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Top Dem in Pennsylvania believes Corbett will soften on Medicaid expansion

| Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 12:04 a.m.
JC Schisler | Tribune-Review
Senate democratic leader Jay Costa meets with reporters and editors of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Friday, August 23, 2013.
JC Schisler | Tribune-Review
Senate democratic leader Jay Costa meets with reporters and editors of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Friday, August 23, 2013.

Medicaid expansion, a major component of President Obama's health care law, might make a comeback in Pennsylvania mere months after GOP leaders rejected it, the top Democrat in the state Senate said Friday.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said he anticipates Gov. Tom Corbett getting behind the expansion in an effort to score a major policy victory and soften his image with voters as he heads into a re-election year. Costa said he expects a renewed effort from Corbett to push through a transportation funding package, one version of which passed the Senate but stalled in the House, robbing Corbett of a victory on one of his top priorities.

“This is one of those things that we have an obligation to do,” Costa said of transportation funding during an interview with Tribune-Review editors and reporters.

The Senate passed a $2.5 billion transportation funding measure, but the House failed to pass it after leaders linked it to a liquor privatization bill. The Senate bill raises money by increasing motorist fees and lifting a cap on wholesale gasoline sales taxes.

That tax increase, more than the bill's link with liquor privatization, is what killed it, said House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin.

“Is now the time to (impose) a $2.5 billion tax and fee increase? I'm not so sure,” Miskin said.

The Corbett administration increased pressure on lawmakers Thursday by announcing weight restrictions on 1,000 deteriorating bridges across the state, and Miskin said the House GOP will put forth a transportation funding bill “sooner rather than later.”

Expanding Medicaid could offer a quicker policy victory for Corbett, who has struggled with low approval ratings in polls, Costa said.

The expansion would add 35,000 jobs and $3 billion in economic activity to the state, according to a March report by the nonprofit Rand Corp. It would provide insurance for 340,000 people, the study found.

That could blunt criticisms by opponents who, like Costa, blame him for sluggish job growth and accuse him of cutting social services with little regard for the poor. About 63,000 fewer children were enrolled in medical assistance programs in July than in January 2011, when Corbett took office, according to Department of Public Welfare figures.

The expansion would “soften a very hard and rough image that the governor has right now as it relates to how he handles and treats people who are less well off,” Costa said.

But opposition to the expansion — which passed the Senate in a 40-10 vote June 30 — remains entrenched among House Republicans, who say they don't trust the federal government's promise to fund the expansion fully for three years, then at 90 percent thereafter.

“An expansion without reforms will bankrupt taxpayers,” Miskin said. The Rand study found it would increase state Medicaid spending by about $500 million by 2020. Miskin cited a federal commitment to pay 40 percent of special education costs. “It's never been higher than 17 percent. Look what's happened with the sequester, what's happened with other federal programs. No offense to the president, but words are not as strong as actions.”

Corbett hasn't softened his opposition either, spokeswoman Kelli Roberts said.

“The governor's position on Medicaid expansion has not changed,” said Roberts. “We continue to work with the federal government, asking for reforms to the system that will make the program more affordable and responsive to the needs of Pennsylvania.”

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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