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Bill Bolling, Virginia’s Mini-Mitt

The latest call for a Republican governor to reject Obamacare’s Medicaid funds has me feeling profoundly sad. And that’s because the agitator is none other than Bill Bolling, Virginia’s lieutenant governor and the state chair of Mitt Romney’s Virginia campaign. As I wrote back in April, the parallels between Bolling and Romney are almost poetic. Thanks to the ascendance of the far-right in Virginia, the moderate Bolling has found himself utterly in thrall to feverish conservatives. (It does not help that he is competing with attorney general and certified nut Ken Cuccinelli for the Republican nomination for governor.)

And as of today, when he called for Governor Bob McDonnell to reject federal funds that would allow Virginia to insure nearly half-a-million working poor, he and his boss have something else in common: both are disowning a new iteration of their most meaningful accomplishment. In Romney’s case, it’s Romneycare. In Bolling’s, it’s sensible legislation he wrote as a state senator to greatly expand access to a Medicaid-like program almost fully funded by the federal government. And Bolling’s bill passed over the objections of his party’s conservative wing and went into practice on the bipartisan initiative of a Democratic governor despised by the right to boot.

The history behind Bolling's law is almost painfully familiar: In the late ‘90s, Congress freed up some $40 billion for uninsured children of the working poor. Then, as now, states pretty much had only to administer the distribution of this incredibly generous federal program. Still, Republicans nationwide set about making names for themselves by refusing these federal dollars. For his part, State Senator Bolling championed a lousy, ineffective distribution program that carried numerous restrictions and co-pays, a plan drawn up by Virginia’s conservative governor, Jim Gilmore.

But soon, Bolling’s efforts to promote that program waned. According to then-state senator Jane Woods, a moderate Republican who favored a more generous alternative, Bolling changed his mind when he realized just how few children would be covered by the governor’s plan. Unsatisfied, Bolling proposed a new bill that would greatly expand the number of children eligible for this Medicaid-like program. In 2000, the law passed. Gilmore’s appointees in the state’s Medicaid office refused to act on it, but in 2002, the state's new Democratic governor, Mark Warner, used Bolling’s legislation as the basis for a massive expansion in subsidized and free health care for Virginia’s poor children.

You could argue that there’s a meaningful difference between insuring the children of the working poor and insuring the childless working poor that are the intended beneficiaries of the ACA Medicaid expansion. But Bolling is not making that distinction. He’s just harping on the marginal costs of administering a federal program quite similar to the one he fought for a decade ago--when he valued the health of poor Virginians more than the approval of conservative Republicans.