Distributing the Pain

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Wayne Zyra wants a dialogue on the budgetary pain of Medicaid. It’s a talk about spreading that pain.

He may have to get over the shouting before the talking begins.

On Tuesday, Zyra – the Republican President of the Monroe County Legislature – submitted legislation that would have county government accept a state solution to the high cost of Medicaid – the sales tax intercept.

We’ve gone over the concept – the county gives up making those fat payments to the Medicaid program in exchange for giving up a fat chunk of its annual local sales tax proceeds. The problem – however – those sales taxes go not just to Monroe County’s budget… but to the budgets of the city, the towns, the villages and suburban schools. (An audio Political Notebook gives another stab at explaining this trade-off… have a listen)

The first-blush reactions are predictable. Predictably negative.

Brighton Supervisor Sandy Frankel (in an email to this website): "I don’t believe that residents in Brighton or any other part of Monroe County want to take a step backwards by having the state or county push mandated costs down the ladder."

Pittsford Town Supervisor Bill Carpenter (to WXXI’s Peter Iglinski last week):  This sales tax "intercept" only shifts the burden down to local governments and isn’t a good alternative.

Other initial reactions are more surprising – only because they show political fissures where you wouldn’t usually find them. County Executive Maggie Brooks, a Republican like Zyra, said about the "intercept" idea – that she doesn’t want to go there… that she’s not on board.

Zyra said the county legislature is taking the only option that seems viable. Brooks, he said, has taken a property tax increase off the table. And, he said, just a few years ago, the Rochester delegation to the state legislature called a proposed sales tax increase of a half penny "dead on arrival."

The state approved this sales tax "intercept" as way to give counties relief, he said. "This solution is within our control… and it fits within the framework we’ve been given," he said.

To Maggie Brooks, Zyra simply said: "Unless she’s going to come up with $50 million another way… she may have no choice."

Don’t tell Assemblyman David Gantt that, however. The Democrat said that the county’s sales tax sharing arrangement was also passed as state law. He believes Monroe County’s desire for the "intercept" is trumped by that previous agreement. (There is more of what Gantt said… to WXXI’s Bud Lowell, here)

But Gantt – like Brooks and Frankel and Carpenter – said it’s not fair to push the costs down to local municipalities and school districts.

Zyra expects this reaction. He wants to talk it over. Yes, the county legislature’s Ways and Means Committee will get his proposal for accepting the "intercept." But he doesn’t expect a quick vote. He wants a discussion – a chance to explain this to other governmental leaders. A chance to let the conversation percolate.

"I want to do more," Zyra said. "We need a community-wide discussion on budget issues across the board."

But he will also make this point: The arrangement of paying for Medicaid costs has never been fair. The state has never seen fit to curb the rising price tag (just as an aside – that involves a governor and state Senate majority from Mr. Zyra’s Republican Party as much as it does the Democrats in the Assembly).

And while the county stares down the possibility of big tax increases to meet the Medicaid problem, other local municipalities haven’t faced the same dire circumstances. We’re in it together, is his point. That means all must suffer the pain, rather than one government in the county.

"There’s an imbalance," Zyra said. "A dialogue on this has to happen. If this doesn’t get it going, I don’t know what will."

Oh… it will. Because… not everyone agrees with his assessment.