Long before Gov. Jan Brewer decided to fight for a full expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, then-incoming Senate Minority Leader Leah Landrum Taylor was furiously trying to find a way to salvage a plan — any plan — to pay for the coverage of a sizable segment of the state’s uninsured population.
Back in December, the federal government had just announced it wouldn’t pay for a bigger share of the cost of Medicaid if states like Arizona fail to fully expand their Medicaid population to include those who earn up to 133 percent of the poverty level.
Landrum Taylor argued that Arizona must at least restore the “childless adult population,” whose enrollment has been frozen since 2011, and she was optimistic the state could persuade the federal government to pay a bigger share of the Medicaid costs.
But she contended it would only work if state policymakers are united behind the plan.
Lest she be misunderstood, Landrum Taylor is not politically naïve. The Democratic leader has been serving in the Legislature since 1999, first as a House member. She has held various positions of leadership in both chambers, finally becoming the first African-American woman to lead the Democrats in the Senate.
She is a clear-eyed realist who clings to a stubborn notion of altruism. This Dec. 12 interview shows Landrum Taylor’s restless energy and her yearning for answers at a time when everywhere people looked, there was a dead end.
The Senate recently completed its reorganization of committees. You must be quite satisfied with the partisan ratio in the committees?
I am satisfied. If I had my wishes, I would have rather seen one more of our members on the Appropriations Committee to really make where that’s a little bit more of an even playing field.
What are your priorities in the upcoming session?
It’s hard to list them as 1, 2, and 3. It’s almost 1, 1-A, 1-B, 1-C. It’s a few things, quite frankly. Education, of course — we know it’s a big one. And I would like to see the business community (to be) even a little bit more active in what’s going on with education [and in] increasing the funding for our education and getting it back [to previous levels].
The other No. 1 priority is we have got to look at what’s going on with our health care. We must. This whole Medicaid expansion conversation — I know there’s a lot of concern and I’ve heard that the other side of the aisle has said it’s going to be a big cost. Well, when I look at [what happens] if we don’t do something with Medicaid expansion and how is this going to hurt the rural hospitals — talk about a health crisis. We will be dealing with one if we do not take care of at least getting up to the Prop. 204 population. And if we go to 133 percent, it will not be $400 million. We’d be looking at about $125 million if we did the full expansion because we get a better match.
Here’s the other conversation. People have said, well, our backs are against the wall. The federal government is going to do what it’s going to do. No, we still have a window of opportunity to really put together a plan that can be tailored for our state. We have a unique opportunity to pull it together quickly in a bipartisan fashion.
To those on the other side of the aisle, it boils down to funding. Can we afford it?
Can we not?
Well, where do you reckon we get the money for it?
First of all, if we do not do it, we jeopardize a lot of federal funds. We also jeopardize the ability for us to put this plan together in a way that can benefit our state, and we will lose money in the long run. I have seen, with uncompensated care, how it’s been more than damaging and how literally we could have hospitals closing.
(If we only expanded the) Prop 204 population, it’s going to cost us more because the feds said they will not give us an enhanced match. So where do we get the money for it?
We already have that $450 million plus. We’ve been wanting to fight to get that other $50 million back from the housing trust that was just raided. So you look at that, and there will be a surplus that we can deal with. So it’s a matter of, “How are we going to go about working with funding some of these priorities from that surplus?”
But if we used that surplus money, wouldn’t that be shortsighted given that we’re going to lose revenues from the 1 cent tax in 2013?
Here’s [the] conversation that I would like to have for those that were completely adamantly opposed to the 1-cent sales tax: I want to know what their plans are because we can no longer short-sight education and we can no longer short-sight health care.
Are there other areas where you see Democrats and Republicans agreeing?[We can] look at things like job creation, how we can make sure to have some type of revenue enhancement coming here to our state, increasing opportunities for tourism, and increasing opportunities for a little bit of steady stream of dollars coming here for our state. I think we have a little bit of damage in [our] image to work on. And these are some of the things I think [we can work] in a bipartisan way.
Are you reading any books right now?
Yeah, I bounce between a couple of different books. Of course, every night, I have to read “I love you more than rainbows” to my little girls. But I was looking at another one written by a really good friend of mine from the Rodel Foundation, and it deals just with this: Parties versus the politics.[It’s] really looking at how, even in a hard situation of what we’re in right now, you go about working together. One of the chapters I was reading is about when you’re starting, say for instance, a brand new school. The first thing you do is ask, OK, who has the expertise in certain areas? Who can help us get the kids? Who can help us interview the teachers? You don’t start off with: OK, who are all the Republicans in the room and who are all the Democrats? And let’s go on this side, and let’s go on that side.