Other Voices

Is Abbott a ‘reformed’ anti-federalist?

As the state’s attorney general, Greg Abbott joined Gov. Rick Perry in challenging many aspects of what they saw as federal overreach in the state’s sovereign affairs.

In such areas as immigration, women’s issues, voting rights, environmental regulations, abortion and others, Abbott and Perry not only mounted serious challenges to federal policy but often led coalitions of states in opposing these measures.

Attorney General Abbott, in fact, proudly described his typical work day as, “I go into the office, I sue the federal government and I go home.”

But how will Abbott act as governor on these and myriad other state/federal areas of interaction that are surely to arise during his term? Will he remain a confirmed anti-federalist, viewing his role as shielding the state from federal intervention in all these areas, or will he seek a more cooperative state/federal relationship?

Some clues, even if only faint, can be gleaned from Abbott’s position on the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).

During the gubernatorial campaign, Abbott was steadfastly critical of Obamacare, declaring, “We need to do all we can to get rid of Obamacare and replace it with a better plan.” But as governor, Abbott seems to have warmed to the health care act, especially those provisions that would provide federal money to states for expansion of their Medicaid programs.

In his state budget proposal submitted to legislators Feb. 17, Abbott called Medicaid “a broken, bankrupt system.” But he also said, “We must continue to seek flexibility waivers from the federal government so that we can provide for the unique healthcare needs of our local communities.”

Facing possible losses in oil and gas tax revenues and receiving encouragement from various health and hospital organizations, Abbott could consider alternative Medicaid expansion programs similar to those adopted in other “red” states such as Arkansas, Indiana and Utah.

These programs typically include health savings accounts, private insurers and work requirements for recipients.

Even more instructive may be Abbott’s involvement — or, more accurately, lack of involvement — in the case of King v. Burwell, the challenge du jour to the Affordable Care Act currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

This case, focusing on the issue of whether federal subsidies that help people pay for health insurance should continue to be available in the 36 states (including Texas) that utilize the federal insurance marketplace, represents the most serious challenge to the act since the 2012 Supreme Court case upholding its constitutionality.

If the court decides that subsidies should not be available through the federal marketplace, costs will rise sharply and an estimated 13 million Americans, including approximately 2 million Texans (the largest marketplace enrollment of any state), would lose federal subsidies, eventually forcing many to go without insurance.

This case and the disastrous consequences that it surely would have for Obamacare would seem to be “red meat” for Abbott. One can easily imagine Attorney General Abbott spending one of his work days preparing and submitting an amicus brief on behalf of Texas in support of the plaintiffs.

Yet, as governor, Abbott has been absolutely and uncharacteristically silent on this case, declining even to join with other states filing supportive amicus briefs.

Has anti-federalist Attorney General Abbott morphed into pro-federalist Gov. Abbott? No. Not even close.

But it will be important to see if the possible softening of his staunch anti-federalist positions in the health care arena will be patterned in other policy areas as well.

A more cooperative federal/state approach in the health care arena would result in Texas receiving its share of the hundreds of billions of dollars made available by the federal government to those states expanding their Medicaid programs, as it would also contribute to expanded health care options and improved health for millions of Texans.

Cooperative state/federal relationships in other areas could lead to similarly positive results for Texas and for Texans.

It will be very interesting to see whether Gov. Greg Abbott will pursue these opportunities in ways that Attorney General Abbott most certainly would not have.

Richard Cole is a professor in the University of Texas at Arlington's School of Urban and Public Affairs.