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Parliamentary ruling likely dooms Collins effort to shift Medicaid taxes to the state

WASHINGTON -- Major portions of the Senate Republican health bill -- including Rep. Chris Collins' effort to reduce county property taxes -- likely will end up on the cutting room floor, thanks to a ruling by the Senate parliamentarian.

The parliamentarian -- in essence, the umpire who decides whether provisions of Senate legislation are fair or foul -- ruled that major portions of the health bill are policy-making measures that can be struck from the bill unless 60 senators vote to keep them.

With Republicans struggling to even get the 50 votes they need to pass the health bill, the ruling puts Democrats in the position where they could challenge and defeat several provisions in the bill, from the Collins tax amendment to a provision barring federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

And that's exactly what Democrats plan to do, said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

"This will greatly tie the majority leader’s hands as he tries to win over reluctant Republicans with state-specific provisions," said Schumer, a New York Democrat. "We will challenge every one of them.”

Schumer portrayed the Collins amendment as a false promise. He said it was "nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

"Either way New Yorkers will pay more under this amendment in taxes, whether it's through the county or the state," Schumer added.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who is the top minority member of the Senate Budget Committee, announced late Friday that Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough had ruled that such state-specific provisions, along with several others, are subject to what's called the "Byrd rule."

Named for the late Sen. Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, the rule aims to prevent senators from using budget-related bills -- which can be passed with a mere majority under a process called reconciliation -- from being loaded up with major policy provisions.

Under Senate rules and tradition, major legislation must clear a 60-vote hurdle before debate can even begin. And under the parliamentarian's ruling, the amendment sponsored by Collins and Rep. John Faso, Republican of Kinderhook, would have to clear that 60-vote hurdle, too.

Added to the health bill in the House in order to win the support of New York Republicans, the Collins-Faso amendment would bar the state from charging upstate and Long Island counties for a share of Medicaid, the government health program for the poor and near-poor.

Those counties currently pay about a 13 percent share of Medicaid costs, which are the main driver behind the unusually high county property taxes in New York State.

Collins, a Republican from Clarence, has long argued that those county property taxes hold back the upstate economy, and that the county Medicaid charge is an unfair unfunded mandate on counties.

The fate of the Collins-Faso amendment looked bleak even before the parliamentarian's ruling, given that Senate Republicans have been unable to cobble together a majority for their health bill.

Asked earlier this week what would happen to the amendment if it didn't pass as part of the health bill, Collins vowed to press on and find another way to get his proposal into law.

"Congressman Faso and I will look for opportunities to get our property tax reduction language into law," said Collins, a former Erie County executive. "Ninety percent of Erie County's property tax levy is dedicated towards New York’s share of Medicaid. It’s time hard-working property taxpayers get a break and New York State becomes accountable for its outrageous Medicaid spending."

Collins and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, have been engaged in a war of words over the proposal for months.

Cuomo has said the amendment would push an additional $2.3 billion in Medicaid costs annually onto the state budget -- which, he said, would be too much for the state to bear. Collins, in turn, has said it wouldn't be difficult at all for the state to find $2.3 billion in annual savings in its Medicaid program, one of the most expensive in the nation.

Not surprisingly, Cuomo seemed thrilled to hear the news that the Collins-Faso amendment now faces a bleak future in the Senate.

"The people of this state are not falling for Faso and Collins's political Ponzi scheme, and they will remember next November that they were elected to protect them and fought to hurt them," Cuomo said. "Rather than play petty politics with our health care, Republicans in Congress should do the right thing and find a bipartisan solution to any fixes that need to be made to our health care system."

 

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