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Republicans and allies splitting over health care, Ameren nuclear bill

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 1, 2009 - In recent days, a crack seems to be developing in Missouri Republican ranks over two of the biggest issues facing the Legislature:

--Gov. Jay Nixon's repeated efforts to restore Medicaid coverage to some of the tens of thousands who were dropped off the rolls in 2005, in part with the cooperation of the state's hospitals.

-- Ameren's effort to repeal the state's 1976 law that bars Missouri utilities from charging customers for new facilities before they're built and in operation. Ameren wants to charge for the financing costs for a proposed new nuclear plant.

The real news out of Nixon's press conference Tuesday at Boeing Co. was that Associated Industries of Missouri -- which generally sides with Missouri Republicans on most issues -- was on board with the plan pushed by Nixon and the hospitals to expand Medicaid coverage without a tax increase.

Associated Industries is supporting the plan's chief element, which would increase the levy paid to the state by members of the Missouri Hospital Association, and use that additional $52.5 million a year to collect about $93 million in additional federal Medicaid funds. The money would provide coverage for about 34,800 uninsured adults in Missouri.

Republican legislative leaders have generally balked at the plan, which would require the Legislature to increase the Medicaid eligibility threshold to 50 percent of the federal poverty line. As a result of the 2005 cuts, the threshold limits recipients' income to 20 percent of the federal poverty line.

Since Associated Industries has a large rural membership, it has a strong presence in Jefferson City. A significant portion of the Medicaid recipients who lost their coverage in 2005 came from rural Missouri.

Could the association's endorsement prompt some GOP legislators to reconsider their opposition?

Here's the statement from Associated Industries' president Ray McCarty:

"Uninsured Missourians are placing a tremendous burden on our state's health care system and driving up health care costs for Missouri businesses, families and individuals. By reducing the number of uninsured Missourians, we'll lower the cost of health care for businesses and families, make it easier for employers to expand or relocate in the state, and move our economy forward...."

Now let's look at the battle over the Ameren bill, commonly known as the CWIP (construction while in progress) measure.

While I was on vacation, a new opposition group emerged -- The Fair Electricity Rate Action Fund. It has been running ads against the bill, prompting Ameren to go to court in a vain attempt to get the ads stopped. The Action Fund's members include AARP and Noranda Aluminum.

In a statement sent out Tuesday, the group said it has vowed "to fight against the Ameren rate hike plan which is going to the floor of the Missouri Senate."

The group's spokesman is Gregg Keller, a veteran state Republican operative. And at least one Republican senator -- Jim Lembke of Lemay -- has announced his opposition to the bill, which previously has enjoyed the support of some influential Republicans, such as the initial measure's chief sponsor, Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City.  A Senate committee voted 6-4 Tuesday in favor of a revised version of the bill.

Keller's comments Tuesday were particularly harsh: “Ameren should be ashamed. With Missouri’s jobless rate above 8%, you’d think that Ameren would want what’s best for Missouri’s families and seniors. Instead, Ameren is only looking out for their own bottom line, pushing a bill which will raise utility rates on our families and seniors by 40% every single month and guaranteeing job losses in our state..."

Such sharp words might prompt more Republicans in the Legislature to publicly split off, particularly since Nixon, a Democrat, has declared his apparent opposition to the Ameren bill. He says the utility first needs to make the necessary federal application to build such a plant. Such comments have galvanized Democratic opposition and led legislative supporters in the Senate to recraft the bill.

The apparent crack in what some had thought was strong GOP support may be one reason why the Missouri Energy Development Association -- made up of the state's public utilities -- issued a statement Tuesday underscoring its view that the Ameren bill is key to address the state's future energy needs.

“Time is short, the clock is ticking, and Missouri stands a real chance of losing out on an extraordinary opportunity if we take a ‘wait and see’ attitude about building much-needed, clean electric generating resources,” said association director Warren Wood.

"...We have time for negotiations but no time for delays. If these negotiations stall, the real loser is the state of Missouri .” 

Such words indicate that MEDA is worried that support for the Ameren bill may be dropping -- particularly among Republicans.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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