his administration to work with us in finding a funding solution, and were shut out time and time again,” added Weinberg.  “However, through this bill, we were able to find additional surplus funds contained within the Governor’s budget to restore at least a portion of the resources for women’s health programs.  At a time when New Jersey is trying to do more with less, we need to use these additional resources to make sure we’re not leaving any federal matching dollars on the table for women’s health or family planning services.”

    “It is unfortunate that our Republican colleagues do not share our belief that everyone, regardless of socio-economic status, deserves access to vital healthcare,” said Greenstein (D-Mercer/Middlesex).  “Hopefully, the new funding source we have identified will alleviate their concerns over the fiscal impact of this bill.”

    The second bill – sponsored by Senators Teresa Ruiz and Nia Gill and Assemblywomen Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Linda Greenstein, Celeste Riley, Pamela Lampitt and Linda Stender and co-sponsored by Senator Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell- directs the state to immediately apply for additional Medicaid coverage for family planning services available under the recently enacted federal health care reform law.

    “The federal government is actively encouraging states to apply for this supplemental funding, knowing how important it is to cash-strapped states and the women and families who depend on it,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen).  “If this is truly an economic issue as the Governor maintains, then we should be taking advantage of every available federal resource.”

    Under the current state plan, the Medicaid program only covers family planning services for individuals with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level.   However, the new provision in the federal health care reform law created a state option to provide Medicaid coverage for family planning services to individuals with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.  State’s exercising this option will receive $9 in federal reimbursement for every $1 they spend for family planning services.

    “We simply can’t leave this money sitting on the table when family planning centers throughout the state will soon be forced to close or turn patients away,” said Riley (D-Salem/Cumberland/Gloucester).  “This is one of the fundamental duties we were elected to perform – maximize the resources available to provide basic essential services to the residents of this state.”

    At stake, the lawmakers noted, are the more than 136,000 patients who were served by family planning centers in New Jersey last year.  Not only did these centers help prevent 40,000 pregnancies, 19,000 abortions and save the state more than $150 million, but they also provide extensive services that include:  birth control; routine gynecological exams; prenatal care; screenings for high blood pressure, anemia, diabetes, sexually transmitted infections, and breast and cervical cancer; as well as critical education and outreach.

    The lawmakers also stressed that the new legislation reiterates the provision in the vetoed legislation that bars public dollars from being used to fund abortions.  Both bills will be introduced in the Senate and the Assembly today.


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